What are Latin Honors and Do They Really Matter?

There’s no question about it: college is tough. I know, that’s a bit of a ‘well duh!’ moment, but a lot of incoming students still have this glorified idea that college is all keggers and greek society life. But despite how tough it can be, a handful of students still manage to graduate with honors, earning those coveted latin words in their diploma.

But is it worth the fuss? Sure, a lot of employers view latin honors as proof of excellence, a mark of a model student, but with more and more students graduating with a summa or magna cum laude, how important is it still?

But first, let’s take a look at the different latin honors:

What are Latin Honors?

Latin honors refers to a phrase that colleges use to denote that a student achieved a significantly high level of academic achievement. Most colleges and universities in the country confer latin honors, and it’s usually recognized (and also conferred) in academic institutions all around the world. Some high schools also offer latin honors to their graduates, although this practice has yet to gain wide usage.

The three latin honors are, in order of prestige: cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. Each honor requires a student to achieve a certain GPA, and while each college and university will have its own unique requirements, a majority of schools do follow a certain average, which we will discuss below (disciplinary infractions, be it as minor as a sleeping student in class or a major one like fighting or doing drugs, can disqualify you as well).

Cum Laude

Literally means, ‘with distinction’. This is the most ‘basic’ latin honors that a student can achieve, and is usually granted depending on your GPA and your college’s distinct honors system. Normally, however, colleges will require you to get a 3.5 GPA for you to qualify for a cum laude.

Magna Cum Laude

Ranking higher than a cum laude, a magna cum laude roughly translates to ‘with high honors’, basically one-upping the cum laude graduates by this much. Again, it depends on your college’s distinct honors system, but normally, most colleges will require a student to attain a GPA of 3.7 for them to qualify for that extra latin word in their honors.

Summa Cum Laude

The highest possible latin honors one can achieve, summa cum laude roughly translates to “with highest distinction” and is reserved for the cream of the crop of academic institutions. This honor is reserved for students that have received the highest possible marks in their school, both in GPA and in other metrics that the school might set.

How Do You Graduate with Honors?

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Again, there is no one national standard for a student to qualify for graduating with honors; schools often have free rein in deciding the requirements for graduating with honors, and can include anything from the highest possible GPA’s to extracurricular achievements.

In general, however, most colleges and universities set their GPA requirements to as follows: 3.5 for cum laude, 3.7 for Magna Cum Laude, and 4.0 for Summa Cum Laude. But, again, certain schools will have different requirements: the University of Pennsylvania, for example, requires students to hit a 3.8 GPA for a summa cum laude, while Ohio State University requires a 3.9. Harvard, meanwhile, requires a minimum 3.6 GPA for a student to get cum laude, with nothing short of a solid 4.0 for a summa cum laude.

Some universities, on the other hand, might not use GPA’s at all. For example, NYU rewards the cum laude honors to the top 15% of graduates, with the top 10% getting the magna cum laude honors, and the top 5% being given the summa cum laude honor. Northwestern University follows a similar system, with the top 12% getting cum laude, the top 8% getting magna, and the top 5% getting summa.

Along with their GPA’s, many universities will also require students to secure other achievements that can range from getting a faculty recommendation, completing a certain number of advanced course units, presenting a paper at a conference, and/or completing an honors thesis.

Most schools can also disqualify students from graduating with honors if they have infractions on their records, be it academic or disciplinary. In fact, the smallest infraction can disqualify a student even if their GPA is 4.0, so bad students beware!

But some schools might not offer latin honors at all, even a university as prestigious as Stanford University, which foregoes the traditional latin honors system and instead translates it to plain english: the top 15% of students in terms of GPA are awarded a Bachelor’s Degree with Distinction. So it works kind of the same way as latin honors, except it’s in English and there’s only one distinction to recognize.

What Percentage of College Students Graduate With Honors? And More Importantly, Does it Matter?

Again, only the top 30% of most graduating classes in most universities graduate with honors, so that’s not a lot, but enough so that even summa cum laude graduates have a hard time finding employment. The truth of the matter is, despite the ‘prestige’ that latin honors can confer on a student, this special consideration only works for max of two years, according to researchers from the University of Illinois.

In their study, researchers found that, while obtaining a latin honor (be it your run-of-the-mill cum laude to the much coveted summa cum laude) does act as a form of investment once the student takes their place in the labor force, the returns are moderate and, frankly, short-lived, with most students graduating with honors seeing no extra raise to their salary three years after being employed. Sure, getting latin honors is great for securing a job, it doesn’t promise nor guarantee that you’ll get a raise in that job, neither does it help in deciding whether or not you move up the corporate ladder.

What’s worse: those short-lived moderate benefits only really affect graduates from Ivy League schools, so while you might be a Summa Cum Laude from your local community college, a cum laude graduate from, say, Columbia will probably get that job before you do.

In fact, some critics claim that the latin honors system actually discourages what college is all about: exploring free academic thinking. Critics claim that grade-conscious students will chase down latin honors just for the sake of it, foregoing all the other rich experiences they might have in college like taking electives, learning a new subject, and yes, attending those legendary keggers at Sigma Phi.

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