All types of college degrees are earned by completing a certain number of credits in a given program at a specific educational level. That said, there are certain factors you need to consider when deciding on the next step in your education.
In this comprehensive guide, we’re providing an in-depth description of the four main types of academic degrees available in the US, followed by the most common programs at each level, the entry requirements, and the cost of obtaining each degree.
What’s the Difference Between College Degree Levels?
Different college degrees equip students with diverse knowledge and skills. Some provide technical knowledge and prepare students to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. Other degree types emphasize developing critical thinking and productivity skills.
Furthermore, different degree types will provide you with various career opportunities. For example, some careers require a minimal college education, whereas others require more intensive study and multiple degrees.
Levels of Degrees in Order
There are multiple types of degrees to choose from, so if you feel unsure about what’s the best educational path for you, read on to discover how college degrees rank from lowest to highest. Additionally, we’re sharing important educational details like the benefits of each degree, the potential career path with that specific education, the requirements to enter the program and obtain the degree, and more.
Undergraduate Types of College Degrees
Undergraduate degree programs are more general compared to graduate programs. Typically, students have five to six courses every semester.
Undergraduate studies are also more flexible than graduate studies, allowing students to switch majors even when they are one or two years in the program. Career-wise, these programs enable students to apply for entry- or manager-level positions. Below, we’re diving deeper into the types of undergraduate degrees.
Community colleges, vocational schools, and junior colleges offer associate degrees. These degrees require a completion of 60 semester credit hours which should take about two years.
After completing the associate degree, graduates are prepared for technical and entry-level roles in the workforce. Also, they can continue their education. About 57% of associate degree recipients who continue their education do so in academic schools, whereas 42.7% attend vocational schools.
Generally, students who earn this type of degree in college and complete their general education courses go to a four-year university to complete their bachelor’s degree program. If the community college is regionally accredited, this can be a great plan for attaining a bachelor’s degree at a significantly lower cost.
The Most Common Types of Associate Degrees
Predictions are that in the 2029-2030 school year, there will be 615,000 female and 392,000 male associate’s degree holders in the US. This stat confirms that associate’s degrees continue to be some of the most popular community college degree types. Read on and discover the most popular types of degrees that can be earned at this level.
Associate in Applied Science
The AAS degree program focuses on one career field, usually technical. It’s perfect for students who want to immediately start building a high-paying career. Potential working positions include web developer, chemical technician, radiologic technologist, geological and petroleum technician.
Associate of Arts
The AA degree studies are focused on liberal arts, general, or pre-professional studies. It’s the broadest of all associate’s degrees. Common AA majors include business administration, law, and psychology. In addition, these types of college degrees prepare graduates for work across a broad range of industries instead of a specific one. As a result, the career options for AA graduates are plenty. They can work as paralegals, customer service representatives, HR managers, art directors, and more.
Associate in Science
The AS degree has broad but more specific scope than an AA degree. Typically, students who intend to pursue education in science-related fields choose AS studies. Earning this degree can pave the way to working in an in-demand field like IT, web development, and healthcare, to name a few.
Compared to the requirements for other types of degrees in college, the entry prerequisites for an associate’s degree are less competitive. Considering that the deadlines for these programs are usually longer, it’s not a surprise that they are often an alternative for students who don’t meet the requirements for entering a bachelor’s degree program. Admissions require a high school diploma or equivalent. Some colleges might require a minimum GPA and a completed state’s pre-college curriculum, including math, English, and science courses.
Associate Degree Cost
Comparing the college degrees in order from lowest to highest cost-wise shows that associate programs are the most affordable. The total cost of a degree for in-state students pursuing an associate degree in a public college is $31,496, including $6,754 in tuition costs and $24,742 in additional expenses.
Students would have to pay $68,038 in private, non-profit colleges and $64,758 in private for-profit colleges. These include $33,796 and $30,666 in tuition and $34,242 and $34,092 in additional expenses, respectively.
However, according to college graduation rates, only 13% of students actually graduate within two years, which means the cost is usually much higher than the average.
Bachelor’s degree is the most popular of all types of degrees in college. It has a completion rate of 60% and allows graduates to enter the workforce, taking entry- or management-level positions. This undergraduate degree is earned in colleges and universities, and it takes four years to complete. Typically, the program is divided into two years of general education and two years of specialized education.
The general education courses often include English, foreign language, mathematics, and social science. Those enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program need to choose a major area of study like history, biology, finance, or communication.
Bachelor Types of Degrees in College in Order of Popularity
Bachelor’s degree programs are offered in multiple fields. Below, we outline the most popular ones.
