Common Types of College Degrees & How to Choose Among Them

There are many different types of college degrees to choose from. This guide walks you through the most common and their entry requirements.

Each decade, the number of Americans with a college degree continues to rise. The latest census shows that 36% of Americans over 25 have a college degree, rising from 29.9% in 2010.

If you’re considering a degree, it can sound like a foreign language.

There are associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and more – What does it all mean?

We’re going to clear up the confusion.

Come with us on a guided tour of the types of college degrees, so you can see which one will help you achieve your goals. 

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Types of College Degrees

The different types of degrees in college do not all serve the same purpose. Some teach a specific skill set, while others provide foundation knowledge on which further degrees will build.

In the United States, there are five different types of college degrees. These are:

  • Associate Degree 
  • Bachelor’s Degree
  • Master’s Degree
  • Doctorate Degree
  • Professional Degree

Each type of degree has specific entry requirements and a specific purpose.

Associate Degree

An associate degree is a two-year degree when you study full-time. Depending on the program you choose, you will complete 60 credit hours or more. You can obtain the following types of associate degrees:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
  • Associate in (Field of Study) e.g., Computer Technology (ACT)

Why Study for an Associate Degree?

Associate degrees are typically offered by community colleges. Some universities now offer them as well. There are several reasons why people choose community colleges over universities.

They are usually much less expensive than studying at a university. They also provide greater flexibility around work and family responsibilities.

Many community colleges also have transfer agreements with universities. You can put the credits earned for your associate degree toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Research shows that adults with an associate degree typically earn more over their lifetime than those with some college education, but no degree. 

Entry Requirements

An associate degree is an undergraduate course, meaning it is at the next level up from a high school diploma. However, entry requirements for associate degrees are usually not as high as for bachelor’s degrees. This can make them a great option if you did not achieve the highest grades or completed vocational education.

Talk to your local community college about the entry requirements. 

Careers with an Associate Degree

While many people go on to study for a bachelor’s degree after an associate degree, it still opens many doors in its own right. These include air traffic controllers, computer programmers, and radiation therapists. 

Discuss your goals with a career advisor. They will help you to find the most suitable associate degree for your aspirations.

Related Read: How to Make Money in College (25 Ways to Earn Money as a Student)

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is one of the most common types of college degrees. To complete a bachelor’s degree, you will need to obtain 120 credit hours. This is usually completed in four years. As we’ve seen, the first two years may be spent completing an associate’s degree.

Bachelor’s degrees are mainly offered by universities, although a few community colleges now offer them as well. The most common designations are:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

Why Study for a Bachelor’s Degree?

The purpose of a bachelor’s degree is to give you a good general education, as well as the specific skills needed for a particular career. Typically the first two years comprise general education, such as math, English, computer science, and history.

For the final two years at college or university, you will study your major or area of specialization. For most bachelor’s degrees, around 30-36 credits are in your major. 

For many professions, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum entry requirement. 

This includes:

  • Teaching
  • Engineering 
  • Middle management

A bachelor’s degree is also a requirement for entry to post-graduate training programs. This includes master’s degree and doctorate programs. To enter law school or med school, you will need a bachelor’s degree in a related subject.

A bachelor’s degree can open the door to a range of career and professional opportunities. But if you have a specific career in mind, research the educational requirements first. This will ensure that you choose the right program to achieve your goals.

Entry Requirements

All colleges set entry requirements for bachelor’s degree programs along roughly the same lines. They will look at the following:

  • High school diploma
  • Minimum high school GPA
  • Minimum SAT or ACT score

Some colleges will also consider application essays and recommendations from teachers. Credits gained from associate degrees or high school credits may also be taken into consideration.

Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree typically leads to higher lifetime earnings. Bachelor’s degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) lead to the most lucrative careers.

This diploma is also a route into nursing, a field with increasing job opportunities. It also offers a route into more lucrative areas such as specialization and management.

Related Read: 10+ Best College Tips & Advice to Improve Your University Experience

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is the next level after a bachelor’s degree. You gain it with an additional 30 or more credit hours. This usually takes two years of full-time study.

