All college degrees can be grouped into these two broad categories:
- Undergraduate degrees
- Graduate degrees
On the other hand, college degrees according to level of study are the following:
- Associate degree
- Bachelor’s degree
- Master’s degree
- Doctoral degree
Both associate and bachelor’s degrees are considered undergraduate degrees. On the other hand, both master’s and doctoral degrees are considered graduate degrees.
Institutions of higher education classified as colleges offer undergraduate degree programs that lead to associate and bachelor’s degrees.
Meanwhile, those classified as universities offer both undergraduate degree programs and graduate degree programs that lead to master’s degrees and doctoral degrees.
Some colleges confer only associate degrees, while some universities confer only graduate degrees.
An associate degree is known by a couple of other names.
Some people may refer to an associate degree as a two-year degree because of the fact that it typically takes two years to complete an associate degree program. However, it’s on a case-to-case basis.
For instance, a student who is enrolled part-time may take longer to earn an associate degree than his or her peers who are enrolled full-time.
There are also accelerated associate degree programs that take only 12 to 18 months to complete, although not all schools that confer associate degrees offer these fast-track academic programs.
Meanwhile, other people may refer to an associate degree as a pre-bachelor’s degree given the fact that it allows students to check out various areas of study before working on a bachelor’s degree program.
In most instances, an associate degree is halfway through a bachelor’s degree.
Typically, an associate degree program requires students to complete 60 credits.
On the other hand, a bachelor’s degree program requires students to complete 120 credits.
After getting your hands on an associate degree, you may transfer to a four-year institution that will accept all 60 credits you have earned, thus requiring you to earn only 60 additional credits.
Speaking of which, the following are the types of schools where you can get an associate degree:
- Vocational schools
- Technical schools
- Junior colleges
- Community colleges
These days, some community colleges are allowed to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degree programs.
Most associate degree programs prepare students to enter the workforce right after graduation — without the need to take courses that do not align with one’s career goals, an associate degree makes getting a college degree affordable.
The median earnings of associate degree holders is $45,000.
Also referred to as a four-year degree, a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete.
However, it’s important to point out that, despite what it’s called, most undergraduate students take more than four years to earn their bachelor’s degree.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the six-year graduation rate for full-time undergraduate students back in 2020 was 64%.
Similar to some associate degree programs, there are also accelerated bachelor’s degree programs, which can take around three years or even less for degree-seeking students to complete.
Typically, a bachelor’s degree program requires students to complete 120 credits.
During the first two years, undergraduate students primarily take general education classes, which are designed to give students broad knowledge without concentrating on a specific area of study.
In most instances, it’s after taking all gen ed courses when undergrads are required to declare a major.
A particular discipline in which a student chooses to specialize — this is what a major is.
All bachelor’s degree program students are required to commit to a major, usually before they start their third year of college because it will provide structure to their respective programs as well as determine which major courses they have to take.
Meanwhile, a secondary specialization during one’s undergraduate studies is referred to as a minor.
At many colleges, students working on a bachelor’s degree are not required to have a minor.
Two of the most popular bachelor’s degrees are the following:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA)
- Bachelor of Science (BS)
The said undergraduate degrees cover all arts and sciences majors as well as some engineering degrees.
Some other common types of bachelor’s degrees include:
- Bachelor of Architecture (BArch)
- Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
- Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Many industries require a bachelor’s degree, which is the key to various entry-level jobs. Being a higher educational qualification than an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree paves the way for better career opportunities and higher earnings.
The median earnings of bachelor’s degree holders is $61,600.
A master’s degree is also known as a postgraduate degree.
Some people also refer to it as a two-year postgraduate degree given that it typically takes around two years to complete a master’s degree, although there are students who complete theirs faster or longer.
The single most important requirement to get into a master’s degree program is a bachelor’s degree.
Needless to say, it’s a must that you first get your hands on a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to graduate school and work on a master’s degree.
However, some colleges and universities offer the so-called accelerated master’s degree program.
Also sometimes referred to as a fast-track master’s degree program or combined bachelor’s/master’s degree program, it’s something that allows a student to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a single program.
In most instances, academic programs that result in a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree can be completed in five years instead of six years (four years in a bachelor’s degree program and two years in a master’s degree program).
This is why it’s not uncommon for them to be also called 4+1 degree programs.
Master’s degree programs can be categorized in the following based on the coursework:
- Master of Arts (MA)
- Master of Science (MS or MSc)
- Master of Studies (MSt)
- Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
- Master of Research (MRes)
Some master’s degrees are referred to as terminal degrees. That’s because they are the highest achievable degree in certain fields or disciplines.
It goes without saying that a master’s degree program in a particular area that results in a terminal degree has no doctorate degree that follows it.
A master’s degree program usually requires students to complete 30 to 40 credits. However, some programs may require students to complete up to 60 credits or sometimes even more.
Having a master’s degree under your belt allows you to qualify for supervisory or managerial as well as specialized roles in the workplace, the kind that allows you to take on leadership, training and hiring and staffing roles.
Many master’s degree holders are in areas such as research, academia, healthcare and social services.
The median earnings of master’s degree holders is $74,600.
A doctoral degree or doctorate degree is a terminal degree.
But unlike master’s degrees, where only some are considered terminal degrees, all doctoral degrees are terminal degrees — no other educational qualification is higher.
Some people may refer to a doctoral degree as a Ph.D.; others may call it a research doctorate.
However, it’s worth noting that while a PhD is a doctoral degree, not all doctoral degree programs result in a PhD.
And while some doctoral degrees are research-based, there are also applied doctorates.
The following are some popular examples of professional doctorates:
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Law or Juris Doctor (JD)
- Doctor of Medicine (MD)
- Doctor of Optometry (OD)
- Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
- Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM)
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
On the other hand, research or academic doctorate degrees are all about research, data analysis and the evaluation of theory instead of the procurement of practical skills that can be used in real-world scenarios that can prove beneficial for many professionals.
Usually, research doctorate degree programs culminate in a dissertation.
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Canon Law (JCD)
- Doctor of Design (DDes)
- Doctor of Modern Languages (DML)
- Doctor of Music Education (DME)
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
- Doctor of Theology (ThD)
Some doctoral degree programs require a master’s degree, while others find a bachelor’s degree enough.
Doctoral degree programs usually require students to complete 60 to 120 credits. They can be four to six years long, although the completion time can vary greatly based on the program’s design and subject area.
The median earnings of doctoral degree holders is $74,600.
Note: All median annual earnings for various college degrees are from the NCES.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.