Bachelor of Arts
BA lets you focus on specific areas of study in the humanities and social sciences fields like languages, journalism, communication, and international relations. Possible majors in BA programs are English, foreign language, history, fashion merchandising, interior design, psychology, sociology, and political science.
Bachelor of Science
The BSc is a common bachelor degree’s type. It’s very similar to the BA program. The main distinction is in the additional course requirements, with the BSc requiring more science and math courses than BA. BSc also focuses more on combining theoretical knowledge with research practice. BSc programs are offered in numerous fields like natural sciences, mathematics, computer science and IT, and engineering and technology fields.
Bachelor of Fine Arts
The BFA is one of the professional types of college degrees, proving that graduates have gained specific skills to enter the world of fine arts and be actors, singers, authors, dancers, or sculptors. The main difference between BA and BFA is that the program focuses more on majors rather than general studies. The coursework is dedicated to performing or visual arts and may also involve studying liberal arts like psychology, literature, and history.
Bachelor of Business Administration
As one of the basic types of college degrees in business, the BBA programs cover accounting, management, business operations, marketing, and economics courses. At the core of the program are business theory and practice, so students can learn how to analyze complex business issues, approach them from different perspectives, and overcome problems within and between organizations.
Bachelor of Architecture
The Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) involves hands-on experience and theoretical knowledge courses to prepare graduates for employment in the building industry as interior designers, architects, city planners, industrial designers, or other related roles. Students gain fundamental skills and knowledge of architecture while combining theory and history and acquiring digital, technological, legal, artistic, and financial expertise.
Different types of degrees in college involve different requirements. The conditions for enrolling into bachelor’s degree programs might differ from course to course. Generally, students need to have completed high school education and GED or be transfer students from another accredited institution with a minimum GPA of 2.0.
Bachelor Degree Cost
The total cost of a degree for a student living on campus at a public, in-state school is $25,487 per year, which amounts to $101,948 for four years.
As with other types of degrees you can get in college, the cost is higher for out-of-state students who pay on average $43,161 per year or $172,644 for four years. Keep in mind that only 33.3% of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs graduate on time—a whopping 57.6% graduate within six years, which increases the cost of attendance to $152,922.
In private schools, the total cost of earning a bachelor’s in a private non-profit institution is estimated at $212,868, whereas in a private for-profit organization is $140,500.
Graduate Types of College Degrees
Graduate degrees provide specialized education on a particular subject or discipline. These studies usually take about three advanced level courses and require higher academic performance.
The studies are fast-paced, more hands-on, and very competitive. Students in graduate programs can work closely with professors and have access to more advanced tools for research purposes. A graduate degree gives better career opportunities and market favorability.
A master’s degree is one of the two highest college degrees. It proves the student has a high level of mastery in a specific subject area. The program demands the completion of 30-60 credits which usually takes between one and two years.
The program’s goal is to improve students’ knowledge and technical skills in a specialized area. Students usually decide to pursue a master’s degree to advance in a particular field, boost their job appeal, or find a better-paid role in a senior position.
Master’s Types of College Degrees in Order of Popularity
There are two main types of master’s degrees — course-based and thesis-based. The course-based degree programs are based on structured modules taught through lectures, seminars, or practical work, whereas research-based degree programs require students to do their own research projects in the focus field of study. Additionally, master’s degree programs can be categorized based on the subject matter, specialization level, coursework type, and more.
Master of Arts
A Master of Arts degree is one of the most common types of college degrees in master’s programs. It’s awarded in disciplines that fall under the arts and social sciences category like languages, linguistics, communication, history, geography, and music. The program involves a combination of lectures and seminars and culminates with a student’s dissertation based on a research project.
Master of Science
The Master of Science degree is awarded in science for disciplines like biology, engineering, health, and chemistry. Students enrolled in these kinds of degrees learn through lab work, analysis, and scientific research. The degree holders have high prospects for working in one of the best jobs for the future.
Master of Research
An MRes degree provides training on how to become a researcher. Usually, students pursue this degree if they want to implement research skills and knowledge in their careers or prepare for a PhD program. The MRes program involves courses that focus on research principles, methods, and tools. They need to conduct research and write a thesis to earn the degree.
Professional Master’s Degrees
Professional master’s degrees are specialized kinds of degrees that are more hands-on than traditional master’s degree programs and heavily concentrate on giving students practical skills and knowledge.
Master of Laws
The Master of Laws degree program allows students who have earned a professional law degree to combine basic skills with specialized knowledge acquired through researching specific law areas. Earning an LLM provides great career benefits and helps boost career prospects.
