Understanding the Different Types of College Degrees and How to Choose

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Understanding the Different Types of College Degrees and How to Choose
Choosing a college major can be tough, but you also need to think about choosing the right type of degree. Keep reading to learn about the five different types of college degrees and your earning potential for each one.

The world of higher education is a wide one with many different options. Whether you choose to attend community college or a traditional college or university, there are a number of different degrees to choose from and each one offers unique potential in terms of your future career.   

Before you apply to college, you should consider your field as well as the type of degree you intend to pursue. Not every job requires a college degree, but many do – there are also many careers where you are unlikely to succeed without an advanced degree.

Keep reading to learn about the five different types of college degree, the common career paths for each of those degrees and how to choose the right degree for you.

The Five Types of College Degrees

One of the main benefits of earning a college degree is that it increases your earning potential – college graduates simply earn more than non-degree holders in most fields. Outside of higher income potential, the process of earning your degree opens you up to a whole new world of learning and you develop skills you may not have had before. Having a degree typically means better job security, more career options, and more personal development along the way.

The benefits of having a degree are many, but not all degrees are created equal. Here is an overview of the five different types of college degree:

  1. Associate Degree (ex: Associate of Arts or Associate of Science)
  2. Bachelor’s Degree (ex: Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science)
  3. Master’s Degree (ex: Master of Arts, Master of Business Administration)
  4. Doctorate Degree (ex: Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D.)
  5. Professional Degree (ex: Doctor of Medicine M.D.)

Now that you know what the five different types of degree are, let’s take a closer look at each of these degrees and the process for earning them.

1. Associate Degree

An associate degree is typically a two-year degree and is typically an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or an Associate of Science (A.S.), though sometimes they are named according to the specific field of study (ex: Associate of Engineering). This degree usually takes 60 credit hours or more to complete, depending on the program. This type of degree is most commonly available at community colleges and many students go on to enter the workforce or to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Many students who pursue associate degrees at community college intend to transfer to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s. Community college often offers a more affordable way to earn a degree and having an associate degree can increase your lifetime earning potential by over $200,000, according to research conducted at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

2. Bachelor’s Degree

To earn a bachelor’s degree, you generally need a minimum of 120 credit hours which usually takes 4 years to complete as a full-time student. This type of degree is typically offered at four-year colleges and universities, though more community colleges are started to offer bachelor’s degrees as well. The most common designations are Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), and Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 36% of Americans aged 25 to 29 held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017 and that degree was worth an average of $2.3 million median lifetime earnings.

3. Master’s Degree

A master’s degree follows the bachelor’s degree and credit hour requirements vary from one program to another. Most programs require at least 30 credit hours spread across an average of 2 years as a full-time student and many programs also require a final project or graduate thesis. The most common designations are Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), and Baster of Business Administration (M.B.A.). Less than 10% of Americans aged 25 to 29 held a master’s degree or higher in 2017 and the average lifetime earning for this degree is about $2.7 million.

4. Doctorate Degree

This is the highest traditional academic degree and it can take anywhere from three to 10 years to complete. A doctorate degree or Ph.D. is one of the most difficult degrees to obtain and candidates are expected to conduct research and to publish as part of their program. Because the program is so difficult, as many as 1/3 of students drop out in the 10th year of study (according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools) but those who succeed in earning the degree can see a lifetime earning of $3.3 million or more.

5. Professional Degree

Completely separate from Ph.D. programs, there are also several professional degree programs intended for aspiring lawyers and doctors. Students who intend to become physicians, attend medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a similar degree such as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). There are also other medicine degrees in specific fields such as Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.). Most medical degrees take four years to complete with the addition of a residency program afterward.

Students who intend to become lawyers attend law school to earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.). In addition to completing this three-year program, they must also pass the bar exam before they are allowed to practice law. The average lifetime earning for students who earn professional degrees is about $3.6 million, typically for doctors and lawyers.

What Are the Most Popular Career Paths for Each Degree?

The world is constantly changing but, according to college officials, the most in-demand majors right now are information technology, computer science, and engineering. Of course, there is a difference between the majors that are the most in-demand by employers and those that are most popular among students. Here is a quick overview of the most popular career paths for different degrees:

Top 10 Most Popular College Majors

  1. Humanities
  2. Business/Management
  3. Nursing
  4. Health Professions
  5. Biology
  6. Trade and Personal Services
  7. Psychology
  8. Medical Assistant/Technician
  9. Criminal Justice
  10. Education

Top 10 Most Popular Graduate Degrees (Men)

  1. Business Administration and Management
  2. Electrical, Electronics, & Communication Engineering
  3. Education Leadership & Administration
  4. Business/Commerce
  5. Education
  6. Accounting
  7. Public Administration
  8. Computer Science
  9. Mechanical Engineering
  10. Computer & Information Sciences

Top 10 Most Popular Graduate Degrees (Women)

  1. Business Administration
  2. Education
  3. Social Work
  4. Elementary Education
  5. Curriculum and Instruction
  6. Education Leadership & Administration
  7. Special Education
  8. Counselor Education/School Counseling
  9. Nursing/Registered Nurse
  10. Reading Teacher Education

Top 10 Most Popular Doctorate/Professional Degrees (Men)

  1. Law
  2. Medicine (M.D.)
  3. Pharmacy
  4. Dentistry
  5. Physical Therapy
  6. Osteopathic Medicine/Osteopathy (D.O.)
  7. Chiropractic
  8. Electrical, Electronics, & Communications
  9. Chemistry
  10. Educational Leadership & Administration

Top 10 Most Popular Doctorate/Professional Degrees (Women)

  1. Law
  2. Medicine (M.D.)
  3. Pharmacy
  4. Physical Therapy
  5. Dentistry
  6. Educational Leadership & Administration
  7. Osteopathic Medicine/Osteopathy (D.O.)
  8. Veterinary Medicine
  9. Clinical Psychology
  10. Psychology

How to Choose the Right Degree for You

Choosing the right type of degree and degree program is a major decision. While it might be tempting to choose a program based on earning potential, it is far more important to consider your interests and skills. With some degree programs taking up to a decade to complete, you need to be passionate about the subject you’re studying if you hope to succeed and to work in your field. Before choosing a degree, you need to ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of it or what job you hope to obtain.

Another way to determine the right degree for you, if you’re not quite sure which field of study is the best fit yet, is to ask yourself where you want to be in two years and in five years. If you want to be working within 2 years, a shorter degree program like an associate degree might be the right fit. If you hope to still be in school in the next two years but be working within five years, a bachelor’s degree could be the better fit. From there, you need to think about what kind of study is required to achieve your desired level of advancement within your career.

Generally speaking, there is no downside to obtaining an advanced degree. There is the financial burden of education as well as the time commitment to consider, but actually having obtained higher education can only benefit you in your career and in your life.

If you’re thinking about going to school, take the time to think about your career goals and to determine the best degree program to help you get there. If you’re not sure where you want to be in five years, consider starting at community college where you can take classes to find out what you are interested in and potentially turn those classes into a two-year degree that can then transfer to another school or degree program if you choose to further your higher education.


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