degree, academic, title bestowed upon a student on the fulfillment of certain requirements or given as an honor to an eminent person. The practice of awarding degrees originated in the universities of medieval Europe. The first known degree, granted to doctoral candidates in civil law, was awarded in Italy at the Univ. of Bologna during the 12th cent. From Italy the practice spread throughout Europe, and in the 13th cent. the first bachelor's degree was awarded at the Univ. of Paris. By the time the first colleges were opened in the American colonies, the process of granting degrees was firmly established. Originally there were only a few types of degrees offered by American schools. Today, however, approximately 1,500 types of degrees are granted by academic institutions in the United States. The most common degrees conferred in American universities are Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or of Science (B.S.), at the end of an undergraduate liberal arts or science course, and Master of Arts (M.A.) or of Science (M.S.), at the end of a prescribed postgraduate course in liberal arts or in science. The highest degree conferred by a university is the doctorate: Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), of Medicine (M.D.), of Divinity (D.D.), of Laws (LL.D.).
There are numerous other degrees given less frequently, including purely honorary awards such as Doctor of Literature (Litt.D.). Occasionally, traditional degrees are replaced by newer ones. During the 1960s, for example, most American law schools replaced the Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) with the Juris Doctor (J.D.), even though the actual requirements for the law degree remained substantially the same. The requirements for degrees differ in different institutions. The gowns and insignia worn at academic convocations indicate the degree attained by the wearer or the degree for which he is a candidate; they also indicate the institution awarding the degree.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.