Types of College Degrees: Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s & Doctorate

Types of College Degrees: Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s & Doctorate
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

A college degree can be an important requirement when applying for a job. U.S. college statistics show that a college degree has become a necessity to improve one’s economic status. The type of degree also plays a role in the career advancement of an individual.

Academic institutions offer different types of college degrees that suit a variety of career paths. That’s why it’s important to understand these types of degrees so you can create the best plan that can lead to your career goals. This article discusses the different requirements for each type and presents a few examples, of the better one can prepare for the job market.

This article discusses the different requirements for each type and presents a few examples, of the better one can prepare for the job market.

Types of College Degrees Table of Contents

  1. Associate Degree
  2. Bachelor’s Degree
  3. Master’s Degree
  4. Doctoral Degree
  5. Professional Degree
  6. Other College Degrees

Associate Degree

  • Typical number of credit units: 60
  • Typical number of years to complete: 2

Associate degrees are two-year undergraduate degrees given usually by community colleges, vocational schools, as well as some colleges and universities. These degrees are typically granted to those who finished general education classes like English, economics, or teaching. As such, these classes, and the associate degree by design, are more geared towards helping students develop the necessary skills and knowledge to find gainful employment after graduation. Getting such degrees also entails doing more hands-on and technical tasks as part of the overall goal to find immediate employment once given the degree. 

The most common associate degrees are the Associate of Arts (A.A.), given usually to students who took liberal arts and humanities classes, Associate of Science (A.S.) which leans more towards the sciences, and Associate of Applied Sciences (A.A.S.), given to students who took classes specially designed to prepare for a specific trade or career path so they can easily enter the workforce after graduation. Associate degree holders may also opt to continue their education towards earning at least a bachelor’s degree, in such cases, they may be exempt from completing several, if not all, general education requirements.

Degree holders among 20- to 29-year-olds in 2019

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Bachelor’s Degree

  • Typical number of credit units: 120
  • Typical number of years to complete: 4

The majority of those who enter college usually aim to attain a bachelor’s degree. And it is also the most commonly sought type of college degree for employment. While there are bachelor’s degrees being given for general education classes, they are typically granted to those who took up more specialized programs that would normally take more time to complete compared to an associate’s degree. Because of this, the types of college programs that lead to a bachelor’s degree are diverse and wide-ranging—from business administration to creative writing, to archeology and need to major required and elective classes to their course of study. More so, bachelor’s degree holders are held to a somewhat higher standard as they are expected to be more knowledgeable of the program they took up for the degree so they can be thrust into more challenging work environments upon employment.

Typically, a bachelor’s degree can either be a Bachelor of Arts (B.A. or A.B.) which, like the Associate of Arts, is given to those who finished liberal arts and humanities track while Bachelor of Science (B.S.) is geared towards those who finished a track in the sciences. Other colleges and universities have their own bachelor’s degree offerings depending on the particular program being offered in an institution. Regardless of the bachelor’s degree offerings, one is not required to finish an associate degree in order to be given a bachelor’s degree. While bachelor’s degrees are typically completed after four years, some colleges and universities offer accelerated bachelor’s degrees which allows students to finish their degree in a shorter timeframe while saving costs on tuition and, in some cases, moving since many of these degrees can be taken online. (Moody, 2020)

Master’s Degree

  • Typical number of credit units: 30-50
  • Typical number of years to complete: 2

Also known as a graduate degree, the master’s degree is the next step in the education ladder after attaining a bachelor’s degree. While it takes a shorter time to complete the coursework for a master’s degree, it is more specialized in nature, requiring a great deal of expertise that a person with a bachelor’s degree is expected to have, particularly one that is related to the master’s degree coursework chosen. Also, while theoretically a master’s degree can be completed in two years’ time, in real life, completing such types of college degrees can take longer considering that many master’s degree students are juggling between work and their studies.

Many professionals pursue a master’s degree in order to be qualified for a higher position either within their places of employment or elsewhere. It is because of this that the Masters in Business Administration (M.B.A.) is one of the most popular master’s degrees being taken up by graduate students who are seeking career advancement as CEOs or business owners themselves. For those seeking to advance their careers in the visual arts, Masters in Fine Arts (M.F.A.) would be their graduate degree option. Masters of Arts (M.A.) and Masters of Science (M.S.) degrees are also available options, alongside other degrees that a college or university may offer.

National Association of Colleges and Employers

Doctoral Degree

  1. Typical number of credit units: 60
  2. Typical number of years to complete: 3-4

Also known as the postgraduate degree, the doctoral degree is the highest of the college degree levels one can attain. It is also more specialized in nature and requires a greater degree of specialization and research. Because of this, having a master’s degree is a requirement before one can pursue a doctoral degree. 

