Exploring the Spectrum: Understanding Different Types of Degrees for College Students

26/06/202314 minute read
Exploring the Spectrum: Understanding Different Types of Degrees for College Students

It’s easy to get caught up in the urgency and excitement of picking the right college, but an important first step in charting your college journey is choosing the degree that’s right for you. A bachelor’s degree may be the default for many students exiting high school, but what college degree is best for you? In this article we’ll help you explore different types of degrees and provide essential tips and insights so you can be more confident you’re on a path to choosing the right degree for your college and career goals.

The Importance of Choosing the Right Degree

If you think of your college degree as a stepping stone to your future, it’s easy to see why it makes sense to step back and look at the big picture. Instead of focusing only on how to get into college, ask yourself: what next educational step — and what degree program — make most sense for me personally?

Giving Shape to Your Career Path and Financial Future

One reason choosing the right college degree is important is because it can help you align your learning experiences with important career interests, job market demands, and financial goals.

Some degrees, such as a Bachelor of Science in engineering, for example, can be a ready stepping stone to a rewarding first job. But if your sights are set on a career in architecture, law, or psychology, for example, you’ll probably want to think in terms of getting a degree that opens doors to reputable graduate degree programs…

When looking at your degree choices through the lens of careers and job markets, it’s also wise to know about the specific skills and degrees required for jobs you want. 

If you want to be a nurse practitioner, for example, you may only need an Associate Degree, and find you can get qualified quickly, but you’ll also need to meet some very specific learning requirements for this kind of job.

If you’re interested in law, journalism, or public policy, on the other hand, you may want to think more broadly about critical thinking skills and background knowledge you want to develop, most likely opting to pursue a Bachelor Degree.

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What Kind of Personal Education Experience Are You Looking For?

While jobs, careers, and financial considerations have an important role in deciding which degree to pursue, you’ll want to remember that your college journey is also a personal one. What’s right for someone else, even someone with similar career goals, may not be right for you. 

For example, when you take a trip, there may be many ways to go from point A to point B. Traveling on foot, by train, or by jet liner, all offer unique experiences…

When deciding what type of college degree you want, ask yourself, what kind of journey am I looking for?...The cheapest and fastest way from here to there...or, a journey offering group learning, lasting friendships, and personal and intellectual growth?

Different Types of College Degrees

There are two types of undergraduate degrees, and two types of graduate degrees. 

In this section, we’ll explore all four degrees and list their essential features. We’ll also help you understand how each degree aligns with different goals you may have for your college education.

Type of Degrees
AssociateMaster'sDual degree
Bachelor'sDoctorate/PhDAccelerated degree

What Is an Associate Degree?

An Associate Degree is an undergraduate academic degree most students can complete in just two years. A community college will typically offer associate degrees in many subjects, and some four-year colleges also offer associate degrees.

Two types of associate degrees are Associate of Arts degree and Associate of Science degree. The Associate of Arts degree corresponds to a wide range of majors, such as liberal arts, psychology, history, sociology, and communications. The Associate of Science degree aligns with STEM subjects, such as biology, engineering, math, and computer science.

Some common benefits of choosing to pursue an Associate of Arts Degree or an Associate of Science Degree are:

  • Limiting your initial undergraduate education commitment to two years if you’re not sure a four-year degree program is right for you.
  • Pursuing a more vocationally oriented education pathway. A vocational AA program can be a practical stepping stone to a skilled job, such as nurse practitioner, automotive repair technician, dental hygienist, veterinary technician, HR assistant, surveyor, lab technician, or civil engineering technician.

AA/AS coursework will typically include some general education requirements, elective courses, and courses in your major. You should remember that most AA/AS Degree programs offer few or no upper-division course options, unlike bachelor degree programs at four-year colleges and universities.

Associate Degrees and Transfer Credits

Finally, earning an Associate Degree can be a great way to qualify as a transfer student to a four-year college or university. And, you should be able to request transfer credits for your AA Degree coursework — but it’s always wise to check with a qualified Academic Advisor as the rules and requirements for credit transfers can vary significantly from one school to another!

What Is a Bachelor Degree?

Most students who enroll in college after high school plan to earn a Bachelor Degree. Getting a Bachelor Degree typically takes about four years. During the first two years students typically take lower-division courses needed to satisfy their general education requirements and then enroll in the more advanced upper-division courses aligned with their major.

You can earn a Bachelor of Arts Degree in areas of study such as history, foreign language, art, literature, psychology, liberal arts, political science, film studies, women’s studies, philosophy, communications, and more. Students pursuing STEM careers will typically earn a Bachelor of Science Degree.

In almost all cases, getting a Bachelor Degree will be a prerequisite for enrolling in graduate school in order to pursue a graduate degree, such as a Master’s Degree or Doctorate/PhD Degree.

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What Is a Master’s Degree?

A Master’s Degree is a graduate-level degree and usually takes two years of full-time study. Today’s master degree programs come in many formats, durations, and structures, some more academically and theoretically oriented, others more geared for practical professional learning.

While you probably will need a relevant BA/BS degree and specified prerequisite skills to apply to enroll in a master’s program, not all master’s programs require you to have a bachelor’s degree in the same major. When you pursue a master’s degree, you’re typically taking only specialized graduate-level courses directly aligned with your major. Also, some master degree programs require a culminating research project or thesis.

