“Dishonorary” Degrees Devalue College Efforts


Taylor Swift will receive an honorary degree from NYU next month. (Courtesy of Twitter)

In May 2022, Taylor Swift is set to receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from New York University (NYU) and speak at the school’s commencement ceremony. This will be Swift’s first college degree, having never gone to college since her career skyrocketed at such a young age. After all, she released her first album in 2006 when she was just 17 years old. 

Swift is not the first celebrity to receive an honorary degree, which is an academic degree for which the university waives all the usual requirements. Meryl Streep has received four honorary degrees, three of which were awarded by Ivy League universities. Alec Baldwin also received an honorary doctorate degree from NYU, his undergraduate alma mater. Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Jon Bon Jovi and Aretha Franklin are just a few members of a long list of celebrities who received honorary degrees, many of whom also performed or gave a speech at the university after receiving their degree. J.K. Rowling has received an impressive amount of honorary degrees, with seven in total. 

Fordham participates in this practice, usually dishing out a handful of honorary degrees every year. This year’s commencement speaker, Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, will receive an honorary degree in divinity. Clearly, honorary degrees are not going out of style. Despite their steady popularity, honorary degrees are a strong disservice to all the students who make endless sacrifices to earn their college degrees. 

Of course, the argument can be made that these honorary degrees largely serve a symbolic purpose, and are to be understood as a recognition of achievement rather than as something equivalent to a college degree. I strongly disagree with this argument. If a university wants to acknowledge an individual for their success, inviting them to act as a commencement speaker should be enough. If not, I could even understand bestowing an award to extremely successful individuals, but providing them with an honorary college degree seems far-fetched and unnecessary. 

Another common argument is that honorary degree recipients are extremely skilled in their specialty and have devoted countless hours to their craft. For example, Swift has clearly devoted most of her life to songwriting, playing music and performing. The number of hours she has spent dedicated to her music may very well be comparable to the number of hours a student spends working on a degree. Nonetheless, this dedication of time does not mean that Swift has earned the equivalent of a degree. 

I have nothing against Swift. In fact, I admire her. She is hard-working and undeniably talented. When I first read an article headline stating that Swift would receive a doctorate from NYU, I was extremely impressed and excited to see that she earned her degree. I was less impressed when I clicked on the article and realized it was just another honorary degree.

There are multiple reasons why I believe so-called honorary degrees are rather dishonorary. First, we can return to the Swift example, in which we blindly accept the claim that she has put in the same amount of time toward music that a student has toward a music degree, and thus, Swift deserves that same degree. This argument ignores the fact that students might also have multiple passions, just as Swift might have for music and education, and are not entitled to the same privilege in choosing which success to fulfill and which to have handed to them. A college student who loves music may write songs, attend band practices and play in concerts while simultaneously working and studying for their degree. Just because Swift has spent time working on her music, it does not mean that she has spent time working toward a degree. 

Second, college degrees are not easy. This seems like an obvious point, but degrees are strenuous for a multitude of reasons. Sure, students have to work hard and study to get good grades, but many students also have to make difficult sacrifices in order to earn their degree. 

The average cost to attend a private college in 2021 is $54,800, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing Report. The average student loan debt for recent college graduates is close to $30,000, according to U.S. News Data. It is safe to say that affording college requires substantial financial sacrifices from most students today, whether that be having a support system saving up for decades, balancing a work-study schedule and earning a salary alongside being a full-time student, taking out a significant number of loans or turning down certain colleges whose financial aid is lacking altogether. 

This is the reason why honorary degrees are so insulting to students today. If there is anyone who would have an easier time getting a college degree in today’s times, it is probably the recipients of these honorary degrees themselves. Honorary degree recipients range across a variety of careers and lifestyles, but a large percentage of them are celebrities or from equally financially stable demographics. 

I am sure that Swift lives an incredibly busy lifestyle, one that I certainly can’t imagine, but so do countless other people. If Swift wanted to take a four-year hiatus from producing music and earn a degree, she could easily afford to do so. If J.K. Rowling wanted to drop tens of thousands of dollars to earn a college degree, she could do so. College is a privilege, and it is insulting to see others receive the same certificate that so many students spend a significant portion of their lives working toward. If you want to honor these figures, that is understandable. Hold a ceremony for them. Give them a different award. But please stop handing out degrees until we see these celebrities in the classroom. 

Taylor Herzlich, FCRH ’23, is a journalism major and English minor from Mount Sinai, N.Y.