Unlocking the Gateway to Higher Education: What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

28/06/202325 minute read
Unlocking the Gateway to Higher Education: What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

Welcome to our comprehensive guide to bachelor's degrees! This blog post is a valuable resource you can use to navigate the complex world of bachelor's degrees. And, you’re going to see why getting a bachelor’s degree ranks among the most important life decisions. A bachelor's degree is the bedrock of college learning that opens doors to higher education and plays a crucial role in shaping your future.

Since a bachelor's degree can literally change your life trajectory, we want to provide all the ins and outs you need to consider as you plan the next steps of your educational journey...And, while we assume you know something about bachelor degrees already, we’re confident you’ll find a good number of tips and insights you wouldn’t want to overlook — especially when making decisions that will shape almost every aspect of your future!

What is a Bachelor Degree?

A bachelor’s degree, sometimes called a baccalaureate degree, is an undergraduate academic degree, as opposed to a postgraduate degree, such as a master’s or doctorate degree. In the US most students enroll in a bachelor’s program soon after finishing high school and will take about 4 years to obtain their bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor degree programs are not only the bedrock of higher education in the US, but similar academic pathways exist in countries all around the world — and while you may not have considered this, going to college in another country is not something to rule out. But before we talk about college in other countries, let’s see the historical perspective that will help you make sense of why people all around the world structure undergraduate learning with many common features.

Historical Background

Believe it or not, the bachelor's degree has origins going back to the Middle Ages, where, much like today, students were required to study a foundational core curriculum. 

And, just like today’s bachelor degree, the medieval version was a stepping stone to a master’s degree, which, in the Middle Ages, was required for pursuing advanced studies in medieval theology, law, and medicine.

The Trivium was the core curriculum for undergraduate study at medieval universities, and included the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. 

After the Trivium, students needed to master the Quadrivium, which required learning in arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music, and culminated in a master’s degree.

Today, getting a bachelor degree requires a similar “core curriculum” of general education courses covering a range of foundational liberal arts and science concepts.

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Types of Bachelor's Degrees

You don’t need to worry too much about what type of bachelor degree to plan for, but you do need to know that the major you choose — the field you want to study in depth — will lead you into one of the following kinds of bachelor pathways:

A. Bachelor of Arts (BA)

The Bachelor of Arts degree focuses on liberal arts subjects, such as humanities, social sciences, languages, and fine arts. BA programs typically include courses that emphasize critical thinking, verbal analysis and expository writing, along with concepts for the study of literature, art, political science, history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

B. Bachelor of Science (BS)

The Bachelor of Science degree is oriented towards STEM careers, including natural and physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. It emphasizes analytical thinking, problem-solving, technical concepts, and the practical applications of mathematics in different disciplines.

C. Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

The Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is designed for students pursuing careers in visual or performing arts, including music, drama, dance, painting, sculpture, and creative writing. It provides specialized training and intensive studio work to develop artistic skills and creative expression.

D. Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)

The Bachelor of Business Administration degree focuses on business-related subjects, including management, finance, marketing, and entrepreneurship. It equips you with skills and concepts you can apply in various business roles and can be a stepping stone to postgraduate MBA programs.

E. Other Specialized Degrees

Unlike during the Middle Ages, there are also bachelor’s degree programs today that offer a wide variety of curriculum designs that can help prepare you for technical careers in fields such as engineering, nursing, architecture, and more.

Comparing Different Types of Degrees and Choosing the Right One for Your Career Goals

Whether you’re trying to decide which type of degree you want to pursue in the future, or deciding which undergraduate degree to get — an Associate Degree or a Bachelor’s Degree — one thing is certain, there’s a lot to know and a lot at stake.

If you want to get a well-rounded education that allows you to explore a rich core curriculum, a BA or BS degree could be the best. But if you have some very specific career or vocational interests, you may want to look around at more specialized bachelor’s programs emphasizing technical career skills in fields such as nursing, engineering, accounting, or computer science, for example.

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Key Features of Bachelor Degree Programs

If you want to understand what makes certain degree programs or college structures unique or different from others — and some important options you can choose from — you’ll need a clear understanding of the basic elements that structure curriculum and shape how students progress through the 4-year bachelor program.

- Lower-Division and Upper-Division Courses

General education courses, often called the core curriculum, typically include foundational lower-division courses in humanities, social science, civics, fine arts, natural science, and physical science. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because today’s core classes have distant roots in the medieval Trivium and Quadrivium!)

And, because all students take these core classes, it’s also a great way to meet students at your college who have different kinds of majors and academic interests.

Core courses develop foundational background knowledge, but also help you develop study habits, communication skills, and critical thinking skills that you can apply in other academic classes, in postgraduate degree programs, and in your professional life.

In your junior and senior years, you’re likely to spend more time in advanced academic courses called upper-division classes related to your chosen major — the field you want to study.

