Academic Degree, title granted by a college or university, usually signifying completion of an established course of study. Honorary degrees are conferred as marks of distinction, not necessarily of scholarship; some, such as D.Litt. (doctor of letters), are generally honorary in the United States.
Institutions of higher learning have granted degrees since the 12th century. The word itself was then used for the baccalaureate and licentiate, the two intermediate steps that led to the certificates of master and doctor, requisites for teaching in a medieval university. During the same period, honorary degrees were sometimes conferred by a pope or an emperor. In England, the archbishop of Canterbury, by an act passed during the reign of King Henry VIII, acquired the authority to grant honorary Lambeth degrees.
During the Middle Ages, the conferring of a doctorate also allowed the recipient to practice the profession in which the certificate was awarded; this condition still holds true for the legal and medical professions in European countries, such as France, in which the government controls the universities. In the United States, however, the doctor's degree in medicine and law in itself is only a measure of academic attainment; the holder of the degree of M.D., for example, cannot practice in the medical profession until he or she has passed a qualifying examination and received a license.
III. EUROPEAN DEGREES
In Germany and at most Continental universities, only the doctor's degree is conferred, except in theology, in which the licentiate, or master's degree, is also presented. Granting of the doctorate is contingent upon the acceptance of a dissertation and the passing of examinations. The baccalaureate, or bachelor's degree, is usually not a university degree in Europe. In France, it is acquired by passing a state examination at the completion of secondary education; the only university-conferred baccalaureate is that awarded by the faculty of law.
The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in England grant the bachelor's degree after the satisfactory completion of a 3-year course. Since the 18th century these universities have also given tripos, or examinations for honors. A candidate for graduation must pass all parts of the tripos for a particular subject in order to qualify for an honors degree. The master's degree in arts or science is granted after a further period of residence and study and the payment of fees. Other English universities grant the master's degree only after a candidate has passed a series of examinations and presented an approved thesis. Various doctorates are awarded for distinguished scholarly work or given honoris causa to prominent public figures.
IV. U.S. DEGREES
The most commonly granted degrees in the U.S. are the B.A., or bachelor of arts, and the B.S., or bachelor of science, both given generally after the completion of a 4-year course of study and sometimes followed by a mark of excellence, such as cum laude, with praise; magna cum laude, with great praise; or summa cum laude, with highest praise. The master's degree is granted after one or two years of postgraduate work and may require the writing of a thesis or dissertation. The doctorate requires two to five years of postgraduate work, the writing of a thesis, and the passing of oral and written examinations. In the mid-1990s U.S. institutions of higher learning annually granted about 1.2 million bachelor's degrees, some 387,000 master's degrees, and 43,000 doctor's degrees. The most familiar degrees are shown in the accompanying table.
V. ACADEMIC COSTUME
The academic dress worn at degree-granting ceremonies consists of a long, black, full-cut gown, and a mortarboard, a stiff square-shaped cap with a tassel. The tassel is either black or of the color indicating the field of study, such as blue for philosophy, purple for law, or scarlet for theology. Some also wear a hood lined with colored silk indicating the graduate's institution and decorated with velvet strips to designate the field of study. The bachelor's gown, usually of cotton, has pointed sleeves. The master's gown, of cotton, silk, or worsted, has oblong sleeves. The doctor's gown, generally of silk, has colored velvet facings down the front. The bell-shaped sleeves are decorated with three similarly colored velvet bands.