Types of College Degrees

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Learn About the Different Types of College Degrees

With all of the different levels and types of college degrees there are to choose from, it’s no surprise that you may be wondering, “Which degree is right for me?”

The best way to answer that is for you to consider a series of short questions: 1. How much education have you completed so far? 2. Is there a specific degree(s) that your ideal career requires? 3. How long are you willing to stay in school? 4. How much tuition are you willing to pay outright or through student loans?

The most important question in that list, and the one that will greatly affect how you think about the others, is the second question – Is there a specific degree(s) that your ideal career requires? Most jobs and careers that pay more than minimum wage require a specific college certificate or degree and professional experience or training.

Doctors, for example, are required to have an MD or DO medical degree and need to complete multiple years of rotations and residencies before they can practice medicine on their own. Certain business jobs and careers require a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) Degree for consideration. In fact, an MBA is quickly becoming the new norm for companies that are hiring management-level employees. Then, of course, there are many different trade careers that require a certificate or associate degree for consideration.

As you can see, each type of certificate, licensure, and college degree will open doors to different job opportunities and career paths. Use the list of college degrees below to determine which degree type is right for you.

A Comprehensive List of College Degrees

Certificates and Licenses

In some fields, professional certification and licensing are synonymous, in others they are not. Before choosing one or the other you’ll want to thoroughly research the career you are interested in, and more specifically, the career you are interested in within the region you plan on working. Most U.S. states and regions have their own governing organization that determines the required credentials and training for that area. The best way to determine what is required is to contact the local regulatory agency for your field and/or professional association (i.e. California Board of Nursing, Colorado Psychology Examiners, etc.).

Unlike degrees which typically include a general education component, certificates and licenses are designed to help you develop a specific skill set that will prepare you for a particular job or to perform a specific function. Certificates and licenses typically take one to two years to complete. They can be earned at community colleges and technical and vocational schools. Several four-year colleges also offer certificate programs.

Undergraduate Degrees

Simply put, undergraduate degrees are what you can earn after you attain a high school diploma or GED and before you start a master’s or doctoral degree. Undergraduate degrees are sometimes referred to as post-secondary degrees. Courses in the undergraduate degree level incorporate general education learning material as well as curricula from elective, pre-requisite, and core classes.

General education courses are required if you are pursuing an undergraduate degree, regardless of your chosen field of study. General education courses may include subjects related to math, history, art, science, and English.

Pre-requisites and core courses will often be specific to the field of study that you choose to pursue. For example, a psychology program may require certain prerequisite courses to be taken before you are able to apply for entrance into the program. Once admitted into the psychology program, you can then take core classes in behavioral science, adolescent psychology, psychology research and statistics, abnormal psychology, counseling, neuroscience, and more. Some programs require a declaration rather than admission and thus the courses in that program are open to anyone who has declared that to be their major or minor; sometimes these courses have no enrollment restrictions and are open to anyone who has interest in the course.

Types of Undergraduate Degrees

There are two general types of undergraduate degrees: Associate Degrees and Bachelor’s Degrees. Associate Degrees earned at a community college with the intent of transferring to an accredited four-year institutions are sometimes referred to Transfer Degrees.

Transfer Degrees

If you plan on completing your first two years of college at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college or university, you’ll want to enroll in a program that allows you to earn one of the transfer degrees listed below.

You’ll also want to make sure that the institution where you earn your degree is regionally accredited and that the credits will transfer to the four-year college that you want to attend. A majority of four-year colleges and universities are regionally accredited and will only accept transfer credits earned at community colleges that are also regionally accredited.

The associate degrees listed above, when earned from an accredited institution, generally will fulfill general education requirements as well as many of the introductory course requirements for whatever major you intend to pursue at a four-year college. When considering attending a community college or any 2-year undergraduate program, discuss your choices with a college advisor at your current school or an enrollment office at the four-year college you plan to attend down the road.

Associate Degrees

Associate degrees are undergraduate degrees that typically take 2 years to complete. They’re offered at community colleges, vocational colleges, technical schools and some four-year colleges also offer associate degrees. Credits earned through an associate degree program often cost less than those earned at a four-year college and are usually transferable to a four-year college if earned at a community college or vocational school that is regionally accredited.

The most traditional associate degrees are the Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS), but there are also several other types of associate degrees, including the Associate of Applied Science (AAS), which is designed to prepare students for a particular career path. Most traditional programs consist of three parts: general education requirements, major requirements, and electives.

Bachelor’s Degrees

A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree offered at a four-year college or university. Bachelor’s degrees typically take 4-5 years to complete. Bachelor’s degrees are the most commonly sought undergraduate degrees as they are the degree of choice among employers looking to fill entry-level positions and are required for entry into most graduate programs.

The bachelor’s degree requires that you complete several general education core courses, such as English, math, science, humanities, communications, and social sciences. If you are entering a bachelor’s degree program, having already completed an associate degree, you may be exempt from taking several, if not all, of the required general education courses. At some point during the course of your bachelor’s degree, you will also be required to select a “major”, which is a subject or field of academic study and focus.

