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What is a Baccalaureate Service?

By Devon Pryor
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A baccalaureate service is a traditional event associated with graduation services. Such events usually celebrate completion of higher education, such as a college or university program; however, high school graduations may also include a baccalaureate service. In most cases, the service consists of a series of speeches given to the graduating class, often by key students, faculty, or other important figures. Its origins stem from religious services in the 1400s, though modern events can be more secular in nature.

Common Procedures

Baccalaureate services usually consist of a series of speeches made to the graduating class. Key students and faculty members, such as the class valedictorian, the superintendent of a school district in the case of a public school, or a university regent or fellow frequently give these speeches. Other important and influential figures in the community may be asked to talk as well. Speeches may also be punctuated with other activities, such as musical performances.

Types of Guests

In the case where a graduating class receives specialized degrees, public figures who are well-respected within professions related to the field of study may be asked to make speeches. For example, it is common for a distinguished court justice to speak at the baccalaureate service for a class of graduating law students. It is also common for local community or religious leaders, or alumni who have gone on to great success, to speak at these services.

Setting for the Event

A baccalaureate service is usually held the evening before the graduation ceremony. In some cases the baccalaureate service may be held on the same day as the graduation ceremony, often right before it. In the case that the service directly precedes the graduation ceremony, organizers usually limit it to a certain amount of time, avoiding an excessively long event. The proceedings often take place in a hall or auditorium on the school campus, though outside venues can also be used.

History of These Services

This event is a traditional part of American graduation proceedings, though the baccalaureate service did not originate in the US. The service is thought to have first become a tradition at Oxford University in England, when the graduating bachelors of 1432 were asked to give religious sermons in Latin. This tradition of oration continued to be the crux of baccalaureate services as they became common in American universities. Over time, however, the original focus on religion that marked these speeches has diminished or expanded to inter-faith subjects.

Origin of the Name

There are different interpretations of the etymology of the name "baccalaureate service." According to some, bacca is said to come from "bachelor," and lauri is said to denote "oration." Another interpretation of the term "baccalaureate" points to the tradition of bestowing laurel plants upon those scholars who earned a bachelor's degree. In this case, the name is said to come from bacca or "berry," and laureates, or "crowned with branches of bay laurel leaves." In either case, there is a connection between speech giving, bestowing laurels, and bachelor’s degrees, and both interpretations may be legitimate.

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Discussion Comments

By anon948208 — On Apr 29, 2014

We hold a baccalaureate service for our high school seniors. Yes, we do congratulate them on their accomplishments so far, but the service is more about taking the time to gather around them as a community, to thank God for them, and to pray for them as they take whatever the next step will be in their lives. So the attention isn't on the students so much as it is on God.

By wiesen — On Jul 25, 2012

@DentalFloss: While graduating from high school may not seem as difficult as finishing college, it is important to remember that high school graduation is not just the culmination of three to four years of school. For many people, it is seen as the conclusion of 12 years of primary and secondary education (at least in the US). So, that is what is commonly being celebrated, not just the last four.

By DentalFloss — On Apr 17, 2011

These days even many high schools have baccalaureate services, which I think is strange. While a big accomplishment, I don't really think that graduating from high school deserves as much attention or recognition as graduating from college. For one thing, high school education is still required, at least to age 16, in most countries; for another, it is often way less difficult to accomplish.

By sapphire12 — On Apr 16, 2011

My college graduation was a weekend-long event, and to be honest now I do not remember which part was called the baccalaureate. I don't think it was the actually graduation part, even though that included speeches, but I might be wrong. There were so many different events and meetings during that weekend, it was really pretty complicated.

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