- Duration of a Bachelor’s Program

Bachelor's degree programs generally require between 120 to 180 credit hours. Most students will take classes full time for about four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

- Choosing a Major

While many students have already chosen a major field of study before starting college, such as literature, psychology, engineering, or biology, for example, some schools and programs allow students to pick their major after completing some lower-division core classes. This means you’ll have time to explore different subjects, and a bit more time to reflect on what major to choose.

- Electives

Most bachelor programs provide an opportunity to take some elective courses as well. As the name “electives” suggests, these are courses that you typically have freedom to choose. You may want to choose elective courses related to your major or use your electives to explore new or fun subjects.

- Thesis and Non-Thesis Options

Many students won’t ever have to worry about a thesis or dissertation requirement unless they enroll in a postgraduate degree program. But it’s good to keep in mind that a bachelor’s program may include a thesis requirement. While writing a thesis — an extended research report on a specialized topic related to your major —  might not be the option you imagine for yourself, it can be intellectually rewarding and help you prepare for similar projects in postgraduate degree programs…

That said, it makes sense to think about your personal preferences as you consider bachelor’s programs and thesis options. For example, when you are completing a thesis, unexpected challenges may slow down your academic progress. Or, perhaps you simply want to avoid this kind of research and writing task altogether.

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Alternative Bachelor Degree Structures

While it’s true that most bachelor programs share common components, you’ll quickly discover with a little research that there are many alternative program designs as well to watch for or look for as you plan your college journey!

Some common alternative bachelor degree structures include:

  • Accelerated programs designed to help students graduate in less time
  • Programs with specialized curriculum pathways, and sometime including hands-on instructional resources that help you develop real-world job skills or learn how to use technical tools and specialized equipment
  • Specialized career-oriented designs providing robust career placement support and school-to-work pipelines, in partnerships with industry leaders
  • Schools or programs with remote and hybrid learning options that make it easier to hold down a job or keep up with family responsibilities while earning your degree

Enriched Bachelor Degree Programs

Choosing a university isn’t just about reputation and ratings…In the US, you can also choose from among a wide range of private, public, technical, or parochial schools that tout different kinds of social values, extracurricular programs, instructional assets, and educational outcomes…These factors enrich college life for students. Some common ways schools enrich bachelor programs include:

  • vocational training
  • internships
  • collaborative research projects with graduate students or faculty members 
  • career-oriented work study programs
  • community service learning
  • study abroad opportunities
  • Greek-life programming
  • leveled athletic programming
  • recreational programming

While many schools offer a range of such enrichment resources, schools can differ significantly in terms of how affiliations or values inform campus climate and how those factors attract students with different interests or backgrounds. Some schools also have more robust programming, advising, and referral services for specific kinds of enrichment opportunities.

For example, a business-oriented bachelor’s program may have highly structured internship placement programs with prominent business firms. A Catholic university may sponsor study abroad programs with a focus on learning a second language or cultural enrichment, or they may help their students get involved in service learning opportunities in the community.

The more you think about the ways extracurricular experiences like these can boost your learning, help you develop personally, or help you live into personal goals or values, the more you’ll want to think about factoring this into your research — it will be up to you to identify the schools and bachelor’s programs that best fit your vision of college life and a well-rounded education.

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The Global Perspective

Bachelor degrees vary across countries, reflecting diverse educational systems and cultural contexts.

In many countries outside the US, for example, pursuing a bachelor’s degree puts you on a specialized academic-oriented career path, as opposed to a commitment to a vocational track. In the US, by contrast, the options for moving between academic and vocational tracks tend to be more fluid – perhaps because of differences in culture, perceptions of social class, and historical influences.

You never know where life will take you — geographically speaking — so it’s good to understand how perceptions, academic models, and attitudes toward higher education differ around the world.

- United States (US)

In the US, bachelor's degrees are typically four-year programs offered by universities and colleges, culminating in a BA or BS degree. Students may choose their major before enrolling, but often schools let them choose a major after completing some general education requirements.

The US system places emphasis on a broad-based education, allowing students to explore different subjects before specializing in their chosen field. In the US students can select from a wide range of public and private colleges and universities of different sizes, diverse affiliations, and with higher or lower tuition rates. However, top-ranked schools — public and private — can be very selective, and sometimes very expensive.

- United Kingdom UK)

In the United Kingdom, bachelor's degrees are usually three-year programs. In the UK system students typically take more specialized courses aligned with a specific degree pathway, with less emphasis on general education requirements. Students may have the opportunity to undertake a "sandwich" year, which involves a year-long placement or internship experience.

- Australia

Bachelor's degrees in Australia generally span three years, but some professional programs, such as architecture or engineering, may require four or five years. Australian universities emphasize a combination of theoretical and practical learning, and students often have the flexibility to choose elective subjects. Many programs incorporate work-integrated learning, such as internships or industry placements.

