Types of degree programs

November 11, 2021

Tom Czaban

Some students believe they have to start their post high school education with a bachelor’s program, but this is just one of the available options. There are various degrees to choose from; knowing what each involves can help you reach the right decision for you.

This article provides an overview of how the degree system works and highlights some of the common issues connected with getting a degree.

Associate degree

Length of time to complete

2 years

Annual average cost

$10,300

Types of associate degrees available

  • A (associate of arts)
  • A.S (associate of science)
  • AAA (associate of applied arts)
  • AAS (associate of applied science)

An associate degree ranks below a bachelor’s, and typically requires half the number of credits to complete. It can be found at various institutions, such as community college, junior college, and technical college. The aim is to improve a student’s knowledge to enhance their job prospects.

The difference between an applied and regular associate degree is that the applied degree places more emphasis on preparing students for a specific career.

 

The difference between an applied and regular associate degree is that the applied degree places more emphasis on preparing students for a specific career. It tends to be more vocational, while an ordinary associate degree provides a more general education.

Some students treat an associate degree as a foundation course and transfer to a bachelor’s at a later date. If you’re considering this route it is a good idea to check whether your targeted college will accept your associate degree. Transferring to a bachelor’s is common, but the decision on whether the credits can be reassigned to your new course of study is decided on a school-by-school basis.

One of the main advantages of an associate degree is that it takes less time to complete than a bachelors. It is also more affordable, particularly when it comes to tuition fees at community colleges. Programs are often flexible, and students can work while studying, perhaps even at night school.

For some jobs an associate degree is the highest qualification required, so it might make more sense than enrolling in a bachelors.

Positions where an associate degree is needed include:

Bachelor’s degree

Length of time to complete

4 years

Average annual cost

$25,864 – $43,721

Most common degrees available

  • bachelor of arts (B.A.)
  • bachelor of science (B.S.)

A bachelor’s is the most common first degree and a prerequisite for most advanced programs. Bachelor’s students complete general modules on a range of subjects. They also choose a major which is their main study focus and holds the most credits in their degree program.

Typically, each student has a faculty advisor who helps them with their course choices. This ensures that the general education subjects and the major work well together to give the student a worthwhile course of study that suits their expectations and needs.

A bachelor’s is the minimum requirement for many jobs. Graduates are eligible for entry-level positions across multiple industries. Because some roles require a major in a specific subject, it is recommended that you check the general requirements of a job before selecting a subject.

Jobs which require a bachelor’s include:

Some students opt for an accelerated bachelor’s program which can be completed in a shorter time. A typical course at college takes 16 weeks; an accelerated program it can take as little as 5. Students who choose an accelerated program often have a particular job lined up.  They can also be busy adults needing to complete their studies quickly. Although accelerated programs may save time, they are intensive, require a high level of self-motivation, and can be stressful.

Studying 2 different subjects in 2 distinct programs typically takes 4-5 years.

 

Another possibility is to study for a dual degree in which you receive 2 bachelors simultaneously. Studying 2 different subjects in 2 distinct programs typically takes 4-5 years. Common dual degrees include engineering with economics, and business with computing. In addition to giving you a competitive edge in the job market, earning a dual degree provides more possibilities when it comes to career choices.

Master’s degree

Length of time to complete

2 years

Average annual cost

$66,340

Most common types of master’s degree

  • master or arts (M.A.)
  • master of science (M.S.)
  • master of business administration (MBA)

A master’s is an advanced degree that typically requires a bachelor’s degree as an entry condition. It is possible to be accepted onto a master’s program without having completed a bachelor’s —for example if a candidate has a large amount of relevant work experience— but generally, a bachelor’s is a prerequisite.

Some choose to complete a master’s directly after their bachelor’s, others decide to first gain work experience before returning to college to advance their skills.

 

During their master’s study, students deepen their understanding and knowledge of a specific area of their chosen field. Some choose to complete a master’s directly after their bachelor’s, others decide to first gain work experience before returning to college to advance their skills.

It is also possible to enroll in a dual bachelor’s and master’s program, which usually takes between 5-6 years to complete. Studying for both degrees simultaneously can save time, and therefore, money. Some common examples of dual master’s and bachelor’s courses are a bachelor’s in finance + MBA, bachelor’s in health sciences + master’s in health sciences, and bachelor’s in marketing + MBA.

A master’s degree can increase a candidate’s job prospects, making them a more credible proposition for potential employers.

For some jobs a master’s is a requirement, such as:

Doctorate degree

Length of time to complete

3-4 years

Average annual cost

$114,300

Most common types of doctorate degree

  • doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • professional doctoral degree

Typically, a doctorate degree is the highest academic qualification a student can achieve. During their doctoral program, students produce a thesis which offers original insight or research in their chosen field.

