What Having an Honorary Degree Really Means (And How to Get One)

Each year, thousands of people of all ages throw on a cap and gown and walk across a big stage to receive a piece of paper. This ceremony, of course, is graduation and is meant to celebrate the completion of a person’s educational journey. 

Not everyone that receives a diploma on these days has put in years of work at school, however. Colleges have a habit of inviting various celebrities to graduation ceremonies to receive what are known as ‘honorary degrees.” 

What is an honorary degree? It’s a gesture from a university that’s more symbolic than functional. It has a lot to do with a universities’ attempts to mingle with the rich and the famous. Read on, and we’ll walk you through what you need to know about honorary degrees, and how you could get one yourself. 

Where Did The Honorary Degree Come From? 

The history behind giving out honorary degrees is actually much deeper than you might initially assume. Oxford University is popularly credited as handing out the first honorary degree as far back as the 1400s. 

In this situation, Oxford was attempting to curry favor with a young bishop who had ties to the current king. They sent a courier to his home with an official diploma, and within an instant, the man was awarded proof of the highest education in the land. It would be like someone becoming a Ph.D. overnight in today’s world.

Oxford University’s attempts to get close with the bishop seemed to work out. It was only a few years later that he joined the institution’s ranks as a Chancellor. In this position, he was able to use his power and influence to help the school. 

Similar stories at Hardvard and other American universities dot the early history of America. Ben Franklin himself received a total of seven honorary degrees from seven different universities.

Today, the long history of handing out honorary degrees to the rich and powerful have not ceased. In fact, it has only increased exponentially at major institutions. 

Why Hand Out An Honorary Degree? 

When it comes to the modern era, most colleges aren’t trying to employ or benefit directly from those they award honorary degrees too. But they are still trying to use a person’s fame to help the school. 

Having a famous celebrity attend graduation can provide a huge amount of positive attention for a university. In many cases, the famous person in question will give a speech after receiving their diploma, which is one-way universities book big talent for these events.

Everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Kermit The Frog has received honorary degrees from various universities. 

Perhaps even more significant is the bank accounts of these famous individuals. With an honorary degree in hand, universities can try to count on these people to help contribute to the school as they would with any other alumni. 

What Is An Honorary Degree Good For? 

Back in Ben Franklin’s day, there was little to separate an honorary degree from a real one. People went around pretending that they were doctors without actually having the educational background. 

These days, the popularity and publicization of honorary degrees have made it a little easier to know the difference. Today, an honorary degree is still a symbol of great respect, but it has little real-world utility. 

A person with an honorary degree wouldn’t be able to get a job in a field that required a true four-year education. Of course, the people being awarded these honorary degrees are often so successful that applying for other work isn’t likely a realistic expectation for them anyway. 

Getting an honorary degree might hold a great level of personal importance for an individual. These diplomas still end up framed in offices or at home. It is hard to deny that these degrees still carry a great deal of respect, despite the transparent motives behind them. 

How Can You Get An Honorary Degree Yourself?

If you just so happen to be wealthy, powerful, or very famous: you’re in luck. You’re exactly the type of person a large university is looking to curry favor with. Unfortunately, without these traits, the likelihood of you being awarded an honorary degree one day are fairly low. 

There are other universities that will hand out honorary degrees to those with slightly less name recognition. If you donate huge sums to a university, you’ll certainly be at the top of their list to reward with this kind of honor. Similarly, if you’ve made a huge achievement in your field, a college might want to award you. 

A lot of getting an honorary degree is creating a relationship with that school. Attend school events and get a sense of who is holding the power and making the decisions. Having a relationship with these people can make it much easier to secure an honorary diploma for yourself later on in life.

Most people go their whole lives without receiving one honorary degree, so this goal might not be something to pin all your hopes and dreams on. After all, there’s always real diplomas to pursue if you have the time and money to do so. 

What Is An Honorary Degree? 

If you’ve ever wondered ‘what is an honorary degree?’ the above information should help layout the information that you need. Honorary degrees are just one of the ways modern universities connect with the rich and powerful and help build favor for their schools. 

Want to award your own honorary degree to yourself or a loved one? See how we might be able to help create the perfect phony diploma for you.