- Europe

European bachelor's degrees often have a more structured curriculum with fewer elective options compared to the US system.

In Germany, bachelor degree programs typically last three years and focus on specialized subjects. Germany offers tuition-free undergraduate degree programs at state universities, and you may also find programs there open to foreign students who don’t speak German.

In France, getting a bachelor's degree typically takes three years, with a strong foundation in general education and liberal arts, and there are also low-cost state universities you can attend. In the past, speaking French was a requirement for admissions, but now there are some programs for English speaking students.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavia, offer bachelor's degrees taught in English to attract international students, and Norway offers free university degree programs in English that US students can apply for after getting a high school diploma.

A “bachelor” degree or “baccalaureate” may, or may not, have a similar name in different countries…

In France, a bachelor’s degree or baccalauréat Is the equivalent of a high school diploma. The French equivalent of a US bachelor’s degree is called a licence. A ***collège ***in France refers to a school for students in middle school grades while college students in France attend a ***université ***or one of France’s more prestigious institutions of higher learning, referred to as the grandes écoles.

CountryUS Bachelor's Degree Equivalent
UKBachelor or Honours Degree
CanadaHonours Bachelor Degree, General Bachelor Degree, Advanced Bachelor Degree
SwitzerlandLizentiat, Diplom, Licence, or Licenza
AsutraliaHonours Degree or Ordinary/Pass Bachelor's Degree
ChileLicenciatura or Titulo Profesional
South KoreaHaksa
JapanGakushi Shogo
RussiaDiploma of Bakalavr or Diploma of Spetsialista

As you can see, terminology and degree classifications can vary across countries. 

Duration also varies, with three-year programs being common in the UK and Australia, and some European countries, while four-year programs are more prevalent in the US and most provinces in Canada. Some European countries also offer integrated bachelor's and master's programs, allowing students to earn both degrees within a shorter time frame.

International Accreditation and Recognition

Bachelor's degrees from reputable universities across the globe are generally well-recognized. That said, prospective students should research accreditation and other factors that govern agreements for the transfer of degrees or course credits.

For example, in many countries undergraduate degrees require three years of study, so some US schools, where most bachelor programs require four years of study, require foreign students to complete an additional year of postgraduate study in order to demonstrate equivalency with a US bachelor’s degree.

It’s always advised to verify transfer policies and agreements ahead of time or seek the guidance of an Academic Advisor with international experience if you’re thinking about globetrotting between schools across borders, oceans, and continents! Afterall, you want your international exposure to be a boon to your academic journey, not the source of setbacks or pitfalls that some research and timely professional advising could help you avoid!

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Admission Process and Prerequisites

Most bachelor degree programs have similar requirements for applying for admission, such as:

  • Standardized test scores (sometimes required, sometimes optional), such as SAT or ACT
  • A high school diploma or GED, and copies of your high school transcripts
  • A personal essay or personal statement, or other form of application essay
  • Letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, and/or other adults, such as a coach, employer, or pastor, for example
  • An admissions interview at the prospective school (when required)
  • A specified school application form, or your completed Common Application for schools that accept them

If you’re finishing high school soon, you may have some anxiety about applying for admissions…especially if you’re applying to schools that are highly selective or competitive…You’re not alone!

Here are some tips and strategies to keep in mind — and ones we encourage you to learn more about -– as you chart your course for admissions to the schools that most interest you:

  • An Academic Advisor who understands bachelor’s programs could be your best overall resource — reaching out to a professional advisor can help you avoid common missteps, make your college planning more fun and exciting, and could help you chart a better degree path and boost your chances of getting into your preferred schools.
  • Apply to at least two “safety” schools — schools with less competitive admissions rates —  as a backup, in case you don’t get accepted other schools.
  • Plan early…It typically takes some time to process letters of recommendation and other admissions documents.
  • Follow all application guidelines and deadlines for each school.
  • Submit a professional and personal admissions essay with an eye to presenting yourself in a way that’s mature, self-reflective, and genuine.
  • If you need to do an admissions interview, prepare early and consider doing some mock interviews beforehand. Check with the admissions office at the prospective school if you have questions about how to prepare.

For an extra leg up, check out these  3 tips from admissions experts interviewed by Forbes Magazine that could give you an edge when it comes time to applying to college:

  • Build positive relationships with your teachers in high school — connecting effectively with your high school teachers and classroom learning should help you get more insightful and positive letters of recommendation.
  • Avoid taboos and common missteps when crafting your personal essay — avoid what one admissions expert calls “taboo topics” — topics that are too intimate, too impersonal, or lacking in authenticity.
  • Stand out by becoming a specialist at something — instead of joining clubs or teams to go with the flow, for example,…take a deeper dive into one or two extracurricular activities that give expression to your own individual values, interests, or strengths.
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The Value of a Bachelor’s Degree

Getting a bachelor’s isn't going to be the right choice for everyone, but it’s an achievement that often delivers benefits that can last a lifetime, in the form of academic, personal, and professional growth.

