Graduating cum laude: accolade or stress?

Graduating cum laude is under discussion as it is thought to be a cause of stress. How do directors of education view this? Delta spoke to three and saw subtle differences.

(Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

Work hard, get good grades, do not take too long to complete your studies and then graduate cum laude. It sounds simple, but not many students achieve it. Some people even believe that study stress and workload should not belong in this world anymore. The medicine degree programme at the Free University of Amsterdam has stopped awarding this title on the grounds that personal achievements were prioritised above learning.

Cum laude still seems to be prevalent at TU Delft. That said, how this designation is viewed differs. Delta spoke to the director of education at three faculties about their rules and thoughts.

Architecture and the Built Environment: no cum laude in the bachelors
Bachelor students that started studying in or after the 2021-2022 academic year can no longer graduate cum laude at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. Master students can still get one. MaartenJan Hoekstra, the Director of Education, says that this is one of the buttons to push to deal with study stress. “A small button,” he emphasises. “We saw that it put extra pressure on bachelor students to perform. We do not believe that this is a good thing.”

‘If you only focus on the grade, you do not listen to the feedback’

Whatever happens, the majority of students go on to do a master’s after their bachelor’s. Architecture and the Built Environment’s Education Committee came to the conclusion that it is strange to award a diploma with such a lot of praise ‘half way’ through a degree programme.

On top of this, Hoekstra believes that the emphasis of cum laude is not so much on learning. “If you make grades so important, you only focus on the grade and do not listen to the feedback of your teacher.” A wide package of measures intended to reduce stress among students is being introduced for the 2024-2025 academic year. One of the measures is that exams are no longer associated with feedback in design projects in the bachelor’s.

Nevertheless, Hoekstra believes that not awarding cum laudes will not end the drive among students to try to get high grades. “People will look at their list of grades and see that they have met the requirements for cum laude, but that they are not awarded it because the Faculty does not award them anymore.”

Aerospace Engineering: not 8.0, but 8.5
According to Joris Melkert, Director of Education at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering (AE), the title is currently not a subject of discussion at his Faculty. He expects that it will be in the future. “This will depend on the Executive Board, as it will affect all of TU Delft.”

‘Cum laude is a confirmation of the work you have done’

The rules for earning a cum laude at AE, however, have been adapted. Since 2019, students must have had an average of 8.5 to graduate cum laude. Before this it was 8.0.

Melkert explains that this is because the Aerospace Engineering bachelor has a numerus fixus (a cap on the number of students admitted) and students are subject to a selection procedure. He says that the number of students that graduate with a high accolade may not be too high. “The strict selection procedure guarantees good students. To keep graduating with cum laude exclusive, the average figure has been raised.”

Melkert believes that the value of graduating cum laude is mostly personal. “It is a confirmation of the work you have done.” It may lead to greater opportunities for a doctoral dissertation place or a job in industry. However, Melkert doubts whether companies really ask about it during application meetings.

Civil Engineering and Geosciences: monitoring the number of cum laudes
Hans Welleman, the Director of Education at Civil Engineering and Geosciences, calls the reasons behind the Free University stopping cum laudes in its medical course ‘charming’. The subject was briefly discussed by all the Directors of Education at TU Delft at a meeting.

He would find it a shame if TU Delft did away with cum laudes. “You would then take away the acknowledgement,” he says. But he does admit that the title can give stress to students. “Especially if you have few other opportunities to distinguish yourself from your fellow students.”

‘An average student has a good diploma’

And this while Welleman finds that international students believe that good performance is not well recognised at Dutch universities. “In other countries, the education system sometimes has a competitive element so that students can win prizes or be put in the spotlight in other ways.” Welleman believes that TU Delft does no favours to international and Dutch students that are close to meeting the criteria of cum laude by dropping it.

Just as in other degree programmes, CEG keeps a close eye on the number of cum laudes. “We modified our rubrics (evaluation models, Eds.) for assessing theses about six years ago. The reason was to be more transparent and better determine the final grade.” He believes that it is more important to set the bar for the final grade at the right level than to raise the requirements for earning a cum laude.

Welleman adds that the students who do not graduate with cum laude at his Faculty do not need to worry about their careers. “Our degree programmes are highly recognised around the world (the Civil Engineering bachelor is second in the QS World Ranking 2023, Eds.). An average student at our Faculty automatically has a good degree.

News editor Bas Koppe

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