With more students boasting flashy GPAs, academic honors lose their luster

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.

Anyone with a grade-point average of at least 3.4 is granted Latin honors at Middlebury College; the number of students graduating with honors has been rising in recent years, the school says, and was north of 50% this spring.

“I’d say that it’s time to reconsider our eligibility criteria,” said Middlebury Interim Provost Jeff Cason.

Honors designations have become close to the norm at many top schools, according to a Wall Street Journal review of the criteria for earning honors and the percentage of the senior class that got the designation at schools in the top 50 of the WSJ/Times Higher Education ranking.

The share increased to 44% from 32% in the past decade at USC, which requires a GPA of at least 3.5 for the lowest honor, cum laude, and to 44% from 39% at Lehigh, where students need at least a 3.4.

“A 4.0 does signal something significant, that that student is good,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who has studied grade inflation for years. “A 3.7, however, doesn’t. That’s just a run-of-the-mill student at any of these schools.”

Research from an administrator at the College Board and a doctoral student at the University of Georgia found that 47% of high-school students graduated with an A average in 2016, up from 39% in 1998. Students keep earning the high marks in college.

At Wellesley College, 41% of this year’s graduating class completed their degrees with Latin honors, which means a GPA of at least 3.6 at the Massachusetts school. That share has risen in the past two years, after being roughly one-third for much of the past decade. A spokeswoman said the school hasn’t pinpointed the cause of the increase.

Meanwhile, nearly 59% of seniors who graduated from Johns Hopkins this spring did so with what the school refers to as “general honors” by achieving a GPA of at least 3.5. A decade ago, nearly 46% did.

Rushabh Doshi learned of his honor after seeing his name on a list in the Johns Hopkins graduation program this spring. Then he noticed the list was four pages long.

Mr. Doshi, who majored in public health and is heading to Oxford University to study medical anthropology in the fall, said he was proud of his academic accomplishment. But, he said, “It’s not something that holds too much weight.”

Spokesman Dennis O’Shea said the school hasn’t studied the trend and so can’t provide an explanation for the rise. He called its students “bright” and “committed.”

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.

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.

Northwestern University expanded its pool of eligible seniors to 25% from 16% in 2010, citing concern that students were losing out on graduate-school admissions because they were competing against peers at more magnanimous colleges. Now, the top 5% of the class graduates summa cum laude, the next 8% magna and the next 12% cum laude.

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. He said the program—which received 3,601 applications for 50 spots this year—looks more for candidates who challenge themselves academically, even if that means a B grade along the way.

“The Latin honors are sending you a signal, but there’s noise,” he said, referring to the wide variation in how schools calculate the honors.

The GPAs required for honors at the University of Michigan and Case Western Reserve University this past spring were the highest in at least a decade, and at Vanderbilt University, they were the highest since at least the 2011-12 school year.

Academic researchers say that uptick is a sign of grade inflation, not of smarter students.

“Moving the whole bar upward creates a problem where people learn they can do very little and get a grade-point average that looks very respectable,” said Richard Arum, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Education.

A handful of schools, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have tried to rein in the awards.

Beginning with the class that graduated in 2017, Georgetown University started distributing honors based on the relative performance of students, rather than a fixed 3.5 GPA cutoff. Roughly a quarter of the class now gets one of the three Latin honors; before the shift, according to the student newspaper, more than half the students within some of Georgetown’s undergraduate programs received those designations.

The school says it now uses percentiles “in order to ensure that Latin honors represent a mark of distinction.”

Anna Del Castillo said she was “filled with pride and joy,” on learning that she would graduate from Tufts University magna cum laude. At the ceremony in May, the 22-year-old international relations major says, she was surprised by just how many other names were followed by Latin designations—not to mention three levels of thesis honors.

The school declined to say what share of its senior class graduated with Latin honors, which requires a GPA of 3.5 in most subjects, or 3.2 in engineering. Spokesman Patrick Collins said the school has high-achieving students, and “their success should be celebrated and recognized.”

Rather than diminish her own achievement, Ms. Del Castillo said her immediate response during the ceremony was, “Wow, I go to school with brilliant people.”