Honorary degrees are honorary bullshit

Illustration+by+Hailey+Akau

Photo: Hailey Akau

Illustration by Hailey Akau

By Hailey Akau, Illustrator

Anyone who has worked toward a degree from a higher-education institution can attest to the blood, sweat, and tears—on top of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition fees—that go into earning that simple sheet of paper. Yet, despite the countless college students pulling all-nighters and subjecting themselves to unhealthy habits for the sake of a grade, universities give degrees to celebrities for free.

Also known as ‘honorary degrees,’ these awards are not even regular bachelor degrees—they’re advanced doctorate degrees. 

Honorary degrees are a slap in the face to actual university students, especially those of marginalized communities who are not spoon-fed as many opportunities for higher education as some of their peers. 

I’m not saying all recipients of honorary degrees don’t deserve them, but the concept of universities being able to give out terminal-level degrees, without recipients needing to put in the necessary years of work, invalidates the legitimate efforts of real students trying to further their education.

Celebrity degrees diminish the reputation of prestigious academic institutions because they treat academic achievement like a brand deal. Celebrities carry influence, and their endorsement of a school can sway fans toward applying to said school. Many major brands, restaurants, and hotels include celebrity endorsement as part of their marketing campaigns—and universities are no different, improving their public image and increasing visibility by working with celebrities. 

Since the 15th century, universities have been granting degrees “for the sake of honor,” with Oxford University being the first to award such a degree to Lionel Woodville, Dean of Exeter. In 1753, Harvard University gave Benjamin Franklin the first American award for being a prominent and popular figure at the time. Harvard University’s list of recipients of honorary degrees has since skyrocketed, including big names like Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey, and J.K. Rowling.

Taylor Swift’s New York University doctorate (in what?) is not just a recent phenomenon—it is the result of centuries of symbolic awarding and college marketing tactics. New York University’s main criteria for selecting recipients of this award is that the candidate “reflect[s] the breadth of interests and activities of the University.”

According to the University of Connecticut, their criteria for selecting honorary degree recipients includes “recognition of a person whose life and achievements serve as examples of the University’s aspirations for its students” and “a sustained reputation over a period of years … and preferably should extend nationally or internationally.” Additionally, the recipient may not be an active member of the university’s faculty, administration, or staff. 

Basically, when one garners enough fame to warrant an audience and has maintained a certain degree of accomplishment in their career, a university can recognize them as an aspirational figure for its students to look up to. Often, these degrees are offered to individuals in return for them giving a speech at the commencement ceremony.

It should come as no surprise that lesser-known people and those coming from socially disadvantaged groups are rarely, if ever, recipients of these awards. As usual, the wealthy and famous are at an advantage. 

Using Taylor Swift as an example, we see a white woman from Pennsylvania who’s worth $570 million—adding an honorary doctorate to her already long list of achievements isn’t going to change her life or the course of her career. While her success in the music industry is earned, Swift’s doctorate is representative of the privileged demographic’s advantage over minorities.

To add insult to injury, the process of selecting an individual for the honorary degree does not follow any of the traditional application processes that thousands of high school students are subject to every year. Taylor Swift never wrote a common app essay or took the SAT, but she did write “Midnights.” Additionally, the college application process can be extremely challenging for first-generation students, economically disadvantaged students, and students from racially marginalized communities, all of whom may feel that college is already an unattainable fantasy.According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the college enrollment rate for 18-24-year-olds was only 40 percent in 2020. Of these students, the enrollment rate for Pacific Islanders was 34 percent, and only 22 percent for Native American/Alaska Native students. 

On top of the competitive and selective application process, many students are unable to attend universities because of the price tag attached to their education. The average cost of a private, nonprofit four-year institution was $37,600 in the 2020-21 academic year. Additionally, the cost of room and board ranges from about $8,000 to $12,000, significantly increasing the cost to attend a university. Even public four-year institutions can be costly, with the average cost of tuition and fees being $9,400. These numbers don’t even include the cost of relocation, textbooks and school supplies, and hidden fees that university students are forced to pay.

With the number of financial barriers and exclusive practices that hinder students from being able to attend a university, let alone earn a degree, it should come as no surprise that college is inaccessible. Yet, even with this understanding, universities are still handing out honorary degrees to individuals who don’t necessarily need or deserve them. 

It’s time to stop awarding the wealthy and famous for simply existing. 

Fair is fair, and if actual university students have to cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars and spend nights slaving away at their studies, then celebrities should be doing the same.