What is Cum Laude?
Cum laude is a distinction awarded to graduating students from a university who meet a certain threshold – typically determined by GPA, class percentile rank, or an exemplary level of achievement.
Cum laude (pronounced coom-loud-ay) is a Latin phrase that means “with honor.” It is the lowest tier of three common Latin honors that signifies a particular level of academic achievement for students graduating from a university. The other most typical Latin honors are magna cum laude and summa cum laude. Summa cum laude is the top recognition a student can receive. It is followed by magna cum laude. Both require a higher level of academic success than cum laude – However, there is no standardization across schools for what qualifies a student to receive these honors, and exact cutoffs differ. So if you went to a school with stricter definitions than a graduate from a school with looser definitions and you have identical GPAs, they’ll be able to put the Latin honors designation on their resume while you won’t.
Let’s say Barb is about to graduate from her university with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Barb is a conscientious student and her diligence has earned her a spot in the top 25% of her graduating class. Her university awards cum laude honors to students with a class percentile rank in the top 25% of the class to acknowledge this academic achievement. Barb is thrilled she made the cut. But because Barb did not graduate even closer to the top of her class, she isn’t eligible for magna cum laude and summa cum laude – Her school reserves these Latin honors for the top 10% and 5% of the class, respectively.
Graduating cum laude is like making it to the semifinals in football…
When your football team makes it to the semifinals, you’re one of the top teams in the league – and that should make you proud. But say you lose that semifinals game. Then you don’t get to go to the championship or get dubbed one of the very best teams. Similarly, when you graduate cum laude, you receive the acknowledgment that you’re one of the top students in your class. But you aren’t at the very top — Those who graduate summa cum laude and magna cum laude did better than you and get to take home the equivalent of a first and second place trophy, respectively. You’ll have to settle for third.
The Latin honors system dates back to 1869 when Harvard University became the first college to award the accolades, first with cum laude and summa cum laude. Magna cum laude was added and put into use beginning in 1880. Since then, Latin honors have become common primarily at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, though some other countries also use the system.
The laude system demonstrates a student’s distinction and serves as an official acknowledgment of academic achievement by the degree-granting school. Students who earn Latin honors often wear specific cords at their graduation ceremony to set them apart. The honor also appears on the student’s diploma and transcripts – This signals exemplary performance to potential employers and graduate schools.
Schools set their own threshold requirements that must be met for a student to graduate with Latin honors. As of today, no standardization exists amongst colleges and universities. Often, cutoffs are based on either a minimum grade point average (GPA) or percentile rank in a university’s graduating class overall. However, some schools have other requirements in order to qualify for honors, such as writing a thesis. The University of Minnesota, for example, requires students to complete a thesis to qualify for Latin honors.
Sometimes, individual departments within the same university have separate qualification requirements. For example, at the University of Connecticut, qualifying for Latin honors depends on the GPA thresholds of a given major – A student needs a higher GPA to graduate summa cum laude in Education than to graduate summa cum laude in Business.
There are three standard levels of Latin honors distinction in the laude system.
Cum laude is a Latim term that means “with honor.” In the academic world, it indicates the lowest of the three levels of Latin honors a student can earn.
Magna cum laude means “with great honor.” This distinction indicates a higher level of academic achievement than cum laude, and is typically the second highest honor a student can earn.
Summa cum laude means “with the highest honor.” Summa cum laude is generally the highest Latin honor and awarded only to those students with the most noteworthy academic achievement, highest GPAs, or most outstanding percentile rank. At Yale University, summa cum laude is reserved for the top 5% of graduates.
In addition to the three traditional laude system honors, there are also two more Latin honors that schools may use to distinguish exceptional students even further – though these are rarer.
Egregia cum laude, meaning “with outstanding honor,” is sometimes awarded to students who both receive the honor of summa cum laude and have studied a particularly challenging subject. Saint John’s University uses this honor to denote a level above summa cum laude.
Maxima cum laude is an honor that some schools (e.g., The University of Portland) use as a layer of distinction between magna cum laude and summa cum laude.
The minimum grade point average (GPA) you need to graduate with Latin honors varies from one school to the next since there isn’t any standardized rulebook.
An example of the GPA cutoffs a university may use are as follows:
Rather than basing Latin honors on a particular GPA, some schools award it based on where a student ranks among their fellow graduating class – aka class percentile rank. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for example, awards cum laude to the top 25% of students in a class, magna cum laude to the top 10%, and summa cum laude to the top 5%.
Harvard University takes requirements one step further for students to be able to graduate summa cum laude. In addition to a student’s GPA, the faculty assesses the difficulty of classes chosen and other indicators of mastery in their field of study, such as a thesis.
Does it really matter whether you graduate cum laude? In theory, Latin honors on a diploma should be a way to recognize those who excelled academically. In reality, it’s not as unique as you might think.
In recent years, schools like John Hopkins University and the University of Southern California have experienced a 10-15% increase in students graduating with Latin honors. At many universities across the US, nearly half of the students graduate with some level of honors. And, at some schools, that percentage is even higher – This has generated scrutiny from the public.
Some universities have responded to this increased scrutiny by capping the percentage of students who can graduate with Latin honors in an effort to maintain exclusivity – Yale University instituted such a cap. Still, these caps often include up to one-third of the graduating class.
The lack of standardization, such as a common GPA or class rank, across schools makes matters even more difficult. Two graduates from different schools may have the same Latin honors designation with radically disparate undergraduate GPAs. It then is difficult for the market – aka employers and graduate schools – to determine the emphasis they should place on one person’s honors distinction as compared to someone else’s.
It’s also questionable as to whether graduating with honors will help you get a job. A study by Undercover Recruiter revealed that employers typically make up their minds about a candidate within one minute of looking at their resume. For most hiring managers, finding out that candidate didn’t graduate with a stellar GPA isn’t a dealbreaker, according to a study by US News & World Report.
If you are ever asked about your college GPA, it will likely only be when you’re interviewing for your first job out of college. After that, employers typically care less about your academic achievements and more about your job experience and performance.
In a paper written at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2017, two researchers examined whether graduating with honors makes a difference in earnings and job prospects. They found that there may be a slight positive impact on earnings due to graduating with honors, but that this benefit only lasts for about two years after graduation.
The researchers also found that graduating with honors means more from a prestigious school, such as Princeton University. This is likely to have more of an early-career earnings impact than graduating with honors from a state school unfamiliar to anyone outside the region – suggesting that it’s the school, not the honors designation, that matters most.
However, there are specific fields where graduating with honors could make a difference in your future. For example, admissions committees at graduate schools will often use your undergraduate GPA as one of the determining factors as to whether you are admitted. Unsurprisingly, better graduate schools require better GPAs.
Ultimately, attending a more prestigious graduate school could have a significant impact on the jobs you have and your income potential. In the case of professions that require an advanced degree, such as medicine and law, graduating with honors could open doors for you.
If you graduate at the top of your class, you might love having the Latin honor on your diploma so that you can brag about it in future job or graduate school interviews. But not everyone is a fan of the system.
In a famous 2011 op-ed published by The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, the staff argued that the Latin honors system harms students more than it helps them.
Why is that? In particular, the students argued that the honors system may encourage some students to make decisions regarding their classes and workload specifically based on how it will affect their GPA. For example, a student might shy away from taking more challenging courses that would help them grow intellectually, but lead to a lower GPA. Fear of getting an imperfect grade could prevent a student from taking classes in a field that interests them. And students who do opt to challenge themselves and take classes outside their comfort zones might be penalized by not receiving honors.
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