The Purpose of Honorary Degrees

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Honorary Doctoral Degrees

An honorary doctorate is granted for the purpose of recognizing those persons who exemplify the ideals of a University through sustained achievement and distinction of national or international significance.

It is common for a university to establish a Committee to solicits nominations for degrees to be awarded at the at their respective commencement times. A complete nomination package generally is required in order for the Committee to consider a nominee. The Committee typically takes into account the criteria, principles, and guidelines approved by the elected administrators and in some cases, Board of Trustees.

Nominations are sometimes accepted year round or limited to several times a year. Nominations can take 4 to 12 months to make their way through the selection process, depending on the time of year the nomination is submitted and whether other nominees have already been selected for conferral at subsequent commencements. Most institutions place a limit on the number of Honorary Doctoral Degrees to be awarded per academic year.

What is the Purpose of Honorary Degrees?

In awarding Honorary Degrees, a University accomplishes several purposes:

  • It pays tribute to those whose life and work exemplify professional, intellectual, or artistic achievement.
  • It recognizes and appreciates those who have made significant contributions to society, the state, and the University.
  • It highlights the diverse ways in which such contributions can be made and it sends a message that principles, values, and contributions are important. Well-chosen honorees affirm and dignify the University’s own achievements and priorities.

Honorary degrees may be conferred upon those who have achieved distinction through outstanding intellectual or creative achievements, or through outstanding leadership in education, business, or public service.

What are University Endowments from Honorees?

University endowments are comprised of money or other financial assets that are donated to academic institutions. Charitable donations are the primary source of funds for endowments. Endowment funds support the teaching, research, and public service missions of colleges and universities.

University endowments (and all endowments) have a specific legal structure that is intended to indefinitely perpetuate a pool of investments for a specific purpose. Typically, endowment funds follow a fairly strict set of long-term guidelines that dictate the asset allocation that will yield the targeted return without taking on too much risk.

In the case of endowment funds for academic institutions, the income generated is intended to finance a portion of the operating or capital requirements of the institution. In addition to a general university endowment fund, institutions may also maintain a number of restricted endowments that are intended to fund specific areas within the institution, including professorships, scholarships, and fellowships.

Sometimes, colleges and universities pool together many individual endowments into a single investment fund which allows for a consistent investment approach. In this way, a university endowment may resemble a mutual fund.

Some endowment funds have guidelines stating how much of each year’s investment income can be spent. For many universities, this amount is approximately 5% of the endowment’s total asset value. Some elite institutions, such as Harvard, have endowments that are worth billions of dollars, so this 5% amount can end up equaling a large sum of money. In the context of the U.S. higher educational system, the presence of endowment funds are often integral to the financial health of educational institutions.

10 Universities With the Biggest Endowments

Endowments at these 10 schools range from a low of $11.3 billion to a high of $41.9 billion, U.S. News data shows.

College endowments, or the value of investments based on donated money and financial assets, can be wide-ranging. While some hover in the low millions, the largest endowment in higher education is greater than the gross domestic product of countries such as Uganda, Bolivia and Nepal, per World Bank data from 2020.

At the end of fiscal year 2020, Harvard University in Massachusetts boasted an endowment of nearly $42 billion, per data collected by U.S. News in an annual survey. By contrast, none of the countries referenced above cracked $40 billion in GDP in 2020.

And while Harvard sits atop the list of universities with the biggest endowments, it is not unique in this regard – several other schools also have endowments that outpaced the GDP of various countries. Collectively, the 10 colleges on this list have endowments valued together at nearly $210 billion, according to data submitted to U.S. News.

Endowments often come with restrictions, meaning that colleges can use that money in limited ways, typically to continue to invest in the future of the institution in order to advance its mission and keep the university operating long term to serve future generations.

Though institutional wealth does not directly indicate academic quality, many of the schools with the largest endowments are regularly among the top colleges as ranked by U.S. News. Of the 10 schools with the largest endowments, nine are ranked among the top 25 National Universities, institutions that are often research-oriented and offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Despite large endowments, many of these schools charge high tuition – though their wealth also allows them to offer generous financial aid packages, ultimately bringing costs down for students of modest means.

Eye-popping endowments, however, are not the norm across higher education. Among the 351 ranked National Universities that provided this data to U.S. News, the average endowment size at the end of fiscal year 2020 was around $1.4 billion.

Of the 10 National Universities that reported the smallest endowments to U.S. News, the average came out to nearly $10.7 million. By contrast, the average endowment for the 10 colleges on this list amounted to nearly $21 billion at the end of fiscal year 2020.

Below is a list of the 10 National Universities with the largest endowments at the conclusion of fiscal year 2020. Endowments were examined by campus, not across public university systems. Unranked schools, which did not meet certain criteria required by U.S. News to be numerically ranked, were not considered for this report.

Harvard University (MA)
Yale University (CT)
Stanford University (CA)
Princeton University (NJ)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of Pennsylvania
Texas A&M University
University of Notre Dame (IN)
University of Michigan—Ann Arbor
Columbia University (NY)
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