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Extracting Genealogical Information from a Diploma

Extracting Genealogical Information from a Diploma

My Facebook feed is peppered with graduating students at this time of the year. In my extended family, we had two graduations from college in the last month. Aside from the special caps and gowns and all that goes with it, graduation means a diploma.

Diplomas are ephemeral. Sure, they should be kept safe like other important papers. Their seals, signatures, and artwork are an impressive addition to a wall, where some people hang them to show their credibility and achievement. Unfortunately,  when I consider my ancestors, I don't have one diploma that has made it into my genealogical files. That's not to say none of my ancestors graduated from school. Most of my 20th-century ancestors graduated from high school, but that final paper didn't seem to pass down in the family.

Diplomas are a record, though they are not the entire record, of a person's school life. They document the end of a study. Genealogical relevant information on a diploma includes:

  • Full Name
  • Date
  • Place

Although today graduations are held for preschoolers, kindergarteners, 6th graders, and middle school students, typically, when talking about our ancestors' graduation/diploma, we are referring to high school, college/university, or a trade school. General information found on a diploma may include (depending on school and time period):

  • Full Name
  • Date
  • School Name
  • Type of School (high school, college, for example)
  • School Location
  • Course of Study
  • Degree Conferred
  • Signatures of School Officials

The genealogical value of a diploma lies in the fact that it lists our ancestor's name, a date (which may indicate an approximate age depending on where they were graduating from), and a location. This situates an ancestor in time and place. It may not be perfect, the name could be incorrect, for example, but like most sources, it helps us pin down time and location.

But a diploma also provides us additional information to fill in the gaps of an ancestor's life. It might lead us to additional school records. Newspaper articles for names of graduates, school yearbooks, school newspapers, school census, and school records. That diploma may open up research questions such as:

  • What did that school look like when my ancestor was there?
  • What classes did my ancestor take?
  • What classes were required for that branch of study?
  • What clubs did they belong to?

Equally important to identifying what a diploma, or any record, tell us is considering what it does NOT tell us:

  • Where the student lived. They could have had a permanent residence different than the school's location.
  • How old was the student? 17? 18? 19? 20? Even if they were graduating from high school, there is no guarantee they were a certain age. Maybe they left school to join the war effort and graduated years later.
  • How long did they attend that school? They may have spent their whole school career there or less than a year.
  • What religion did they practice? If they went to a school sponsored by a religious institution, that doesn't mean they practiced that religion.
  • That they worked in that field. They may have received a diploma from a tech school or a graduate degree, but that doesn't mean they worked in that field.
  • That her maiden name is the one listed. We might assume that a high school diploma has a woman's maiden name, but there is no guarantee of that.

A diploma is a genealogical record that can lead to additional research questions and documents. Study and analyze it like any other record, as it can lead you to a fuller story of your ancestors' school days.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Although it’s more applicable at the undergraduate level, diplomas can also state whether any honors were conferred, such as cum laude. That should lead to further research possibly using university catalogs from the period in which the person attended school because I have found that each university handles honors differently such as cum laude being a certain percentage of the graduating class (top 10% for example) or being associated with having a grade point average at or above a certain level.

Excellent article and suggestions! Thank you!

Thanks for this reminder! I need to also make sure that my ancestors’ diplomas are stored in a manner that will preserve them.

I have also called a university and received a copy of a grandparent’s school records (he was born 1900, so not recent info). I’m sure that different school institutions have different policies about whether or not they can release that info, but it’s worth a try!

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