An honorary degree is an award that can be conferred by any academic institution and is the highest level of academic achievement in the United States education system. Recipient selection is completely at the discretion of the university or college, but those selected to receive an honorary doctorate generally have distinguished accomplishments and high ideals that are in line with those of the school.
Honorary degrees have been in existence throughout history. According to the University of Wyoming, the first honorary doctorate was awarded to Lionel Woodville at Oxford University in England in the 1470s. Since then, honorary doctorates have become more common and frequently awarded.
The reason to award an honorary doctorate degree is to honor the work and accomplishments of a distinguished individual. According to the University of Berkeley Online, an honorary degree—also referred to as "honoris causa," or "for the sake of the honor" in Latin—is awarded for achievement in a specific field or contributions to society in general. A university typically chooses someone who reflects their ideals and who will serve as a positive representative of their school on a larger scale.
A doctorate is the most common degree awarded on an honorary basis, though honorary masters' degrees are also awarded. In addition, honorary doctorates can be awarded in any field, and the recipient does not have to have attended that university or have any affiliation with the institution.
Both the recipient and honoring institution can reap benefits from an honorary degree being awarded. For instance, the individual being honored can use the title list it on her résumé and curriculum vitae, while the institution enjoys the benefit of associating itself with a notable person. There is generally a ceremony to award an honorary degree, often during a graduation ceremony at a school.
An honorary doctorate is often awarded as a response to a major donation or gift by an individual. This has caused some to criticize the practice because it appears that an individual can buy an honorary degree. Schools also award honorary degrees to celebrities, politicians and athletes—who may or may not represent their ideals—because they want the spotlight and media attention those individuals bring.