The most common designations are:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Depending on the graduate school, different modes of assessment will be used. Some will require the completion of a thesis or final project to complete the course.

Why Study for a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree allows you to gain a more in-depth knowledge of your chosen field. It may set you apart from other colleagues in the field and allow you to make quicker progress in your career. 

Some take the opportunity to move to a new field for their master’s degree. You may be looking to take your career in a different direction or keep your options open for the future. 

Ultimately, a master’s degree may increase your earning potential. The problem-solving and research analysis skills you develop through the program will make you more of an asset to employers.

It also gives you an opportunity to build relationships with your fellow students. They will form part of your professional network in the future.

Entry Requirements

Requirements may vary slightly from college to college. As a guide, most require:

  • Bachelor’s degree in relevant subject
  • GPA of 3.5 or higher
  • GRE score of 330 or higher
  • Personal Statement of Purpose
  • Recommendation letters

Entry into master’s degree programs may be highly competitive. Other specialist disciplines such as law and medical sciences have their own tests, such as LSATs and MCATs.

Careers with a Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees in business and healthcare administration lead to some of the most lucrative careers. Greater opportunities in engineering, computer science, and the medical field also open up with a master’s degree.

Related Read: 7 Important Questions to Ask College Admissions Before Making a Choice

Doctorate Degree

A doctorate or Ph.D. is the highest level of academic attainment. It represents the culmination of years of academic study. On average, it takes six years to complete, and almost half of Ph.D. students drop out without completing their degree.

Why Study for a Doctorate Degree?

Professionals with a Ph.D. earn more than their less qualified colleagues. However, the main reason for completing a doctorate degree is because of a very keen interest in the subject.

A doctorate degree requires that students complete their own research in a highly specialized area of study. You will publish the results of your research and have the opportunity to make a contribution to your chosen field. 

Entry Requirements

Most Ph.D. programs require a master’s degree as an entry requirement. However, some colleges may allow you to skip the master’s degree and go straight from a bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D.

Careers with a Doctorate Degree

A doctorate degree makes you a highly qualified specialist. Your skills will be in demand by employers looking to fill high-level, research-focused posts. If you prefer to work for yourself, consultancy and writing may be suitable career choices.

Related Read: 10+ Types of Colleges and the Admission Requirements by College Type

Professional Degree

Professional degrees are for people looking to work as doctors and lawyers. Once you have completed your bachelor’s degree, you can specialize by going to medical school or law school.

Why Study for a Professional Degree?

All prospective attorneys need to earn a Juris Doctor (JD). This usually takes three years, after which they will need to pass the bar exam in their state to practice.

Medical degrees allow you to specialize. At medical school, you can study to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or specialize in other areas, such as dentistry as a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

Medical degrees also require a residency program after graduation.

Entry Requirements

To study the Juris Doctor program, you will need to achieve a minimum score on the LSAT. A bachelor’s degree in any subject and a minimum GPA are also essential.

To enter a medical school program, you will need a minimum MCAT score. In addition, you will need an undergraduate degree in a related science subject and a minimum GPA of 3.0.

Careers with a Professional Degree

If you would like a career as a lawyer or doctor, professional degrees are your only route. They provide thorough academic and professional training so that you will be equipped for the rigors of the job.

Related Read: How to Write an Email to a Professor (5+ Tips for Starting, Ending & Body)

Are You Ready to Take the Plunge?

This guide to the types of college degrees shows that there is something for everyone.

Whatever field you want to specialize in, there is a program to equip you with the knowledge and skills you need. With time and dedication, it is possible to achieve your academic goals.

At Goodwall, we provide advice and support to help you make the right decisions about your education. Our platform provides a space to ask questions, float ideas, and gain insight from like-minded people

Join us today if you haven’t already, or keep browsing our blog’s educational articles for more insight!

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Goodwall Team
Written By Goodwall Team
This article was written by the Goodwall team or by a contributor for publication on Goodwall. Goodwall is dedicated to helping students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals reach their full potential. We'll share thought-provoking and supportive articles on career advice, self-improvement, navigating the college landscape, climate action, social impact, and more. On the business side, we'll talk about SMB subjects related to community, diversity, talent acquisition, case studies, and enterprise.

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