What's the Value of an Honorary Degree?

Dec 21, 2019

There is a long history of conferring honorary degrees on people who have made important and lasting contributions to society or various fields. Read on to learn if an honorary degree is a real degree and what you can do with an honorary degree.

What is an Honorary Degree?

Honorary degrees are a recognition of a person's contributions to society or lifetime achievement in their field. Honorary degrees have been conferred on individuals from all walks of life. For example, Harvard University has awarded over 2300 honorary degrees since its establishment in 1692. Since 1892, Temple University has awarded over 900 honorary degrees. Like the title infers, honorary degrees are awarded to honor an individual; they hold no real-world value beyond this.

What Can You Do With an Honorary Degree?

People often ask whether an honorary degree is a real degree, are honorary degrees valid, do honorary degrees count, do honorary degrees mean anything, what is an honorary degree good for, and what can be done with an honorary degree? In the sense that an honorary degree is awarded by an accredited college or university, it is a real degree. However, these degrees are not equivalent to a Ph.D., doctorate in education, clinical research, or any other area, nor are most of them honorary Ph.D.s.

There are no academic or professional privileges associated with honorary degrees. Individuals can be called 'Doctor' by others but should not use the title when talking about themselves, nor should it be used in written communications, including business cards. However, the degree abbreviation can be used after the recipient's name. Recipients can also note on their résumés that they have been awarded the degree, but they should put the words 'honoris causa' or 'honorary' after the degree to show that the degree has not been earned through successful completion of an academic program.

What Types of Honorary Degrees are There?

Each school determines the types of honorary degrees it will confer, but often they are honorary doctorates. Here is a list of some of the more common ones:

  • Doctor of Arts (D.A.)
  • Doctor of Education (D.Ed.)
  • Doctor of Fine Arts (D.F.A.)
  • Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D. or sometimes D.H.L degree)
  • Doctor of Public Service (D.P.S.)
  • Doctor of Science (D.S.)

How are Honorary Degree Recipients Chosen?

No doubt, many people are curious to know how to get an honorary degree. Schools that award honorary degrees engage in a selection process to identify those individuals who, in their opinion, have made significant contributions to society or a specific field. The selection committees may have rules regarding whether candidates can be contributors to the school, are running for public office, have high ethical standards, or possess any of the other criteria the school has established. It is not usually a requirement that the recipient be a graduate of the school conferring the honorary degree, though. Also, not all schools confer honorary degrees. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, and the University of Virginia do not offer honorary degrees.

Who Has Received an Honorary Degree?

Some of the more recent and well-known recipients of honorary degrees include Steven Spielberg (Harvard 2016), Chris Matthews (Temple 2011), Tony Bennett (Fordham 2012), Rivka Carmi (Brandeis 2019), and James A. Baker, III (Yale 2019). Notable names from the past include many of the founding fathers of the United States. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin received honorary degrees from Harvard University. General Omar Bradley, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Frank Lloyd Wright are a few recipients of honorary degrees from Temple University.

An uncommon honorary degree was awarded to Kermit the Frog in 1986. Southhampton College in New York conferred the degree. Kermit was recognized with an honorary doctorate of amphibious letters.

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