There are several different types of bachelor’s degrees, the two primary being the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS). BA degrees typically focus in the humanities and social science fields. BS degrees usually focus on scientific and technical fields. Other bachelor’s degrees include the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), to name just a couple.

Not only is the bachelor’s degree the degree of choice among employers looking to fill entry-level positions but students who want to pursue a graduate or professional degree must first earn a bachelor’s degree. Graduate degrees, including master’s degrees and doctoral degrees (i.e. PhD, PsyD, M.Ed., etc.) are now required for entry into an increasing number of career fields, including psychology, medicine, law, and education.

Graduate Degrees

Graduate degrees are advanced programs of academic and professional study that focus on a particular discipline or profession (e.g. healthcare and medicine, psychology, business, etc.) In the past, graduate programs were primarily “academic” in nature (research and education oriented). Today most are “professional” (skills development and knowledge application oriented) or are a combination of professional and academic. Graduate degrees can take anywhere from 2-6 years to complete.

How is a Graduate Degree Different from an Undergraduate Degree?

In relation to an undergraduate degree, graduate degrees are much more focused on a particular discipline and offer a field-intense education. In addition, there is a much higher expectation regarding the quantity and quality of students’ academic work. Other distinguishing characteristics of graduate programs include:

  • Fast paced and demanding
  • Studies focused around core discipline with few electives
  • Higher standard of required work and performance
  • Smaller class size with more interaction between students and teachers
  • More hands-on and clinical experience
  • Real-world application of classroom instruction
  • Work experience via teaching, internships, fellowships, or research
  • Original work and research often required
  • Higher level of competition between students

Types of Graduate Degrees

There are two general categories of graduate-level degrees: master’s and doctoral. Each is addressed in detail below.

Master’s Degrees

A master’s degree is a post-secondary or graduate degree that is often pursued following a bachelor’s degree. Even though a master’s degree is much more rigorous and demanding than a bachelor’s degree, it can usually be completed in just two years of full-time study. The majority of master’s degrees involve intricate analysis and/or extensive research.

Common Reasons to Pursue a Master’s Degree
  • meet job requirements
  • better qualify for career advancement opportunities
  • further knowledge and skill sets
  • set themselves apart from other professionals
  • increase earning potential
Most Common Master’s Degrees

Specialist Degrees

A specialist degree is a type of professional degree that is typically earned in addition to a master’s degree. It is designed to provide working professionals with an additional certification to fulfill licensing requirements (e.g. Ed.S. for a school principal). These programs require additional coursework, training, and/or internship experience.

Doctorate Degrees

A doctoral degree is an advanced graduate degree that typically follows a bachelor’s or master’s degree. In many fields, a doctoral degree is considered a “terminal degree”, the highest academic degree in a given field of study. Unlike bachelor’s and master’s degrees that can be completed on a part-time basis, doctoral degrees are work-intensive and usually require full-time attention (i.e. 40 to 60 hours a week of studying). Most doctoral degrees are research-oriented and are earned under the supervision and tutelage of a professor.

While historically doctorate degrees were primarily research-oriented and designed to prepare students for careers in research and teaching, they are now required for entry into several professional fields (e.g. psychology, education, medicine, etc.) and many professionals now pursue these degrees in an effort to increase their career advancement opportunities and pay.

Depending on the field of study, a doctoral degree can take anywhere from 2-5 years to complete, sometimes longer.
Types of Doctorate Degrees

  • Professional Doctorates – The professional doctorate, as the name suggests, is a professionally oriented doctorate degree that focuses on a particular profession. These programs typically emphasize skill development and knowledge acquisition. An example of a professional doctorate is the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).
  • Research Doctorates – These doctorate degrees are research oriented doctorates that focus almost exclusively on academic research. Common research doctorates include Ph.D. and Doctor of Philosophy.
  • Higher Doctorates – A higher doctorate is a tiered research degree. While not as common in the United States, these degrees are awarded in several countries including France, Great Britain, and Ireland.
  • Honorary Doctorates – An honorary doctorate is degree in which the usual requirements have been waived. This degree is typically awarded as a way of honoring or recognizing an individual’s contributions in a specific field, or to society in general. Honorary doctorates are not awarded by all universities that award doctorate degrees.

Professional Degrees

A professional degree professional degree is a doctorate-level degree that is required as a prerequisite to working in a particular career field. The most popular fields requiring professional degrees are medicine and law.

Professional degree programs are typically offered via specialized schools of study that concentrate in a particular area of expertise (e.g. law, medicine, psychology, engineering, business, etc.) Most professional degree programs require a bachelor’s degree, at a minimum, as a condition for application and acceptance. All classes, coursework, internships, residencies within these programs focus on the specific field of study. These degrees are sometimes referred to as “First Professional Degrees”.