The most common doctorate degree is a Ph.D. which covers many different fields— from humanities to the sciences.

 

The most common doctorate degree is a Ph.D. which covers many different fields— from humanities to the sciences. In some disciplines, you can also study for a professional doctoral degree, such as doctor of business administration (DBA), or doctor of education (EdD).

It is possible to pursue a dual degree by completing a Ph.D. and a master’s simultaneously. Depending on the subject, this can reduce the time it takes to complete the 2 degrees by varying amounts.

Whether you choose to pursue a doctorate degree depends on your circumstances and career goals. Research has shown that doctoral degrees lead to higher earnings, but there are other metrics that can influence this. A doctoral degree is a large undertaking. It can be useful to ask yourself what you want to contribute to the field and whether you’re fully committed before you sign up.

Some jobs that commonly require a doctoral degree are:

  • Epidemiologist
  • Postsecondary teacher
  • Systems engineer
  • Biologist
  • Mathematician

All about majors

A major is the specific subject area that a student chooses to specialize in. Usually around half of a student’s college courses will fall into the category of their major. Some courses allow students to choose a major and a minor. A minor is also a specialization although with fewer courses.

When choosing a major there are a number of factors to consider. These include future job conditions, job availability, salary, and course requirements.

 

When choosing a major there are a number of factors to consider. These include future job conditions, job availability, salary, and course requirements. For example, a difficult course like calculus might be off-putting for some.

Some students decide to double major: that is, they take 1 degree in 2 distinct fields. This can lead to increased job prospects and higher earnings. According to research, the number of students who are taking this route continues to rise, with an estimated 30-40% of students deciding to double major.

It is possible to change your major when you arrive at college. Some students realize the subject they have selected isn’t right for them, or they discover another that is more appealing. Within 3 years of enrollment, 30% of students change their major.  Interestingly, over half of the students (52%) who sign up for mathematics switch.

Here are some of the most common majors across the different degree programs:

Associate

1. liberal arts and sciences, humanities

2. health professions

3. business

Bachelor’s

1. business

2. health professionals

3. social sciences and history

Master’s

1. business

2. education

3. health

Ph.D

1. health

2. legal studies

3. education

Being undeclared

If a student is undeclared, it means they have yet to decide on their major. One reason a student might be undeclared is that they are still unsure of which major is the best for them. Others declare a major but no longer want to do it or were not accepted for their preferred major and are now reassessing their options.

Most students will have chosen a major by their sophomore year, and they will certainly have to decide before their final year.

 

The percentage of incoming freshmen who are undeclared is 20-50­­%. Most students will have chosen a major by their sophomore year, and they will certainly have to decide before their final year. In some case, being undeclared can delay your graduation date, so it helps to be in regular contact with program counselors to talk through the credit requirements if you find yourself in this position.

Transferring

Reasons for switching majors include it being too difficult, or a student realizing that their preferred area of interest lies elsewhere. When changing major it is a good idea to talk with your academic advisor to confirm which accrued credits can be transferred. If you change your major in your junior or senior year the chances of complications increase because there may be inadequate time to earn the credits from the necessary disciplines.

When changing major it is a good idea to talk with your academic advisor to confirm which accrued credits can be transferred.

 

Other students choose to transfer to a different college altogether. Common reasons for this include realizing their grades are good enough for a more prestigious college, wanting to switch to a less expensive college, or simply deciding the college they have chosen is a poor fit for them.

Some choose to transfer from a community college to study for a bachelor’s degree. In cases when the student transfers before receiving their associate degree, the associate can still be awarded by reverse transfer upon completion of the bachelor’s.

According to research, more than a third of students transfer to a different school during their college career. Whether this affects your graduation date depends on the individual case.  It is recommended to research any decision of this nature with your academic advisor.

Alternatives to degree programs

A degree is not the only option for high school graduates. Certificate programs, certifications and licenses are becoming increasingly popular. An advantage is that they tend to take months rather than years to complete, and the financial outlay is lower.

An advantage is that they tend to take months rather than years to complete, and the financial outlay is lower.

 

Such programs can make you more employable, particularly if you’re studying a specific subject with the intention of moving into that trade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with a certificate or license participate in the labor force at a higher rate.

Conclusion

Understanding the options available and seeing how these correspond with your own requirements can help you to reach a more balanced decision when planning your post high school education. The ideal course of study is not the same for everyone. It’s advisable to try to find a program that is right for you, and one that will increase your job prospects in your chosen field when you graduate.

Did you enjoy this post?