Service of Everybody Gets a Trophy: College & University Academic Honors Galore

July 16th, 2018

Categories: Academia, Academics, Awards, College, Grades, Graduation, University


Not short of recognition in my professional life, in college I was a dorm officer and on the college student council but I wasn’t much when it came to academic honors. [I made Dean’s List one semester, a shock to me most of all.] I’m impressed with my Phi Beta Kappa friends and with anyone who graduated with academic honors.


I was not happy to read Melissa Korn’s Wall Street Journal article, “You Graduated Cum Laude? So Did Everyone Else.”

Korn wrote: “Nearly half of students who graduated from Lehigh University, Princeton University and the University of Southern California this year did so with cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude honors, or their equivalents. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, more got the designations than didn’t.” Over 50 percent of Middlebury’s graduates and at Wellesley, 41 percent were so honored, up from 1/3 in the past 10 years.

Korn quoted former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer: “A 4.0 does signal something significant, that that student is good. A 3.7, however, doesn’t. That’s just a run-of-the-mill student at any of these schools.” Rojstaczer has focused on grade inflation for years according to Korn.

“Most elite schools cap the share of the graduating class that can receive academic honors. But the caps vary widely, from 25% at Columbia University to up to 60% at Harvard,” she wrote.

Excerpts from the article:

  • “Harvard’s number hit 91% in 2001, as highlighted at the time in a Boston Globe article about generous honors policies. Soon after, the school revised its selection process.
  • “Academic researchers say that uptick is a sign of grade inflation, not of smarter students.
  • “A handful of schools, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have tried to rein in the awards.
  • “Derrick Bolton, dean of admissions for Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars graduate program, said application readers may glance at honors designations, but don’t dwell on them.” The program that accepted 50 and rejected 3,451 students, “looks more for candidates who challenge themselves academically, even if that means a B grade along the way.”

To be eligible for academic recognition the GPAs required by the colleges and universities in the article started at 3.5 and 3.6. At Tufts, which wouldn’t share with the Journal the percentage of students awarded academic honors, you needed a 3.2 in engineering.

Harvey Mudd College

If someone is paying yearly almost $70,000–$52,666 tuition and $17,051 room and board–at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif., they might expect an award, don’t you think? Harvey Mudd was the first in a list of the 50 most expensive colleges and universities in Business Insider published in February 2017.  The publication credited “Trends in College Pricing” as its source. Brown was the least expensive charging $64,566 for tuition and room and board. I went to Boston University, number 38, now at $65,110 per year, whereas Yale, number 47, where my husband graduated, cost $64,650.

Do colleges and universities think that they are doing students a favor by lowering the bar in handing out academic honors by the pound? Are they being smart? Is the likely chance a student or child will be so honored a selling point to attract candidates?


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4 Responses to “Service of Everybody Gets a Trophy: College & University Academic Honors Galore”

  1. Protius Said:

    It’s a muddle. There seems to be no connection between one thing or another. When I was at Yale, had I wanted high marks, I could have received them be taking the right courses. Instead, I chose my courses based upon their content and had not one honor. I suspect that not much has changed in this respect over the past half century. (I did, however, pass my U.S. Foreign Service written exams at 20 and as a junior. This was unheard of then. Indeed, many PhD’s and MA’s failed them in those days.}

    I also think it has very little to do with money. The high tuitions reflect the pressures on colleges to spend vast sums of money to fulfill political mandates in various areas such as social engineering having little to do with learning.

    In this, the best of all possible worlds, why not let schools like Yale educate the best and brightest? “Damn the torpedo’s,” You would save a lot of money, and so what if the students all looked alike? You’d also get a lot more bang out of your education buck.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    These days most of the students would be from Asia and India would be my guess. Even in my day, though, colleges looked for diversity. The diversity was one of religion and geography, not of race.

    As for putting all the smartest students in a few schools what would happen is what Malcolm Gladwell described–the ones at the bottom of the brilliant barrel would suffer and would not be able to pursue their passions as they might were they able to excel at a school with a spectrum of smarts. So I don’t think that this is a good idea.

    Further, as I’ve written before, I went to a school in NYC that attracted brilliant kids. Had the entire class been made up of students equal in brains to the top 25, I’d not have had the opportunity to attend and benefit. And who would have been captain of the volley ball team?

    Like you, I avoided gut college courses but in retrospect would have benefited from one of them: Speech. Who knew?

  3. ASK Said:

    There is always someone who wants to be captain of a team, any team, so worries about the volleyball team seem unfounded. If anything, grade inflation(among other reasons)has probably lessened the value of a bachelor’s degree and led to more students seeking masters’ degrees to stand out from the pack. That usually means more loans to pay for the advanced degree. A vicious circle that serves no one.

  4. jmbyington Said:


    There are many areas, such as medicine, where learning state of the art techniques via additional education benefits patients. However I feel that in retail, PR—even journalism and finance—there’s nothing like on the job training. Masters degrees are not necessary except for the reason you state. The degree is great for bankers.

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