What Are the Different College Degree Types?
If you're unsure which degree you'd like to earn, you have several different degree options to chose from, depending on your desired area of study, your time commitment and your career goals.
College degrees can open the door to many careers, but first, it's important to understand what each degree means, and what kind of jobs they are suited for. Here we'll tell you what the highest degree is and list college degrees in order from lowest to highest.
College Degrees in Order from Lowest to Highest
College degrees can generally be lumped into two broader categories: undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees, with each category containing two standard levels of degree. Let's take a look at each category in more detail.
College Degree Levels: Undergraduate Degrees
Undergraduate degrees are available at two levels: the associate's degree and the bachelor's degree.
Associate's degree programs typically require about 2 years to complete. They're mostly offered by community or technical colleges and have both a general education component and a concentration or major. Associate's degrees predominately come in two varieties as well. The first is occupational degrees, such as an Associate's of Applied Science (AAS), which are aimed at providing an individual with everything they need to know to start a career, such as medical coding.
The other is the transfer degree, usually an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Arts (AA). These programs are designed to facilitate the transition into a 4-year bachelor's degree program.
Bachelor's degrees typically take 4 years to complete. Unlike associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees are usually more focused on a particular field, rather than designed for a certain job (although they can be, with the Bachelor of Science in Nursing a well-known example). The most common types of bachelor's degrees are the Bachelor of Science (BS), which is generally more focused on the subject area of your major, and the Bachelor of Arts (BA), which is intended to provide a more rounded educational experience by allowing for more courses in diverse subjects. Both BA and BS degrees will require general education courses.
College Degree Levels: Graduate Degrees
Graduate degrees are advanced degrees that tend to be more specialized and provide a much more in-depth education. Getting into graduate school can be difficult and the coursework in graduate programs is typically quite rigorous. To enter a graduate program, a bachelor's degree is almost always required, as is an entrance exam, such as the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). Careers that do require graduate degrees are generally fairly high-level, and often well-compensated as a result.
Master's degree programs offer a deep study into a subject, or as a stepping stone into certain careers. Master's programs are also usually divided into Master of Science (MS) and Master of Arts (MA), although others do exist, with the Master of Business Administration (MBA) being a notable example. Master's degrees can take 2-3 years to earn and are often (though not always) focused around a thesis project, which must be completed and turned in at the end of the program to graduate. Master's degrees are the minimum needed to work in particularly complex fields, such as psychology, or for high-level positions, such as healthcare administrators.
Doctorate degrees are the highest level of degree commonly available, and generally require an extensive investment of time and money to acquire. Many require at least 4 years of study on top of the time needed to acquire a bachelor's (or a master's, in some cases). The most common type of doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).
Classroom seats in doctorate programs tend to be highly competitive, so students intending to earn a doctorate should have exemplary academic history. Doctorates typically feature standard classes in the first years, while transitioning to research in the later years. This research is intended to form the basis of a student's dissertation, an extensive piece of argumentative writing attempting to prove or disprove a research hypothesis. To graduate, doctoral students must be able to defend their dissertation in front of a panel of experts and their professors.
Additionally, there are some advanced degrees designed for a particular career that do not fit into the traditional mold of a master's or Ph.D. A Medical Doctor (MD) is specific to doctors and the Juris Doctor (JD) is meant almost exclusively for aspiring lawyers. Degree programs in these areas are also very competitive, and students intending to go down one of these career paths often earn bachelor's degrees that are closely aligned with the admissions requirements, such as pre-medicine or pre-law. These degrees typically take 3-4 years to complete. It's important to note that it's possible to hold both a Ph.D. and a professional degree in the same field.