education in the Philippines

[OPINION] Does graduating with honors matter?

Jayeel Cornelio

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[OPINION] Does graduating with honors matter?
Academic excellence without regard for what is just will only be self-serving

There’s no doubt about it. 

It’s anyone’s pride to finish a university degree cum laude. More so if magna cum laude or summa cum laude. The longer the title, the greater the prestige.

When the honors system was first established at Oxford University in the early 19th century, it was meant “for superior students to separate themselves from the rest of their classmates.”

To this day its purpose remains the same. This is why honor students have a special place in every graduation ceremony. To their peers and parents, they are the embodiment of academic success.

But do these honors mean anything beyond the academe? Do they really matter in the “real world”?


In a way, you can say that the jury’s still out.

Commentaries, on the one hand, abound as to why graduating with distinction matters. They argue that your academic record says a great deal about you, your work ethic, and subject mastery. 

One even goes so far as to say that graduating with honors demonstrates soft skills. After all, a student must also embody “diligence, self-discipline, and time-management skills to succeed in a class.” 

According to this view, these soft skills matter to a potential employer.

But others maintain a more meticulous view, suggesting that Latin honors are important only for fresh graduates. They have, after all, no work experience. Thus, from the perspective of potential employers, academic recognitions may be “predictive of future performance.” 

At the same time, they are also aware that emotional quotient may matter more in assessing a fresh graduate’s preparedness. Personality tests and interviews are helpful in this regard.

Some local case studies validate this point too. Those who end up in managerial positions, according to a university-based study, are not necessarily the honor graduates. Organizations, after all, tend to look for the right fit, paying attention to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need. During the job search, applicants need to demonstrate that they are ready to “deal with changes and challenging situations at the workplace” while maintaining “harmonious relationships” with colleagues.

From this vantage point, it’s no wonder that a lot of “self-made Filipinos” would question the merits of graduating with honors. They might say that being maabilidad or madiskarte is far more consequential, regardless of one’s academic achievements. In effect they question the prestige accorded to one’s academic credentials.

Social class

But there’s also a sociological point to be made here and it’s about the proverbial elephant in the room: social class and academic elitism. 

In the Philippine context, a case could be made that elites breed more elites. 

Based on a tracer study commissioned by CHED in 1999, graduates of the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, and the Ateneo de Manila University were employed faster and with higher incomes at a shorter period of time, compared to graduates of other institutions. (To be fair this study needs to be updated but I suspect the observation is still valid.) 

This, among other factors, explains why many Filipinos consider it desirable to study in these institutions. 

But as we all know, it’s generally students from affluent families—via private schools—who make it to these tertiary institutions. For various reasons, many students from low-income families are ill-equipped to pass these universities’ entrance examinations. These reasons include malnutrition and the general quality of learning in impoverished areas.

And in spite of free education in state universities and colleges, underprivileged students have yet other financial ordeals to confront to finish their degrees. Transportation, meals, projects, and term papers all incur costs.

If the mark of good education is social mobility and of an excellent student graduating with honors, then we have a problem in the Philippine context. 

In other words, finishing a degree with honors may not be as important as graduating from the “right” (read: elite) institution. While we have inspiring stories among the poor who have finished their degrees to become successful in their chosen careers, the wider pattern is still in favor of privileged youths. 

Thus, the mark of academic success that is the Latin honors is for the most part also a mark of economic privilege. This does not bode well for a society like ours where four out of ten learners drop out by Grade 10

Pragmatic matter

One can also approach graduating with honors as a pragmatic matter. 

In sociological speak, university education is a competitive field where a student needs to be strategic in order to move up the ladder of recognitions. At the top of this ladder is its most prized possession, the Latin honors.

I don’t know if many students are conscious about it, but I have encountered a few who took my class thinking that they could ace it and protect their cherished GPAs. I’m certain that my colleagues have other stories to tell, and often these moments disappoint us.

While I’m hopeful that these students do not constitute the majority, I can also see how university education is designed to foster this kind of thinking, in which one’s ultimate goal is the “highest possible grade, rather than an opportunity for intellectual exploration.”

So, does graduating with honors really matter?

I think it does, but only if in the context of a curriculum that fosters critical thinking and challenges its community of learners to reflect on the choices they make. In my view, academic excellence without regard for what is just will only be self-serving.

At the end of the day, it’s the only education that matters, one in which its learners – students and professors alike – are in a constant conversation about how to live their lives with honor. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (TOYM 2021) is Professor of Development Studies and the Associate Dean for Research and Creative Work at the Ateneo de Manila University. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

1 comment

Sort by
  1. ET

    Graduating with Honors really does matter. This is more so especially to employers who wanted to get the most out of their employees to achieve their profit-oriented goals. The sad thing is perhaps sometimes (if not often times) – these “graduates with honors” work under bosses who even faked their college credentials, or bought their grades or have done any other kind of academic “magic.” This is because those bosses are the sons/grandsons or daughters/granddaughters of the moneyed owners, if not the moneyed owners, CEO, etc. themselves.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!