5 Types of College Degrees: Levels and Requirements

Everything you need to know about college qualifications.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Types of academic degrees

Pursuing a degree is a great way to gain knowledge and develop skills in a specific field. Not only will further education help with your own personal development, but it’ll also enhance your career opportunities. Before you enroll in a course, however, you must carefully consider your short- and long-term goals and what career path you want to follow, so that you may pick the type of degree that’s right for you.

So, where do you start with so many options available? The first step to making an informed decision is to, well, inform yourself. And you’ve come to the right place for that! In this article, we’ll discuss the various types of degrees that exist, the role each of them can play in a person’s professional development, as well as the requirements to enroll in each one.

What is an academic degree?

An academic degree is what’s awarded to you once you complete your higher education studies. You can think of it as a credential vouching for your hard work and dedication that’s led to the successful completion of the course of your choice, be that at undergraduate or postgraduate level. This, of course, signals to potential employers that you’ve received instruction in a particular field and are a step ahead of other candidates who haven’t.

Depending on the field of study you choose and the level at which you’re taught, you might graduate with one of various different types of college degrees, including an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree.

The importance of higher education

Besides what the cynically inclined may believe (that degrees are no more than expensive bits of paper, that is), they are, in fact, preferred by most employers and can allow you to negotiate a higher starting salary when you’re first joining a company. According to the Social Security Administration, higher education benefits lifetime earnings, too, allowing you to earn more over the course of your life.

Besides the financial benefits, higher education helps you develop a deeper understanding of the subjects that interest you, allowing you to explore the things you’re passionate about in more depth. At the same time, you’ll be meeting students and professors with similar interests as you, which can enhance your professional network and present you with job opportunities in the future.

Types of degrees

The US Department of Education recognizes the following five main types of degrees. Depending on your career goals and the type of future you envision for yourself, you may choose to pursue more than one degree. Let’s look at these below!

Associate degrees

What is an associate degree?

An associate degree course is one of the academic programs that can be completed at undergraduate level after finishing secondary education. If you pursue one, you can then easily transfer to a bachelor’s degree.

The first associate degrees were awarded in the UK in 1873 before spreading to the US in 1898. Today, an associate degree is equivalent to a Higher National Certificate or a Higher National Diploma in the UK.

How long does it take?

Associate degrees are becoming increasingly more sought after by high school leavers, as they are quicker to complete and cost less than bachelor’s degrees.

Full-time associate degrees, like HNDs, take around two years to complete.

What are the entry requirements?

Entry requirements for associate degrees are typically less competitive than those for bachelor’s degrees. Admissions deadlines also tend to be set later in the year.

To apply, in most cases, you’ll need to meet the following criteria: be 18 years of age by the time your classes begin; hold a high school diploma or GED; and meet any GPA requirements that your college of choice has established.

Types of associate degrees

There are a number of associate degree types you can pursue, including (but not limited to):

  • AA (Associate of Arts) — Focused on liberal arts like music, history and English.
  • AS (Associate of Science) — Common AS programs include biology and chemistry.
  • AAS (Associate of Applied Science) — This broad subject includes programs in business, math and related topics.
  • AE (Associate of Engineering) — Focuses on engineering
  • AAA (Associate of Applied Arts) — Deals with applied arts only.

What can you do with an associate degree?

Once you’ve earned your associate degree, you can either continue your studies by applying to a bachelor's degree program (for which your associate degree will count towards, in most cases), or you can start applying for jobs.

Associate degrees can help you land roles in a field like medicine, engineering, computer science or even law.

Bachelor’s degrees

What is a bachelor’s degree?

Though not everyone’s heard of an associate degree, we’re willing to bet you’ve come across the term “bachelor's degree” multiple times before.

This is the type of degree that most undergraduates decide to enroll in, and can be pursued right after high school. To put things into perspective, of the 4.5 million students that graduated from US universities in 2021, 48.6% received bachelor’s degrees.

How long does it take?

In the US, a bachelor's degree will normally take four or five years to complete if studied full time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, however, a large chunk of the nation’s undergraduates often takes six years to complete their studies.

In the UK, only Scottish bachelor’s programs last four years. Higher education institutions in English, Wales and Northern Ireland have bachelor’s degrees with a three-year duration.

What are the entry requirements?

Entry requirements for bachelor’s degrees vary from course to course, but you’ll usually be required to hold a high school diploma that meets the minimum GPA for your chosen program, as well as meet the required SAT score for the program. Some universities, like Harvard, have such competitive acceptance rates that candidates are required to have a GPA of at least 4.18 and an SAT score of 1580 or over.

