Graduates look forward to completing their course of study, celebrating the achievement and embarking on their chosen career. Those earning top marks can also anticipate an award of distinction known as “Latin honors.”
Derived from the Latin word “laude” or “with praise,” Latin honors convey distinction for exemplary academic success among students who meet or exceed certain benchmarks.
While standards are similar among schools, each institution develops its own requirements. Most standards fall within a close range, especially regarding the required grade point average (GPA) for each distinction.
The three most common Latin honors are cum laude, meaning “with honor,” magna cum laude or “with great honor” and summa cum laude — “with highest honor.”
Less common accolades are awarded for particular distinctions. Students achieving summa cum laude in a specific discipline can receive egregia cum laude or “with outstanding honor.” Maxima cum laude meaning “with very great honor” may be awarded to those with a perfect academic record.
A minimum GPA is the traditional standard for achieving these honors and may be combined with requirements for completing a set number of credit hours.
GPA ranges vary among institutions, but generally:
- Cum laude goes to the top 25–35% of the class with a minimum GPA threshold beginning between 3.4 and 3.8.
- The top 10–15% of graduates who earn a minimum GPA of at least 3.6 to 3.9 receive the distinction of magna cum laude.
- Summa cum laude is given to the top 1–5% of graduates earning a GPA of 3.8 or greater. Institutions occasionally reserve this honor for students with a perfect GPA of 4.0.
Colleges may award these distinctions based on a student’s class rank instead of their GPA, awarding the honors to the top percent of the graduating class.
Student rankings may depend on credits earned only at the final institution, but some colleges consider transfer credits in the determination. Academic or disciplinary infractions can disqualify a student from earning graduation honors.
“We currently base [those honors] on Samford earned hours,” said Michelle Joiner, assistant registrar at Samford University. “Our students have to earn at least 64 credit hours here at Samford to be eligible for a Latin honor and then it’s based on GPA ranges.”
Universities traditionally bestow Latin honors upon undergraduate students earning their bachelor’s degree, but some award similar honors to graduate students.
At Judson College, a cabinet of the highest academic officials sets honors criteria in consultation with a counsel of academic division chairs.
Cords and stoles
Judson confers Latin honors at commencement. According to Stacey Parham, Judson College vice president for academic affairs, the awards are given in the form of stoles inscribed with the level of honor.
To highlight the distinction of the Latin honors, Judson prohibits the wearing of other fraternity honor chords at the graduation ceremony.
“We want the students who earned these distinctions to stand out,” said Parham. “We place an emphasis on the Latin honors at commencement because that is a measure of a young woman’s cumulative GPA.”
A trend is growing toward Latin honors at the high school level and some schools have elected to discontinue the more traditional valedictorian and salutatorian awards.
Alabama high schools including Baldwin County schools, Huntsville City schools and private schools like Saint James School in Montgomery have embraced Latin honors to venerate more students for exceptional achievements.
“We typically had a group of students whose GPAs were either tied or were within a tenth of a point of each other,” said Susan Atkins, Saint James academic dean. “Many would have over a 4.0 due to the AP program and weighted GPAs. We faced a dilemma about how to choose one person out of the group when they all had great accomplishments. So we started using this system so that we could recognize all of them as honor graduates.”
Valedictorians have traditionally delivered the high school graduation address. Saint James allows the senior class to elect the graduation speaker from a list of the top students.
High schools awarding Latin honors often require graduates to meet the same types of benchmarks as colleges.
Some, like Saint James, stipulate additional standards, like the completion of College Board Advanced Placement courses, a minimum number of credits in science or foreign languages and documented hours of community service.
Latin honors allow high schools and universities to honor the achievements of a broader range of graduates.
“We had so many strong students with excellent academic accomplishments. We realized there was not an objective way to choose only one student from the group,” Atkins said.