Degrees were conferred for the first time in 1769, when seven Bachelor of Arts degrees were granted to students who had completed the prescribed course, along with twenty-one honorary Master of Arts degrees. The early laws of the college also provided that “All such as shall have applied themselves to their Studies, or any honourable profession in Life for the space of three years from the time of their taking their first Degree, and have been guilty of no gross crime, may expect to receive the honour of a second degree, provided they apply for it one week before Commencement.” The next law provided that every candidate for a degree pay the President four dollars. In 1772 six of the seven graduates of 1769 were awarded Master of Arts degrees. The Bachelor of Arts degree continued to be the only earned degree until the advent of Francis Wayland’s “New System” in 1850, which inaugurated the Bachelor of Philosophy for those who desired to prepare themselves for the professions, but were unable to pursue a full course of liberal education. Three groups of courses led to the A.B. degree, ranging from a maximum of ancient languages and mathematics to a maximum of miscellaneous courses with one of the ancient languages replaced by a modern language. The course for the Bachelor of Philosophy was composed of modern languages, mathematics and miscellaneous subjects. Both of these degrees required “an amount of study which may be accomplished in three years, but which may, if he pleases occupy the student profitably for four years.” The Master of Arts was now an undergraduate degree which could be obtained in four years, the requirements for which were practically the same as those formerly prescribed for the Bachelor of Arts. The first Ph.B. degree was awarded to Thomas Tefft in 1851. In 1857 the undergraduate Master of Arts degree was dropped, and the Bachelor of Arts was once more a four-year degree.
The Bachelor of Philosophy degree came under fire in President Robinson’s report for 1875. Noting that “It is not surprising that young men who are ambitious of the honor of graduation, but are incapable of appreciating the difference in the educations of which the two degrees are intended to be the index, should select that which is most easily obtained; and thus entering college with low aims, should leave it with still lower attainments,” he went on to complain of the “mischievous influence” on the candidates for the Bachelor of Arts degree, who, failing in that endeavor, find that “a shorter and easier way to graduation is still open to their option.” After 1876 requirements for the Bachelor of Philosophy degree were altered to include four years of study and some knowledge of Latin. In 1911 further changes required students for the Ph.B. degree to take a course in classical civilization and a course in general biology and to choose a “major” at the end of the sophomore year. There was also an elective choice between “argumentation” and mathematics, which made mathematics no longer compulsory, because of the “unfair burden put upon students who have no natural aptitude for mathematics.” Members of the Class of 1938 were the last to receive the Ph.B. degree.
President Robinson noted in his Autobiography, “It had been decided ... to discontinue the practice handed down from time immemorial of conferring the degree of “A.M.” in course upon graduates of three years’ standing, who might choose, on payment of a fee, to apply for it. The degree was supposed to be conferred on students who had been during the three years engaged in some regular course of study; and in the earlier days, when every student, immediately after graduation, entered a school of law, theology, or medicine, the degree was not unworthily conferred. But when men came to apply for it who had been engaged in no study, professional or other, the degree was in danger of losing all its significance.” The new requirement for the A.M. degree called for an examination on a required number of studies, and led to the establishment of organized graduate study at Brown. The first earned graduate Master of Arts degrees were awarded to Austen K. DeBlois and George Grafton Wilson 1886 in 1888. The same two gentlemen received the first Doctor of Philosophy degree awarded by Brown in 1889.
A course leading to the degree of Bachelor of Science was drawn up in 1891, and the Sc.B. degree was awarded for the first time in 1897 to three candidates. The first degree of Civil Engineer was awarded in 1892, and the first degree of Mechanical Engineer in 1896. After 1905 the C.E. and M.E. degrees were changed to the degrees of bachelor of science in civil engineering and in mechanical engineering, and a new degree of bachelor of science in electrical engineering was added. The Master of Science degree was first awarded in 1905 to Warren A. Clough 1904 and George B. Obear. With the establishment of the School of Education in 1916, the degree of Bachelor of Education was introduced. Requirements for the degree were two years of work, which would include a courses in the following subjects English, science or mathematics, literature, history, one of the social studies, philosophy, and education. A limited number of extension courses could be presented for credit. The degree of Bachelor of Education was discontinued in 1929, with the provision that the degree would be awarded to candidates already enrolled. For a short time in the 1920s Brown awarded a Master of Business Administration degree. Two students earned their M.B.A. degree in 1923, one in 1924, and two in 1925, after which the degree was discontinued. Degrees with distinction were awarded for the first time in June of 1925, when 27 bachelors’ degrees cum laude, eighteen magna cum laude, and five summa cum laude, conferred honor upon fifteen per cent of the graduating class. This practice was later discontinued. The Master of Arts in Teaching degree was introduced in 1957. Three degrees of Doctor of Arts in Creative Writing were awarded under an experimental program in 1975. The Master of Fine Arts degree has been conferred since 1990.
The degrees conferred by the University from its beginning are summarized in a recent Catalogue, “As of May 1991, there were enrolled the names of 78,056 graduates, both men and women. Of this number 61,152 had received the Bachelor’s degree; 14,293 had received advanced degrees; 1,246 had received the degree of Doctor of Medicine; 1,382 had received honorary degrees.”