In the UK, things work a little differently: to enroll in a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to meet the required A-level grades. Alternatively, you can go down the HNC, HND or foundation degree path.

Types of bachelor’s degrees

Some of the most frequently pursued bachelor’s degrees include:

  • BA (Bachelor of Arts) — It’s one of the most common bachelor’s degree types and includes humanities, some social sciences and liberal arts.
  • BS or BSc (Bachelor of Science) — It usually covers majors such as engineering, physics, accounting, computing and other related subjects.
  • BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) — Fine arts include acting, dancing, singing, sculpting and painting.
  • BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) — BBA degrees cover courses in management strategy, decision making and even organizational psychology.
  • BE or BEng (Bachelor of Engineering degree) — This degree focuses solely on the field of engineering.

What can you do with a bachelor’s degree?

According to a report by Cengage Group, the majority of US employers (62%) require a degree for all their entry-level positions. The most commonly reported reason for this is that companies believe that candidates who hold a college degree are “more equipped” for the role. So, if you’re hoping to find work right after you finish your studies, your chances to land a job will improve with a bachelor’s degree.

Alternatively, a bachelor’s degree can lead to a master’s degree or, in some cases, even a PhD.

Professional degrees

What is a professional degree?

Formerly known as first professional degrees in the US, professional degrees can be either undergraduate or graduate degrees that prepare individuals for work in a specific field. They are awarded on the basis of developing practical skills that allow you to take on the day to day of particular profession, as opposed to undergraduate degrees that put more emphasis on the analytical and theoretical side of things.

How long does it take?

Normally, professional degrees take three to five years to complete. Depending on your field of interest and the institution you enroll in, however, some can require as little as one year of full-time study.

What are the entry requirements?

Most of the time, a professional degree will come after an undergraduate (academic) degree in the same field, so that the student may be able to harness what they already know in terms of the theory and analysis that relate to the subject.

The idea of a professional degree, after all, is to develop practical skills that will allow the students to enter a profession — but understanding the general theory is also equally important to developing the appropriate skill set.

Types of professional degrees

Here are some examples of professional degree titles:

  • JD (Juris Doctor) — A professional degree that prepares students for a career in law, and more specifically for practicing law.
  • MD (Doctor of Medicine) — This is a professional degree that medical students must complete before proceeding to get further training and practicing medicine.
  • PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy) — A program that typically leads to opportunities in research, clinical practice and other areas of the pharmacy field.

What can you do with a professional degree?

If you want to pursue certain professions, such as in the field of medicine, social work or veterinary science, you’ll be required — by law — to hold a professional degree. So, the best way to determine whether a professional degree is right for you is to consider the type of work you’d like to be doing in the future.

As we’ve seen, professional degrees focus on real-world application and allow you to undergo extensive on-the-job training which, in fields like medicine, is vital.

Master’s degrees

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is a type of postgraduate degree that a student can pursue after completing their undergraduate studies. It provides a more in-depth level of instruction compared to a bachelor’s program and is normally designed to focus on one specific area of your chosen subject.

How long does it take?

In the US, master’s degrees usually take a year and a half or two years of full-time study to complete. However, some master’s degrees (like postgrad engineering degrees) can have a longer duration.

In the UK, master’s degrees can take as little as one year to complete, with the most common duration being somewhere between one and two years.

In both cases, part-time study will typically last twice as long.

What are the entry requirements?

Admission requirements for postgraduate degrees will vary between subjects as well as schools. Generally, a GPA of 3.0 is the standard minimum, although, as you’d expect, some higher education institutions will set the bar higher. But even if your GPA is lower, a good GRE score could get your school to consider your application anyway!

In the UK, master’s degrees will usually require a grade of 2:1 at undergraduate level, although those with a 2:2 are also often accepted.

Types of master’s degrees

There’s a graduate degree for every single subject out there, it seems! But the most common categories are:

  • MA (Master of Arts) or MFA (Master of Fine Arts) — These degrees cover topics including education, communication, social sciences and music.
  • MS or MSc (Master of Science) — This degree is awarded at the end of a range of scientific, healthcare and even social science programs.
  • MRes (Master of Research) — It’s designed to offer training on how to become a researcher.
  • MBA (Master of Business Administration) — These degrees are often designed for management professionals with some experience.
  • MPhil (Master of Philosophy) — It’s a research-only degree and is often studied before a PhD.

