A honorary degree is a college degree which is awarded to someone who has not fulfilled the requirements for graduation. Generally, honorary degrees are used to recognize someone's significant contributions to the academic institution which grants the degree, or the community in general. Some colleges present honorary degrees at commencement ceremonies, while others may hold special ceremonies for the recipients of honorary degrees. At the presentation, the recipient usually makes a speech, and the speech may be a major part of the occasion.
The tradition of granting a degree honoris causa or “for the sake of honor” dates to the Middle Ages, when some institutions of higher learning decided to grant honorary degrees to individuals of the community as a mark of honor and respect. In some cases, the degree was clearly used as a reward for granting funds, lands, or other gifts to the community, while in other instances such degrees were awarded for accomplishments, such as developing new scientific equipment. Honorary degrees were also granted posthumously in some cases to individuals who had made major contributions to the academic community in their lifetimes.
Depending on the policies of the institution which grants it, an honorary degree may have the same standing as a degree which has been earned by meeting the graduation requirements, or it may be viewed as a degree of lesser standing. Honorary degrees are usually doctorates, but holding an honorary degree does not entitle someone to the title of “Doctor.” Some schools grant master's degrees as honorary degrees as well. In both cases, people must clearly indicate that the degree is honorary if they include it on business cards, resumes, and other communications.
Universities which offer honorary degrees have a panel which nominates candidates and reviews the nominations to determine how and when honorary degrees will be rewarded. Some universities have attracted controversy by granting degrees to big donors, with critics suggesting that it is possible to buy a degree, rather than working for one. To avoid accusations of this type, some universities have specific guidelines about who may receive an honorary degree, and when. Politicians and current faculty are often banned from receiving honorary degrees, as are big donors when they are actively contributing to major projects.
Generally, people cannot ask for an honorary degree. Individuals who distinguish themselves may be rewarded with an honorary degree for their accomplishments, and in some cases the degree may be used as an incentive to attract a speaker to a commencement ceremony, but it is not possible to submit a request to a university or honorary degree committee.