  • A Master of Arts (MA) degree is commonly awarded in humanities, social sciences, and liberal arts fields and is focused on helping you develop theoretical knowledge and learn research methods.
  • A Master of Science (MS) degree can be awarded in many fields, such as science, technology, statistics, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Some graduate schools offer professional master degree programs in fields such as business administration (MBA), education (MEd), public health (MPH), or engineering (MEng).

Graduate degrees typically help you learn advanced knowledge and specialized skills that are often valuable for career advancement or getting a job promotion.

What Is a Doctorate/PhD Degree?

A Doctorate or PhD Degree (Doctor of Philosophy) is the highest academic degree one can achieve. Duration can vary, but pursuing a Doctorate requires exceptional commitment, often requiring 3 to 6 years to complete.

While most doctoral programs require a handful of graduate-level courses and seminars, doctoral candidates will typically devote most of their time to research-related colloquia, learning advanced research methods, and completing research projects, such as a dissertation. 

An exciting feature of earning a PhD degree is the opportunity to work in close collaboration with one or more supervising faculty members with shared academic interests.

Earning a doctoral degree can lead to jobs in academia or advanced roles in research, design, and consulting. You can pursue doctorate degrees in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, law, education, and medicine, among others. Some popular doctoral degrees include Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) for study in liberal arts fields, Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Doctor of Engineering (EngD).

Hybrid and Unique Degree Programs

If you’re looking for a more tailored or personalized degree program —  there are many out there today — don’t be afraid to explore all the options to find programs that fit your goals and interests.

In their book Choosing College, career researchers Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta encourage students to put themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to forging their personal college pathway. To use the authors’ analogy, it’s like you’re hiring the college to get yourself something important. When you know what it is you want a college to help you achieve, you’ll be in a better position to identify the right degree pathways and the best colleges.

The good news is that more and more higher education programs are offering students more degree options.

  • Dual degree programs, for example, help students enroll in one college program and earn two degrees, typically in complementary disciplines, like marketing and business administration, or public policy and social work. For most students this will be a way to get a competitive edge for a targeted job or career path. 
  • For those who want to save time, and maybe also money, there are accelerated degree programs that can help you get a bachelor’s degree in 3 years instead of 4, or a master’s degree in 12 to 18 months rather than 2 to 3 years.

For some people more choices isn’t always better and can well…lead to analysis paralysis! But the more you take control of your journey by getting clarity on what you want your college education experience to deliver for you, the more options you’ll have thanks to today’s many conventional and unconventional degree programs and designs.

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Factors to Consider When Choosing a College Degree

If your bliss is studying IT Network Architecture, you can pursue your passion AND prepare yourself for a well-paying, in-demand job. But, what if your passion is film studies, archeology,  or political science?...

Now the pros and cons or the risks associated with not getting a job after college can be harder to navigate…

For some young people choosing a major is simply about the job market, practical career goals, and calculating ROI for specific types of degrees and college choices. For others, choosing a degree is a real existential challenge...

In an interview with Forbes Magazine, higher education specialist David Clingenpeel, a member of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, has some advice for students struggling to make informed decisions about what degree to pursue:

For example, says Clingenpeel, simply chatting with a professional Academic Advisor may help you more quickly choose a degree pathway that you’re confident is right for you. Clingenpeel also recommends taking advantage of staff and resources at campus career centers. (TIP: the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook also puts information about occupations, including hiring forecasts and salary ranges, at your fingertips.)

Making space for electives and extracurricular activities in high school and in your early college years may also help you explore new subjects and job fields.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Degree Choices and College Education

In an age of technological change and business disruptors, COVID-19 ushered in more changes, including changes to teaching and learning. Not only did the explosion of remote communication tools impact how young people learn and how some new degree programs are structured, it also impacted how people think about preparing for jobs.

Remote & Hybrid Degree Programs

COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of remote learning, and today many colleges offer remote or hybrid learning options that provide flexibility that can be especially helpful for students who want to hold down a job while earning a college degree.

Remote learning options may also help reduce the costs of getting a degree, reducing travel and living expenses and perhaps lowering fees too. 

The world of workforce learning is also changing. Traditional linkages between college degrees and good jobs are being impacted by new, individualized and flexible approaches to job training. Researchers with EdSurge tell us that 4-year degrees remain the “gold standard” for getting good jobs, but there’s growing demand for reskilling that relies on online courses, microcredentials, or vocational certifications.

As young entrepreneurs create open-learning platforms for lifelong learning (think 2U, Udemy, and Coursera, for example), and technology giants (think Google and Microsoft) seek to influence workforce training by offering online “badges” and “certificates” in ways that support and promote their technologies, there’s significant potential for disruption to traditional college degree pathways.

Final Thoughts

College decision making can sometimes feel overwhelming, but whatever you study in college today and whatever degree you get now, you’ll probably need to learn new skills in the future, possibly for jobs or careers you never imagined would exist!

Putting yourself in the driver’s seat, learning about occupations at your local career center, chatting with a skilled and compassionate Academic Advisor, and not being afraid to find the degree program that will deliver on the learning and personal experiences you want — these are all positive steps that will help put you on a path to both satisfaction and success.