What can you do with a master’s degree?

At a time when financing your studies can be incredibly difficult, many young adults wonder if doing a master’s degree is worth the trouble. While many professions don’t require a master’s degree, having one can make you stand out among other candidates and also help you earn more.

At the same time, other roles, like clinical psychology, financial management and college teaching require you to have a postgraduate degree. Similarly, a number of PhD programs also require you to hold a master’s degree to enroll.

Whether you do a master’s degree or not, therefore, boils down to your future plans and chosen career path.

Research doctorates

What is a research doctorate?

doctorate degree, also known as a doctoral degree, is the highest level of education you can obtain in a field. Doctorate degrees are either academic or professional, research focused, and useful for further advancing your knowledge and skills in a subject you’re truly passionate about.

Although the term “PhD” is sometimes used interchangeably with doctorate degree, PhDs are a specific type of doctorate degree — specifically, they’re Doctor of Philosophy degrees. PhDs are highly theoretical and aim to generate new knowledge through research.

How long does it take?

The duration of doctorate degrees can vary. Typically, in the US, they take between four and six years to complete, depending on the area of study. It’s not uncommon, however, for some candidates to take seven years or longer to finish their doctorate degree.

In the UK, full-time doctorate degrees are designed to last between three and four years. (Whether they are completed in that short a time span is another story!)

What are the entry requirements?

Usually, to get into a doctorate degree program, you must first complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. However, some doctoral programs do admit students that don’t have a postgraduate degree.

So, if you decide that you want to cry for four years straight (we jest — although some people will tell you it’s true), you will need to specifically check the requirements for your chosen program.

Types of research doctorates

Here is a list of some of the most popular doctoral degrees:

  • PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) – These are research-based doctorate degrees often awarded to recognize original academic research.
  • DEd or EdD. (Doctor of Education) — This is the most advanced degree in the field of education.
  • DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) — This degree is the highest academic qualification you can receive in the field of business administration.
  • DEng or EngD (Doctor of Engineering) — A highly specialized degree for those interested in academia, research or the highest roles within engineering firms.
  • DSocSci or SScD (Doctor of Social Sciences) — This can cover a wide range of subjects including sociology, anthropology, archaeology and human geography.

What can you do with a research doctorate?

If your plan for the future is to work in academia, then a research doctorate will likely be required of you by prospective employers. This includes working as a professor at a higher education institution, conducting research on or outside college campuses, and pursuing leadership roles in academia or consulting firms.

Can I complete two degrees simultaneously?

Dual enrollment, also known as concurrent enrollment, usually refers to when high school students take some university courses in parallel to their secondary education. Less commonly, it can refer to a student being enrolled in more than one academic degree at once, although as each course has its own requirements and schedules, this can be near impossible to arrange.

The best way, therefore, to pursue two different subjects at once is to enroll in a joint degree program, also referred to as a dual degree program. This enables you to graduate with two bachelor’s, two master’s or, in some cases, a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree from the same university.

Can I complete a degree online?

A growing number of tertiary education institutions are offering undergraduate as well as graduate courses online. This can be a great option for those who can’t physically attend classes, either due to work, location or other responsibilities and restrictions.

Earning an online degree has many benefits, such as:

  • Lower tuition fees
  • More flexible scheduling and autonomy
  • More free time, as no commuting is required
  • Unrestricted access to resources and course materials

Accredited institutions that offer online academic degrees in the US include Columbia University, John Hopkins University, Boston University and the University of Florida.

Key takeaways

In 2023, there are an estimated 19 million students enrolled in colleges and universities around the US. When you zoom out further, that number shoots up to 235 million around the entire world.

Although often involving a significant amount of commitment in terms of money, time and effort, degrees can improve a person’s employability, teach vital soft skills such as time management and collaboration, and lead to the formation of lifelong friendships and connections.

To summarize:

  • Thanks to their shorter duration and lower cost, associate degrees are becoming some of the most commonly pursued degrees in the United States.
  • In most cases, associate degrees can help you transfer to a four-year course and earn a bachelor degree without losing your credits.
  • Online courses can be an excellent option for those who desire a more flexible learning schedule and can’t (or don’t wish to) commute to campus.
  • Although not always a requirement, academic and professional degrees can boost your job applications and help you stand out to prospective employers.

Are you thinking of pursuing a degree in the near future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Originally published on January 3, 2018. Contains contributions by Joanna Zambas.