New Standards Limit Honors Degrees

Just two days ago, the Office of the Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS), to combat allegations of grade inflation at Harvard, unveiled a new set of standards that will be used to award honors degrees to graduating seniors, beginning with the Class of 2005.

As 1,590 seniors receive their diplomas today, many may be surprised to learn they will not receive the honors they expected.

Grade inflation at Harvard has come under scrutiny since 2001, when the Boston Globe reported that over 90 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, far more than any other Ivy League school.

FAS has since run its own studies and established a new system, aiming to increase the perceived value of honors designations among students and faculty members.

Fifty percent of today’s graduating class, about 790 students, will receive summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or cum laude in field degrees. Up to an additional 10 percent of departing seniors will receive cum laude degrees recognizing their overall high grade point averages (GPAs), without being recommended by their concentrations.

As a result of this change, a number of students in so-called “honors only” concentrations, such as Social Studies and History and Literature, will not be recognized with Latin honors.

The College awards two types of honors degree. English honors are awarded when a concentration recommends that a student receive honors for concentration work, like a thesis. With rare exception, English honors do not appear on one’s diploma or in the Commencement program, according the College’s website.

The more familiar Latin honors—summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude—recognize the excellence of a student’s overall record, including the work within and outside of the concentration.

While students learn of their English honors recommendation beforehand, they are not informed of their Latin awards until Commencement day.

The new GPA thresholds, established by the Faculty, are noticeably higher than last year’s equivalents.

The cutoffs for magna cum laude and cum laude in field degrees in 2004 were 3.33 and 2.83, respectively. Today, seniors need GPAs of 3.657 and 3.414 to receive the same distinction.

Jessica D. Marlin ’05, who wrote a thesis in the government department but was not recommended for honors, said she was frustrated that the new standards applied to students who had been working with expectations tied to the old standards.

“It’s unfair to change this in the middle of an honors plan,” she said. “We [seniors] didn’t know this would affect us.”

But Anya Bernstein, director of undergraduate studies for Social Studies, wrote in an e-mail that the policy shift should have been expected.

“The class of 2005 was told about the change in honors nearly two years ago,” Bernstein wrote. “So I don’t think that it’s right to say that it is happening ‘suddenly.’”

Bernstein also ack nowledged that some students would be “dismayed that they did not receive the honors they would have received had they graduated a year ago.”

“However,” she wrote, “I support changing the system of honors, as I think that honors does not mean much in a system in which 90% of students receive them.”

Evan N. Rachlin ’05 also expressed support for the new standards.

“Now honors will mean more,” he said. “But everyone gets a Harvard degree and that’s what matters.”

­—Staff writer Sam Teller can be reached at steller@fas.harvard.edu.