The Meaning of Graduation Cords

Graduating, whether high school, college, or with an advanced degree, is an important day for everyone involved. Graduation ceremonies are filled with traditions such as moving the tassel from one side of the hat to the other or the cords that graduates wear around their necks. These cords come in numerous colors and signify a wide range of things.

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While cords are an essential part of graduation regalia today, they did not start off as part of the graduation ceremony. Graduation regalia including multicolored cords originated in religious ceremonies. Primarily used in the Catholic and Anglican churches, cords, stoles, hoods, and winged sleeves helped distinguish between varying levels of clergy members. When these forms of dress jumped into the academic setting, only those who had attained a master's degree or higher wore them.

A clergyman wears a red sash over his robe.
A clergyman wears a red sash over his robe. (Image: Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Majors and Minors

One of the primary purposes of graduation cords is to distinguish one's major or minor. Almost every major or minor uses a specific color to represent a given field of study in a ceremonial setting. For graduation ceremonies, cords, hoods, or stoles are worn by graduates to denote their major or minor. Some of the most common colors of cords include science gold, drab and white. Science gold is used to represent criminology, environmental science, industrial arts, military science, physics, police science and general science. Drab is worn by individuals in the fields of industrial and labor relations, commerce, accounting, business administration, commercial science, and business education. White is worn by those graduating with a major or minor in the arts, English, history, letters, literature and sociology.

A graduate wears a yellow tassle.
A graduate wears a yellow tassle. (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Grade Point Average

At both the high school and undergraduate levels, and occasionally in masters or doctoral programs, students are given recognition for their grade point average while in school. Three distinctions commonly exist: cum laude; magna cum laude; and suma cum laude. While each institution can adjust the scale it uses when recognizing these honors, commonly a 3.5 to 3.7 grade point average is cum laude, 3.71 to 3.9 is magna cum laude and anything higher than 3.9 is suma cum laude. During a graduation ceremony, students wear cords distinguishing themselves as graduates with a high grade point average. The color of these cords is determined by the institution.

Three esteemed graduates wear white tassles.
Three esteemed graduates wear white tassles. (Image: Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Honors and Organizations

Colleges and universities that include an honors program frequently recognize those graduating from this program through the use of a specific cord. Students commonly wind their honors program cord and their major or minor cord together to create one multicolored cord. Other honor programs may require graduates to wear special cords. For example, graduates who are also members of Lambda Pi Eta, a nationally recognized honor society for communication majors, may also wear crimson colored cords on graduation day.

A female graduate wears a crimson sash and tassle.
A female graduate wears a crimson sash and tassle. (Image: Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Explanation of Specific Regalia

Look at the program provided during the graduation ceremony for a list of specific types of regalia used. The program will explain what each cord represents in relation to the group of students graduating. Some cord colors may have multiple meanings as they may be used by several groups.

A close-up of a diploma, tassle, and books.
A close-up of a diploma, tassle, and books. (Image: Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)


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