A guide to the different types of college degrees

Whether you’re picturing line graphs, lectures or lab coats in your future career, a college degree can help get you there. But which type of college degree? And will you need to earn more than one?

Paying for college is a big decision, so it helps to know what each type of college degree entails. Read on to learn about the four types of college degrees.

Key takeaways

  • There are four main types of academic degrees: associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
  • Earning a degree may lead to more job positions and a higher salary. But it’s worth comparing the potential opportunities in your field to the cost of tuition and time spent for the degree.
  • Different career paths call for varying types of degrees, so it helps to consider your personal goals. Talking with a college adviser may also help.

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Associate degree

Associate degrees teach skills that can be quickly transferred to the workforce or a training program. Some students with associate degrees may go on to earn their bachelor’s degree. Community colleges and technical schools tend to offer associate degrees, as well as some universities.

To earn an associate degree, students often must have a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate. They also will have met GPA requirements or been otherwise accepted into the college.

Average length of time to earn: 2 years

Number of credits required: 60 credit hours

Associate degree types

There are several different types of associate degrees, including:

  • Associate of Arts (A.A.)
  • Associate of Science (A.S.)
  • Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.)
  • Associate of General Studies (A.G.S.)
  • Associate of Business Administration (A.B.A.)
  • Associate Degree in Nursing (A.D.N.)

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree typically combines general studies—like history, science and math—with a specific area of focus—called a major. The National Center for Education Statistics says business, health, social sciences and history are the most common fields of study for bachelor’s degree students.

To apply for a university—and earn a bachelor’s degree—students may need a high school diploma or GED certificate, standardized testing scores like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT), letters of recommendation and a personal essay.

Earning a bachelor’s degree can open doors to more job opportunities and higher pay. But it’s also worth considering the cost of college tuition and whether it aligns with your career goals.

Average length of time to earn: 4 years

Number of credits required: 120 credit hours

Bachelor’s degree types

Common types of bachelor’s degrees are:

  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
  • Bachelor of Science (B.S.)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.)
  • Bachelor of Health Science (B.H.S.)

Master’s degree

Master’s degrees are a type of graduate degree that typically builds on what students learned during their bachelor’s degree for a specific topic. Requirements to apply for graduate school might include earning a bachelor’s degree in the same field or taking relevant undergraduate courses, taking an entrance exam like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and letters of recommendation.

Having a master’s degree may lead to a higher salary in certain fields than only having a bachelor’s degree. Researching the potential income you could earn with a master’s and comparing it to the cost of graduate school can help you decide if it’s worth the investment. It’s also possible to find graduate school scholarships.

Average length of time to earn: 2 years

Number of credits required: 30 credit hours

Master’s degree types

A few types of master’s degrees include:

  • Master of Arts (M.A.)
  • Master of Science (M.S.)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Information Systems Management (M.I.S.)
  • Master of Social Work (M.S.W.)
  • Master of Health Science (M.H.S.)

Doctoral degree

A doctoral degree is the highest educational level a student can reach. Some doctoral degrees are research-focused and may lead to a career in research or academia. A common type of this degree is called a Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D.

Other doctoral degrees are applied for a specific field, like a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.). Also called professional degrees, they’re required in order for people like doctors, lawyers and architects to practice.

To apply for a medical or law degree program, students may need to take an exam like the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The time it takes to complete a doctorate can depend on the area of study and may include passing a licensure exam. Ph.D. students also typically complete a dissertation.

Average length of time to earn: 4-8 years

Number of credits required: 58-120 credit hours

Doctoral degree types

Doctoral degrees may be considered academic—research-based—or professional—skills-based—and include:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.)

FAQ about types of college degrees

Still got questions about the types of degrees available and which one’s right for you? The FAQ below might help spell it out.

A bachelor’s degree is also referred to as a four-year degree—although the length of time may vary depending on the student’s course load. The first two years of a bachelor’s are often spent taking general education classes. The next two years typically home in on a specific study or major.

The highest degree a student can attain is a doctoral degree. Some—but not all—doctoral programs require students to have already earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Certain careers can only be achieved with a doctorate, while other professionals may simply want the prestige and expertise that come with a doctorate.

When you think of certain professionals with extensive applied education and licensing—like doctors and lawyers—they likely have a professional degree. While many professional degrees are a form of a doctoral degree, they include hands-on practice in the field and a minimum of six years of college work. On the other hand, a doctoral degree like a Ph.D. teaches students to make contributions in a certain field through academic research.

When deciding which degrees to pursue—and how much time and money you’ll invest—it helps to start by naming your career goals. You might ask yourself, “What are my interests? Where do I see myself in five, 10 and 20 years?”

With a job or industry in mind, you can research which type of degree is needed. A degree can come with a hefty time commitment and price tag, so it’s worth comparing that investment to what you could gain in the workforce.

Meeting with a college adviser could also help in choosing a career path and understanding which degrees will help you get there.

Types of college degrees in a nutshell

Each level of college education may lead to more career opportunities and higher pay. But college is a big investment of time and money, so it helps to know which degrees you’ll need to get where you want to go.

Ready to apply for a school or university? Check out how financial aid works. And while you’re in school, you might qualify for these student discounts.

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