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Over the Past Decade, Harvard Seniors Faced Rising GPA Cutoffs for Latin Honors

By Matthew J. Tyler
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Delano R. Franklin, Crimson Staff Writers

Seniors seeking Latin honors at graduation in May will likely face climbing grade point average cutoffs.

Students in the Class of 2018 needed to earn a 3.62 GPA to qualify for “cum laude,” the lowest level of Latin honors. A student graduating in the Class of 2009, however, only needed to earn a 3.448 overall GPA to be eligible for the same distinction. The “magna cum laude” honor had a cutoff of 3.844 for the Class of 2018 and one of 3.721 for members of the Class of 2009.

The College uses a two-tiered system to determine who receives Latin honors. First, academic departments recommend a set of students to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. FAS then bestows Latin honors using a cutoff set each year to ensure the proportion of students earning honors at different levels remains steady.

To determine who is recommended for honors, some departments weigh thesis grades, GPAs, and oral exam results; others simply use internal GPA thresholds.

FAS then determines College-wide GPA cutoffs for Latin honors each year. Students who were not recommended for Latin honors may receive a “cum laude for the overall record” qualification based solely on their grades.

Government Director of Undergraduate Studies Nara Dillon pointed to grade inflation at the College as the cause of rising cutoffs. As of 2013, an A- was the median grade awarded to undergraduates.

“It’s definitely grade inflation,” Dillon said. “It's gotten very hard, for example, to figure out who to nominate for Phi Beta Kappa and for summa, because we have quite a few students with terrific GPAs. So it makes very small differences stand out at that level.”

The magna cum laude and overall cum laude honors — which have the same cutoffs — have seen a rising GPA requirement since at least the Class of 2009.

A 2002 Faculty vote set 60 percent as the maximum portion of each class that can earn honors. That policy change aimed to make Latin honors more exclusive — more than 90 percent of the Class of 2004 graduated with honors.

In 2012, FAS capped the number of students who may receive summa cum laude honors at five percent of the graduating class. Roughly the next 15 percent and 30 percent receive magna cum laude and cum laude, respectively. No more than 10 percent may receive cum laude overall degrees.

Still, students often have several thresholds to cross before FAS even considers whether to award them honors. Computer Science co-Director of Undergraduate Studies Stephen N. Chong said his department uses several “filters” to select candidates.

“The concentration GPA is one filter, the other one is the excellent or outstanding thesis, and so you need both of those in order to qualify for high honors or for highest honors,” Chong said.

Other departments use different weighting schemes — splitting credit between thesis grades and the concentration GPA — to recommend students for honors. The Government department weights concentration grades to thesis grades two-to-one. The Psychology department uses a similar formula, approved by its faculty in 1981.

FAS has not yet published GPA cutoffs for Latin honors for the Class of 2019 — they typically do so in May.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at delano.franklin@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @delanofranklin_.

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