While the world regards these students as the best of the best of America's 13 million undergraduates, Harvard honors has actually become the laughingstock of the Ivy League. The other Ivies see Harvard as the Lake Wobegon of higher education, where all the students, being above average, can take honors for granted. It takes just a B-minus average in the major subject to earn cum laude - no sweat at a school where 51 percent of the grades last year were A's and A-minuses.
Yet no matter how much grade inflation drives honors at Harvard, the credential has retained real cachet in society. It adds luster to resumes and graduate school applications, and sticks in people's minds during networking conversations. Corporate recruiters especially value honors - some say they won't even interview applicants who aren't cum laude material. In a tight job market, the credential helps a candidate stand out. And honors is still a nice touch for the Sunday wedding pages; Harvard alumni regularly note that they graduated cum laude, a cultural status symbol.
1. Harvard's [Trevor Cox] says he has received far higher grades than he deserves. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTO / DAVID KAMERMAN 2. Sympathetic professors and teaching fellows helped set off grade inflation in the mid-'60s in an attempt to keep Harvard students from being drafted. For the most part, they succeeded, as only 19 students were killed in Vietnam (commemorated on campus, right) compared to hundreds during World War II (left). / GLOBE STAFF PHOTOS / DOMINIC CHAVEZ 3. GRADE INFLATION SURGED AGAIN IN 1969-70 AS STUDENTS WERE DRAWN INTO DIRECT POLITICAL ACTIVITY. FROM LEFT: A 1966 PROTEST OF AN APPEARANCE BY [Robert McNamara]; PRESSURE FOR HARVARD TO BECOME MORE DIVERSE RESULTED IN TWICE AS MANY BLACK STUDENTS GAINING ADMITTANCE IN 1969; AND AN ANTI-ROTC DEMONSTRATION IN 1969. / GLOBE FILE PHOTOS 4. BUOYED BY POSITIVE FEEDBACK, [Harvey Mansfield] PLANS TO CONTINUE HIS TWO-GRADE EXPERIMENT THIS SEMESTER. / AP FILE PHOTO 5. DESPITE A C IN CALCULUS AND A B-MINUS IN AN EVOLUTION CLASS, [Alexandra Mack] SAID SHE BREEZED THROUGH ONE HUMANITIES EXAM SIMPLY BY REGURGITATING THE PROFESSOR'S IDEAS. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTO / DOMINIC CHAVEZ