Doctoral degrees are generally classified into four types. The first is the research doctorate which, as the name suggests, is research-heavy in nature. The Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D.) is one of the most well-known research doctorate degrees, which, despite the name, is not only given to those who finished postgraduate studies in philosophy but also to those across a variety of disciplines and classes. Another type of doctoral degree is the professional doctorate, which is focused on postgraduate studies for a specific profession. There is also the higher doctorate, which involves higher levels of study and is more common in some countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

Then there is the honorary doctorate, which is given to individuals for their contributions to their respective fields, regardless of the academic level they reached or even the college or university they attended. As such, they are less focused on the academic background and more on recognizing or honoring one’s achievements in a community. As such, it is considered an achievement for a person to be given an honorary doctorate, especially from a notable college or university.

Professional Degree

A professional degree is a type of graduate degree that is a prerequisite to becoming licensed in order to do work in a particular field. The most common of these types of college degrees are the Bachelor of Laws (Ll.B.) which is a prerequisite degree for those looking to practice law and the various medical degrees for those looking to practice specific fields in medicine. Because of this, professional degrees are also known as “First Professional Degrees.”

The number of units required and the years to finish such degrees would vary depending on the degree taken. While many of these professional degrees require a bachelor’s degree, some may call for the completion of a master’s degree, usually one that is related to the field of study of the professional degree in question.

Other College Degrees

Joint Degree

  • Typical number of credit units: 120
  • Typical number of years to complete: 4

As the name suggests, a joint degree is one where a student studies simultaneously for two different majors with the aim of attaining two college degrees upon graduation. This does not mean that the student will have to fulfill separate credit units that are equivalent to each major. In the case of joint degrees, the usual 80 credits for the major subjects are divided between each major.

Professional Certificate

  • Typical number of years to complete: 1-2

While not strictly considered as an academic degree, professional certificates are also types of college degrees that are more focused on developing and ensuring that a student has the technical skills and knowledge needed to perform a certain job. In the case of some professions, a professional certificate may also serve as a license to ascertain that the person holding the certificate has been deemed skilled in performing the job required.

Professional certificates are usually offered by vocational or technical schools. Like an associate’s degree, it can be completed within a year or two, in some cases even less than a year, depending on the course load of a particular program in a specific institution. It is also not strictly required to have earned a college degree before getting a professional certificate, but it must be noted that a number of certificate programs require a student to have earned a specific degree beforehand.

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Specialist Degree

A specialist degree is a type of graduate degree taken after completing a master’s degree as a way to obtain additional expertise and knowledge in a specific discipline, as well as, in some cases, provide professionals with certification accredited by certain industries that fulfill particular requirements to obtain industry licenses that may be required in some states.

Transfer Degree

A transfer degree is somewhat similar to an associate degree as it takes about one to two years to complete. What makes this degree unique is that it is designed to help students easily transfer to another college or university to take a bachelor’s degree while not having to take some classes again. This particularly applies to courses that are considered similar across the two institutions. That is because the credit units earned to attain the transfer degree can be accepted by the college or university as if the student already took the classes in their institution, which would help the student save time in finishing the bachelor’s degree. 

It is, therefore, important for a student planning to take a transfer degree to ensure that the college or university he or she is transferring to will be able to accept as many credit units as possible from their current institution.

Choosing the Right Degree for Your Education

The benefits of college education are numerous. While there is a standard set of requirements in place in order to attain each type of college degree, keep in mind that every college or university may have some additional requirements that need to be fulfilled before being accepted to pursue a college degree in their respective institutions. 

In some cases, some of them may not even offer a specific degree as part of their academic offerings. It is important to check with the college or university of choice first in order to ensure a positive educational experience. 



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  2. Cunningham, E. (2019, June 28). Professional certifications and occupational licenses: evidence from the Current Population Survey: Monthly Labor Review: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2019/article/professional-certifications-and-occupational-licenses.htm
  3. Educationcorner.com. (n.d.). College Degrees Guide: List of College Degrees. Education Corner. https://www.educationcorner.com/types-of-college-degrees.html
  4. EducationData.org. (2021, February 28). Education Attainment Statistics. EducationData. https://educationdata.org/education-attainment-statistics#:%7E:text=Report%20Highlights%3A,much%20as%2080%25%20since%202000
  5. GetEducated.com. (n.d.). What is a Doctorate Degree? Get Educated. https://www.geteducated.com/career-center/detail/what-is-a-doctorate-degree
  6. Moody, J. (2020, October 19). Accelerated Degrees 101: What You Need to Know to Earn Your Degree Fast. Post University. https://post.edu/blog/accelerated-degrees-101
  7. Pearson Accelerated Pathways (2015, May 15). A Beginner’s Guide to the Types of College Degrees. Pearson. https://pearsonaccelerated.com/blog/types-of-college-degrees

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