Let's start out by defining the term "Degree" as it is used in Wicca. Used in the manner in which it was envisioned when Wicca began, a Degree is a recognition by one's peers that a person has mastered a specific body of knowledge, that they have demonstrated ritual competence, and that they have demonstrated through the way that they live and through service to their community that they have attained a certain point in their spiritual journey that the group feels deserving of recognition.
When Wicca was created by Gerald Gardner, this definition of Wicca was used carefully to create, not a hierarchy where one is better than another, but rather a system where one could be able to know what to expect in terms of knowledge and competence in practice of anyone practicing Wicca by simply knowing what their Degree was. And in the Gardnerian Tradition, since all groups granted Degrees based on the same system, that was true then, and holds true pretty much today. In other words, if I meet someone who can legitimately claim to be a 2nd Degree Gardnerian, I would pretty well know what I could expect from them in a ritual setting.
One problem that has arisen since Wicca has strayed so far from its original roots, is that the Degree system has suffered from both a lack of understanding and from a watering down of what is expected of the Initiate earning the Degree.
In the Tradition in which I was trained, and in which I led my own coven, Degrees are always 'earned' through hard work and study..and through showing in the way one lives ones life that you have come to be deserving of recognition by your peers. You might like to take a look at the Student Program of our group on our website at http://www.tangledmoon.org/student_program.htm
On the other hand, there are groups out there who hand out Degrees based on how long someone has been in the group, on reading a book, even on who one is sleeping with. I remember one young man who came to us and felt that, based on his former group, he should be considered the same as one of our Third Degrees. But his program consisted solely of reading some books and taking a quiz on what he had read. He never had to actually 'DO' anything. He was not happy when we told him that we could not see that his Degree and our Degree were identical.
But this is why there is so much confusion over Degrees in the Wiccan community these days. There is no common standard by which to know how a Degree was earned or what it says about the person who claims it. And with the loss of value of a Degree, there has come the question as to whether a Degree system is merely a way of creating a hierarchy in which some are considered better than others. I can tell you in my group that having a Degree is NOT a case of being a better person or a better Witch than anyone else. What it does mean is that the person has shown the ability to do more work..and therefore we'll give them more work to do.
Because the Degree system is not clearly understood, and not well explained in most books that those just starting out on this path are apt to read, those who practice outside the coven setting often get confused about it. They feel that they either deserve a Degree through their own practice, or they feel that they won't be considered a 'real' Witch unless they have a Degree.
Neither of these concepts is valid. Taking the latter idea first...having a Degree does not make one a Witch, nor does it make one better than another just because you have a higher Degree. One receives a Degree (if done rightly) because you were showing that you were already deserving of recognition, because you were already living as our spiritual path teaches.
Secondly, if you are practicing as a solitary then Degrees are meaningless. As I have already described, a Degree represents recognition by ones peers of the mastery of a certain body of knowledge, generally that which is passed down in a particular Tradition. And a Degree is granted, not based on one's feeling that one should be given one, but based on the consideration of others of that Degree of higher. Face it, our egos often tell us that we are deserving of things that we are not. To grant oneself a Degree is to exhibit the crime of deluding oneself, of hubris.
Now some do this self-granting of Degrees out of lack of knowledge. But we also have those in the Wiccan community who do so in order to gain power, prestige, and followers. They do so in order to gain something for themselves, not to give back to the community. And those of us who do have Degrees which we worked hard to earn are on the lookout for the frauds. Not just because they are fakes, but because through their claims they cause harm to others. So if you encounter someone who claims a Degree, but whom you have some doubts about, it is never wrong to ask for credentials which can be verified. If they refuse, well then I personally would have nothing more to do with them
The fact that you have the same kind knowledge of as a 1st Degree in a particular group does not confer any title or rank upon you at all. It is merely a statement that you are doing the same sort of things that their students do. But to try to claim that that means you can claim a degree for yourself would be the same thing as saying to a high school drop-out that they have learned the same thing as one who stays in school and can call yourself a graduate. That may well be true, but you aren't a high school graduate until you are tested by the administration and granted that degree. And you can't go to the admissions office at a college and claim to be a graduate based on self study..you have to have that piece of paper in hand. That's how a degree system works. The degree must be conferred by a coven or it is an empty claim.