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What is the Most Valuable Piece of Paper?

How long does it take to make a piece of paper? Well, in 2011, the world's largest, fastest woodfree-producing paper machine was started-up at the Zhanjiang Chenming mill in China. In November 2012, the recorded speed on the Valmet machine was 1,808 m/min. That's FAST!
But at this time of year, we're likely to be thinking of a certain piece of paper that takes most people at least FOUR YEARS to make, but which may be the single most valuable piece of paper they ever own: a diploma.

A bit of history
According to the Graduation Source blog (www.graduationsource.com/blog/graduation-diploma-history) a lot has changed since the concept of the diploma was first developed. Diplomas didn't always have the prestigious, decorated look they do now, and they have a long history. The word "diploma" for graduation originated in the mid 17th century. Specifically, diploma means "double folded paper" in Greek Latin. By definition, educational institutions give a diploma certifying completion of a course of study.

Unlike the cap and gown, awarding a diploma to a graduate began in the United States. The tradition of awarding graduates a diploma originated at Harvard College in Cambridge, MA. Harvard's first commencement took place on September 23rd, 1642. The nine graduates received "a Book of Arts" to represent their achievement. After the ceremony, the school took back each book. It wasn't until 1813 that Harvard College graduates received a uniformly sized, textually common diploma they could keep.

According to the blog post, original diplomas were made of thin sheepskin because early paper-making was such an arduous process. The school's president and other officials signed the diplomas, which were written entirely in Latin. Older diplomas before the 1800s were all different shapes and sizes. Before the time of printed diplomas, if a graduate needed proof of having a Harvard degree (typically for traveling overseas), it was not easy! First, schools needed to hire a calligrapher to write up the necessary Latin inscription on parchment (animal skin) paper. The graduate would then need to pay the Harvard president for his signature. The first known graduate to have a diploma made was James Ward, who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1645. Twenty-nine of those original diplomas still exist today, all featuring Latin text.

The first woman to receive a diploma was Catherine Elizabeth Brewer Benson from Wesleyan College (formally known as Georgia Female College) in 1840. However, she wasn't the only one. There were eleven other women in her graduating class. With an alphabetical advantage, she was technically first. She may have been the first woman to get a diploma, but not the first to get a degree. Mississippi College granted the first degree to a woman (Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall in December 1831).

Until the 1900s, diplomas were rolled up and tied with a ribbon. The reason? According to the Graduation Source blog, sheepskin can be rolled and unrolled countless times without breaking (though sheepskin diplomas are not easy to frame as paper parchment.) Because traveling scholars used to carry the diploma with them as proof of their education, parchment diplomas have proven to be quite resilient. Many colleges still practice the tradition of handing out rolled up "symbolic" diplomas at graduation ceremonies. If the school does provide a rolled up document, it is often only a representation of completing that level of education. Typically, the actual diploma will be provided with a leatherette binder or diploma cover to protect the document. These days, graduates will likely preserve or store their diplomas instead of traveling with them. For this reason, strong parchment is no longer necessary. Diplomas are now usually made with high-quality paper or "synthetic parchment" (paper bathed in oil) to give that old-fashioned, sheepskin appearance.

Expensive—but Valuable
In an article for the Career Outlook blog of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ("Measuring the value of education," April 2018) economist Elka Torpey writes that "BLS data consistently show that, in terms of dollars, education makes sense.

"The more you learn, the more you earn. Median weekly earnings in 2017 for those with the highest levels of educational attainment—doctoral and professional degrees—were more than triple those with the lowest level, less than a high school diploma. And workers with at least a bachelor's degree earned more than the $907 median weekly earnings for all workers."

Of course, individual experiences will differ; a lot depends on what field of study and what level of degree that piece of paper represents. It's also true that it may be the most expensive piece of paper most people will ever own: collegedata.com reports that, in its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board estimated that a moderate US college budget for an in-state public college for the 2017–2018 academic year averaged US$25,290. A moderately priced private college averaged US$50,900. For a 4-year degree, those costs add up to US$101,160 for the former, and US$203,600 for the latter. That's a hefty sum for one sheet of parchment!

Considering it's graduation season, Ahead of the Curve would like to congratulate the "Class of 2019"—from kindergarten on up through Doctorate level. And we have one more suggestion to make that diploma paper even more valuable: use it as a stepping-stone to a rewarding career in the pulp, paper, or packaging industry!

For a modest investment of $174, receive more than US$ 1000 in benefits in return.
Visit www.tappi.org/join for more details.