Master of Business Administration
The MBA is one of the most common types of business degrees in college. The program is designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge needed for career advancement in business and management roles. Students go through extensive training in all business aspects. The majority of programs require at least three years of professional experience.
Master of Education
The MEd degree prepares students to pursue a career in education, as well as get certified or specialize in specific areas like special education, curriculum, counseling, instruction, and administration. The programs usually combine both coursework and internship.
Master of Architecture
The MArch degree is one of the most extensive types of degrees you can get in college. It assesses students through internships and a final thesis or project. Students are also required to produce coursework in subjects like building science, architectural history, design, theory, and professional practice. In the end, students get licensed and can consider wide career possibilities.
Postgraduate master’s degrees are open to students who hold a bachelor’s degree or an undergraduate degree in an appropriate subject. Additionally, schools usually require an undergraduate GPA of 3.0. Some schools might also require students to take entrance exams. The professional master’s degrees generally have additional prerequisites like having professional experience or holding specific bachelor’s degrees.
A doctorate is the highest college degree. The standard title for students obtaining a doctorate is Ph.D, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy. It’s the final degree available in a specific discipline.
A doctorate follows the completion of bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That said, some programs also admit students who don’t hold a master’s degree.
The doctorate programs are designed to help students get advanced knowledge and skills and reach the highest level of academic mastery in their chosen field. It takes about four years to complete doctoral types of college programs.
Studies are complex and require a great deal of commitment, focus, energy, and money. In the first year of the program, the content is standard. However, in the next few years, students move toward in-depth analysis and research. Finally, before earning the doctoral degree, students need to defend a thesis in front of an expert panel.
After the program’s completion, the Doctor of Philosophy can work as a university professor, a professional researcher, or take an executive leadership role. Thus, a doctorate often leads to significant professional advancement and tremendous earning potential. In fact, Ph.D holders earn a median weekly pay of $1,885.
Types of Doctoral Degrees
A doctorate is the highest degree in college, and there are several different types of degrees available at this level. If you’re unsure where to start, here are the four key programs available in the US.
Research-based doctorates are also known as academic doctorates and are usually awarded for original research in traditional academic subjects. The main focus is on expanding the theoretical understanding of a subject rather than advancing professional practice.
A professional doctorate program focuses on applying research to practical issues, designing effective professional practices, and creating solutions to complex problems in a specific profession. Examples of such types of college programs include Doctor of Business Administration, Doctor of Education, Doctor of Public Health, and Doctor of Nursing Practice, to name a few.
Professional doctorates are awarded to candidates who directly contribute to a specific vocational field by conducting research and analysis. These programs might require the candidate to have specific field experience.
Usually awarded later in one’s career, higher doctorates aim to recognize esteemed practitioners and researchers. They are one of the highest types of educational degrees that candidates don’t need to enroll in; the degree is awarded based on a published scholarly work that establishes the candidates as making a significant contribution to the advancement of the specific field. Examples of higher doctorate degrees might include Doctor of Science, Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Engineering, Doctor of Business, and Doctor of Music.
Honorary doctorates are awarded to celebrate one’s achievement in a specific field. It’s one of the highest college degrees that aren’t rewarded for academic achievements but for lifetime accomplishments that benefit humanity. Some institutions allow candidates to apply for an honorary degree, whereas others require third-party nominations.
These schools also create their own criteria for acceptance. They may present different types of degrees like Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Fine Arts, Doctor of Humane Letters, and Doctor of Divinity, to name a few.
The Cost of Doctoral Degree
When comparing the college degrees in order from lowest to highest, doctorates are the most expensive. According to the latest data published by Education Data, a doctorate costs on average $114,300. The average cost is higher for some fields like Psychology ($132,200) and Education ($111,900). That said, some programs might offer financial aid in the form of fellowships and assistantships or work within the academic department.
The requirements for getting a doctorate vary from program to program. Usually, the research-based doctorate programs require specific coursework, whereas requirements for professional degree programs typically include fieldwork, residencies, or at least internships. Often, the final step to a doctorate is a comprehensive research work or a dissertation thesis.
How to Choose From the College Degree Levels
When preparing for college and considering which degree level to pursue, the first and most important step is to identify your interests and the career path you want to follow. While you can start working with an associate degree, the higher degree level you reach, the more advanced career opportunities you’ll have.
Furthermore, make sure to do comprehensive research on the position you’d like to have and take note of the job requirements to ensure the degree will make you competitive. Finally, consider your budget and whether you can afford the potential debt. Keep in mind that advanced degrees will cost you more, but the potential salary you’ll earn often outweighs the tuition cost.