What Is an Honorary Degree and How Do You Lose One?

by Genevieve Carlton
• 3 min read
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After the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building in Jan. 2021, two universities formally revoked honorary degrees granted to President Donald Trump.

It wasn't the first time Trump lost one, and it might not be the last.

But what is an honorary degree, and what does it take to lose the degree?

What Is an Honorary Degree?

An honorary degree recognizes someone's contributions to society. The University of Michigan grants honorary degrees to "scholars, scientists, artists, writers, educators, or other individuals who have advanced their field of endeavor in significant ways." The University of Washington says "honorary degrees recognize those who have made profound and enduring contributions to scholarship, culture, and improved quality of life in society at large."

But there are significant differences between an honorary degree and an earned degree. For one, recipients of honorary degrees don't have to apply to the school, complete any coursework, or fulfill any graduation requirements like writing a dissertation. Instead, they simply receive a diploma as an honor without earning the degree.

Famous holders of honorary degrees include presidents and politicians, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep, and an assortment of other famous people, including Kanye West, Pitbull, and even Kermit the Frog, who received a doctorate in amphibious letters from Southampton College in 1996.

Honorary degrees come in several different types. Colleges can hand out honorary master's degrees, honorary law degrees, or honorary doctorates. But there are significant differences between an honorary degree and an earned degree. For one, recipients of honorary degrees don't have to apply to the school, complete any coursework, or fulfill any graduation requirements like writing a dissertation. Instead, they simply receive a diploma as an honor without earning the degree.

An honorary degree also doesn't mean you can start practicing law or apply for jobs as a professor. And unlike an earned doctorate, an honorary doctorate doesn't confer titles, like doctor. Still, that didn't stop Benjamin Franklin from calling himself doctor back in the 18th century when Oxford and the University of St. Andrews honored him.

Today, colleges and universities generally hand out honorary degrees at their graduation ceremony. Graduation speakers, for example, may wear the school's regalia and receive an honorary doctorate when giving their speeches.

Some universities, including Stanford, Cornell, Rice, and MIT, oppose or outright ban honorary degrees.

Not all universities hand out honorary degrees. In fact, some strongly oppose or even ban honorary degrees. Elite institutions like Stanford and Cornell refuse to grant honorary degrees. The founder of MIT, William Barton Rogers, declared honorary degrees "of spurious merit and noisy popularity."

Thomas Jefferson agreed. When founding the University of Virginia, Jefferson banned the institution from granting honorary degrees — although the Founding Father didn't say no to Harvard when offered an honorary law degree.

The History of Honorary Degrees

Honorary degrees have a long history. The University of Oxford offered an honorary degree to Lionel Woodville, brother-in-law to King Edward IV, in the 1470s.

In 1642, King Charles I handed out over 300 honorary degrees to reward his supporters. Oxford petitioned the soon-to-be-deposed monarch to stop, since the practice wasn't good for the university's finances.

The practice also took root early in the U.S. For example, Harvard has granted over 2,300 honorary degrees dating back to the 17th century. The first recipient was the university's president, Increase Mather, in 1692.

Honorary degrees became a problem in the 19th century, when some universities granted honorary medical degrees. "The most dangerous, delusive, debauching and degrading thing in American educational life," railed a dentist in 1910, "is the practice of granting unearned degrees."

Taking Back an Honorary Degree

Yes, you can lose an honorary degree. In 2018, Yale took back an honorary degree granted to Bill Cosby. It was the first time the Ivy League university had rescinded an honorary degree — but not the first time Cosby lost a degree. Dozens of other institutions that had honored the convicted sex offender also revoked their honorary doctorates.

In practice, taking back an honorary degree remains rare.

The University of Massachusetts took back an honorary degree granted to Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, for human rights abuses. The University of Pennsylvania took sides in World War I by revoking its honorary doctorate granted to Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II.

As for Donald Trump, he once held five honorary degrees: one from Lehigh University in 1988, one from Wagner College in 2004, one from Scotland's Robert Gordon University in 2010, and two from Liberty University in 2012 and 2017.

Robert Gordon University was the first to revoke its honorary degree back in 2015, when the university declared that Trump had "made a number of statements that are wholly incompatible with the ethos and values of the university."

After the storming of the Capitol, Lehigh and Wagner also rescinded their honorary degrees. That leaves Trump with only his honorary degrees from Liberty.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

Header Image Credit: naphtalina, Symphonie | Getty Images

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