Latin honors are Latin phrases used to indicate the level of academic distinction with which an academic degree was earned.
There are typically three types of Latin honors. In order of increasing level of honor, they are:
- cum laude ("with honor")
- magna cum laude ("with great honor")
- summa cum laude ("with highest honor")
They are awarded to those undergraduate and graduate students who have achieved academic distinction. The honor is typically indicated on the diploma.
Generally, a college or university's degree regulations give clear rules for the minimum grades necessary to obtain specific honors distinctions.
While the use of Latin honors for undergraduate degrees is generally limited to Anglo-American academia, their use with doctorate degrees is common world-wide. E.g. the Netherlands use a one-class Latin honors system at least for the Master's diplomas. The British bachelor's degree classification is a different scheme, widely used (with some variation) in UK, Ireland and Hong Kong.
In an 1894 history of Amherst College, college historian William Seymour Tyler claimed that Amherst was the first college to use Latin honors, attributing the system to Amherst College President Julius Hawley Seelye and tracing its use to 1881:
[I]nstead of attempting to fix the rank of every individual student by minute divisions on a scale of a hundred as formerly, five grades of scholarship were established and degrees were conferred upon the graduating classes according to their grades. If a student was found to be in the first or lowest grade, he was not considered as a candidate for a degree, though he might receive a certificate stating the facts in regard to his standing; if he appeared in the second grade the degree of A.B. was conferred upon him rite; if in the third, cum laude; if in the fourth, magna cum laude; while if he reached the fifth grade he received the degree summa cum laude. The advantages of this course, as stated to the trustees by the president, are that it properly discriminates between those who, though passing over the same course of study, have done it with great differences of merit and of scholarship, and that it furnishes a healthy incentive to the best work without exciting an excessive spirit of emulation.
The new system of administration, of which the above is a part, is so original and peculiar that it is known as the Amherst System....
- A History of Amherst College (1894), Chapter 11 (http://www.amherst.edu/~rjyanco/amherst/history/1894tyler-ws/chapter11/menu.html), concerning Latin honors in 1881.