Earning a bachelor’s degree means you’ll get the benefit of a well-rounded education, learn from academic experts, and enjoy exploring diverse ideas, concepts, and viewpoints with great thinkers, your peers, and faculty members.

In addition to personal growth and intellectual rigor and curiosity, getting a bachelor’s degree should also help you develop critical thinking, research, and communication skills, while opening doors to more career choices, better paying jobs, and postgraduate education.

Speaking of earnings, did you know that median earnings for people with bachelor’s degrees in the US is $61,600 — a full 55% more than what workers with only a high school diploma earn on average?

Another truly valuable reward of college life comes in the form of lasting personal friendships rooted in a wide range of rich experiences and intellectual growth. These social connections also boost opportunities for professional networking.

However you go about calculating the more tangible aspects of college ROI — based on school ranking, tuition costs, and salary expectations — don’t forget that most college graduates enjoy **additional benefits that are hard to measure…**such as 

  • the pursuit of knowledge
  • membership in scholarly or professional networks
  • building formative and lasting friendships
  • acquiring critical thinking skills for informed action and decision making
  • equipping yourself for a career in the global economy
  • increased opportunities for future advancement

Maybe it sounds a little corny, but how do you put a “price tag” on so many intangible benefits?

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Challenges and Alternatives

So, while there’s some general agreement that a solid undergraduate education should come with lifetime benefits, going to college — and paying for college — can present real challenges.

According to researchers with the Education Data Initiative, attending college may mean navigating some daunting financial considerations:

  • The average cost of college has more than doubled in the 21st century, with an annual growth rate of 7.1%.
  • The average cost of college in the United States is $35,551 per student per year, including books, supplies, and daily living expenses…
  • The average private, nonprofit university student spends a total of $54,501 per academic year, $37,641 of it on tuition and fees…
  • When accounting for student loan interest and loss of income as well, then the ultimate cost of a bachelor’s degree could even exceed $500,000.

— Source: Hanson, Melanie. “Average Cost of College & Tuition” EducationData.org, April 3, 2023

In response to challenges like these, some families look into alternative degree programs or structures. Here’s some you can consider if you are still on the fence when it comes to figuring out if investing in a bachelor’s degree is the right choice.

  • Complete the undergraduate core classes at a two-year college and then transfer to a more expensive 4-year institution to complete the Bachelor Degree (TIP: Always check transfer policies at the prospective transfer schools ahead of time!)
  • Pursue a practical vocational pathway, with no college degree or earning only a vocational or occupational  associate’s degree
  • Take advantage of MOOCs (massive open online courses), or similar web-based resources, for self-paced learning that can include earning technical certifications or micro-credentials
  • Research bachelor’s programs in countries such as Germany, France, or elsewhere, in order to take advantage of educational opportunities in countries offering inexpensive or tuition-free bachelor programs

The Paper Ceiling: Challenges for Skills-Based Job Seekers without College Degrees

One of the challenges of focusing on technical certifications and micro-credentials is what’s becoming known as the paper ceiling, a term that refers to the invisible “barriers degree requirements create for job seekers without a college diploma.”

Some advocates of skills-based employment practices argue that software tools used for automating the hiring process increase these barriers by screening out skilled candidates if they don’t have a college degree.

Whatever you decide about college, be sure to take into account the many benefits a bachelor’s degree can deliver over an entire lifetime when weighing the costs and benefits of a foundational college experience and college education.

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

We hope this article helps you plan the next steps for your educational future, and we encourage you to share this article today with your own friends and family!

Obtaining a bachelor's degree provides a pathway to postgraduate degrees, enhances job prospects and earning potential, and facilitates personal growth and development. As technology and innovations advance faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to equip yourself for lifelong learning enabled by a foundational undergraduate degree. Individuals with a bachelor's degree tend to earn significantly more on average, compared to those with only a high school diploma — earnings that over a lifetime can help you enjoy more financial security, freedom, and life satisfaction.

But getting a bachelor’s today also comes with some real challenges.

Admissions can be very selective at top schools, and more and more students and families are struggling with higher education costs and the burdens of too much student debt.

At Crimson Education, our experienced Academic Advisors and network of FOAs (Former Admissions Officers from top schools) have proven approaches to assist you with goal setting and strategies designed to help you get into leading colleges and universities.

Learn more about pathways to a bachelor’s degree from a Crimson Academic Advisor who will be happy to answer questions you have about personalized education planning and help you forge a more successful educational future with proven strategies for getting into leading schools and bachelor’s programs in the US and around the globe!