Get Your Degree, and Get Paid for It!

Here on Phi Beta Cons, we do a lot of fretting over the value of diplomas and degrees. Are people getting their money’s worth? How much is too much to pay? etc. But what if you could get a degree and have the university pay you? Increasingly, universities are offering commencement speakers just such a deal:

On May 15, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison will give the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey. For her trouble, she will receive an honorary doctorate of letters — and a check for $30,000.

Rutgers said Friday that the payment would be its first for a graduation speech in its 245-year history.

For generations, an honorary degree was reward enough at most colleges and universities; if schools paid any money, it was usually for the speaker’s lodging or travel expenses. But more substantial honoraria are becoming common, and experts say that hundreds of schools have paid them — though quietly.

This might be the ultimate bargain in higher ed.

In her book Paradise, Toni Morrison wrote the following words: “Love is not a gift. It is a diploma.” This year at Rutgers they seem to be saying: “A diploma is not a gift. It is a bribe.”

I suppose there is nothing wrong with a university paying a commencement speaker. But there is something a bit cheap about throwing in an honorary degree on top of a five-figure payday. It makes the degree look like a mere payoff in a quid pro quo transaction, rather than a thoughtful attempt to honor an accomplished person.

Maybe I’m being overly idealistic. After all, what does an honorary degree really mean at the end of the day? But, traditionally, there has been a difference between an “honorary” degree and “honororia.” I think it’s a distinction worth maintaining.

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