A guide to the different types of university degrees



Students pursuing graduate studies have a world of options to choose from, ranging from credentials such as badges and certificates to a range of college degree levels.

Whatever path students choose, experts see the need for professional training.

“I think we’re in a time where some sort of educational foundation is needed,” says Kia Hardy, council dean and campus dean of Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

While not all jobs require a degree, a college degree is a must for others. Some professions require additional academic pursuits, requiring multiple degrees in the field. Alternatively, college certificate programs also offer students a chance to learn a skill set. And some certificates are designed to be built, with those credits applicable to a possible degree, notes Hardy.

“There are many different goals behind a degree,” says Frank J. Dooley, professor and senior vice-president for teaching and learning at Purdue University – West Lafayette, Indiana, adding that for some adult learners, it may mean acquiring references “so that they can move forward in their work.”

The guide below provides an overview of college programs in order from lowest to highest.

Associate degree

An associate degree is often an Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS). A degree earned through a professional program is often referred to as an Associate of Applied Science, or AAS, although sometimes the name reflects the specific field of study, such as Associate of Engineering.

An associate’s degree is designed to take a full-time student two years, requiring 60 credit hours or more, depending on the program. Associate degrees are typically offered at community colleges and some universities. After finishing, graduates often enter the workforce or pursue a bachelor’s degree, says Hardy, noting that most community college degrees are designed to transfer to four-year schools.

“There are students who have been admitted to a four-year college or university, but due to the cost that they may not be able to attend, it may not be financially possible for their families,” explains Hardy. Tuition fees at community colleges are generally cheaper than at universities, which makes the transfer option attractive, she adds.

[See: 25 Highest-Paying Associate Degree Jobs.]

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the US Department of Education, 50% of Americans aged 25 to 29 had an associate’s degree or higher by 2020. Those with an associate’s degree earn nearly $ 200,000 more than a 40-year career compared to those with a college education but no diploma, according to research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Broken down at a more granular level, working Americans aged 25 and over with an associate’s degree earned a median weekly income of $ 938 in 2020, compared with $ 781 for those with just an associate degree. high school and no college, according to figures from the United States Bureau of Labor. Statistics.

In addition to a degree such as an associate’s degree, there may also be licensing requirements to work in certain fields, which may mean additional exams for certification. These requirements tend to vary by state and profession rather than by level of education.


A bachelor’s degree requires a minimum of 120 credit hours, which equates to the expected four years for a full-time student, although this length may vary by program. Bachelor degrees can be obtained at four-year institutions and a small number of community colleges that have added bachelor’s programs in recent years.

Schools offer Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and other specialty designations.

“The value of a bachelor’s degree in terms of lifetime earnings is pretty significant,” says Daniel S. Feetham, director of undergraduate academic affairs and advisor at the University of Washington.

[See: 10 College Majors With the Highest Starting Salaries.]

According to the NCES, 39% of Americans aged 25 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2020, which represents nearly $ 2.3 million in median lifetime earnings, according to the Georgetown IA. By comparison, those with a bachelor’s degree earned almost $ 1 million more cumulatively than those with only a high school diploma.

Master’s degree

A master’s degree follows a bachelor’s degree for many people who are pursuing their post-secondary education.

The credit hours required for a master’s degree may vary depending on the graduate program. Typically, it takes 30 or more credit hours, spread over an average of two years of full-time study, to earn a master’s degree. A final project or graduate thesis may also be required.

Common degrees include Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS) and Master of Business Administration (MBA).

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers tend to earn more the higher they graduate.

NCES data shows that only 9% of Americans aged 25 to 29 had a master’s degree or above in 2020. According to a Georgetown study, the average lifetime earnings of a master’s degree holder are almost 2, $ 7 million.


The doctorate is the highest traditional university degree. Obtaining a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) can be a long-term endeavor, ranging from three to 10 years of study. Doctoral candidates are also generally required to conduct research and write a thesis as part of their study programs. Doctoral programs often require a minimum of around 60 credit hours.

[Read: How Long Does It Take to Get a Ph.D. Degree — and Should You Get One?]

Doctorates are among the most difficult to obtain, with over 40% of students not completing their doctorate. programs within 10 years, according to a 2008 Council of Graduate Schools study.

For those who meet the rigorous requirements of a doctoral program, this can generate up to $ 3.3 million in lifetime income, according to Georgetown CEW research.

Professional diplomas

Apart from the doctorate, there are professional degree programs for future doctors and lawyers.

Prospective physicians attend medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or similar degree, such as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Others interested in medicine earn degrees specific to their fields, such as Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and similar endorsements in their fields of study.

Medical degrees typically last four years, plus a post-graduation residency program, which is specialized training for physicians. Residency programs tend to last from three to seven years, a number that varies depending on the specialty.

Prospective lawyers usually attend law school to obtain a Juris Doctor (JD). To practice, they must also pass the bar exam in that jurisdiction. Law degrees typically take three years of full-time study. Graduates generally must earn more than 83 credit hours for a law degree.

The Georgetown AI has found lifetime earnings of more than $ 3.6 million for those who graduate from work, noting that these are usually doctors and lawyers.

Decide on the right degree

College officials say computer science, information technology, and engineering are the most in-demand majors right now. They also note a strong market for skilled workers such as electricians, welders, and machinists, occupations that typically only require an associate’s degree or credentials. But finding the right person, they say, comes down to self-assessment.

“What do you really hope to get out of it?” asks Feetham. He urges students to think about the learning environment in which they are most successful and the opportunities that a degree will open to them.

Dooley says students should ask themselves where they want to be in two and five years. “The deadlines are really deliberate.”

If a student hopes to work in two years, an associate’s degree may be better suited, says Dooley. If he plans to continue his education in two years and start a career in five years, it is worth considering a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution. From there, students should assess their professional needs to determine what is required for career advancement.

“There’s really no downside to getting more education and training,” says Hardy.

While some may wonder if they can still get a good job without a college degree, experts say it depends. Even with many certificate programs available, many employers still expect a college degree, Feetham says. He adds that this can be a factor in automated hiring processes where applicants submitting information may be screened out due to the lack of certain credentials.

“Most employers use (a college degree) as a sorting tool,” says Feetham.

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