If you’re considering enrolling in college, you may be wondering which of the college degree levels is right for you.
Whether you want to earn your first degree, gain new skills to change careers or earn a promotion by building upon your existing education, it’s important to explore how different degrees can help you reach your goals.
Understanding the types of degrees available, how you can advance through degree levels and the amount of time it will take to complete a program is key to choosing the degree that's right for you.
Exploring College Degree Levels
With so many types of degrees to choose from, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or unsure of the best educational path for you.
What is a college degree able to do for your career? It all depends on your field of choice and long-term goals.
Explore a list of college degrees, below, in order from lowest to highest. Discover the benefits of different types of degrees and understand how you can work through these levels of education to further your career.
Types of Associate Degrees
If you’re just starting out with higher education or want to add education credentials to real-world experience, an associate degree could be a great fit.
Associate degrees, such as an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Arts (AA), can be completed in 2 years or less, and are a great first step toward earning an entry-level job or promotion. There are job opportunities for associate degree holders across many fields, including:
Earning an associate degree can have significant economic impacts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), associate degree holders earn 17.4% more than workers with only a high school degree.
If you’re unsure about starting a bachelor’s degree program, an associate degree is a great way to kickstart your education and enter the workforce before enrolling in a more advanced degree. If you decide to continue on to a bachelor’s degree, your associate degree credits are typically applicable toward the four-year degree.
With an associate degree in business administration, for example, you can gain a solid foundation in business principles and practices that will prepare you for entry-level positions. Continuing on to bachelor’s degrees in business administration can help you dive deeper into a specific area of study, such as finance, project management or marketing.
Types of Bachelor Degrees
Designed to be completed in 4 years, bachelor’s degree programs provide in-depth knowledge and skills across a wide variety of career paths to help you stand out in today’s competitive job market.
Bachelor's degrees are in high demand. According to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report, more than 33% of adults over age 25 hold a bachelor’s degree. By 2020, 35% of all jobs are projected to require at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a report from Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
In today’s competitive hiring climate, it pays to advance from an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree. According to BLS, bachelor’s degree holders earned about $17,000 more per year than workers with a 2-year degree.
Bachelor’s degrees like Bachelor of Science (BS) and Bachelor of Arts (BA) offer more opportunities to focus your learning on a specialized area of study. With a business administration bachelor’s degree, for example, you can concentrate your studies on anything from finance, accounting and healthcare management to marketing, entrepreneurship and public administration.
Earning a bachelor’s degree opens the door to advancing your education with a graduate-level degree - an increasingly common step for workers looking to further their careers.
Types of Master’s Degrees
Earning a master’s degree is a great way to gain more technical knowledge in your field and set yourself apart from other workers.
With growing opportunities for online master’s degree programs, including programs that can be completed in less than 2 years, this degree path is becoming increasingly popular with full-time working adults.
Employers are also increasing demand for master’s degree holders. According to BLS data, jobs requiring master’s degrees are projected to increase by 16.7% by 2026.
Earning a master’s degree can open the door to advancement within your company, help you tackle new career goals and can also boost your long-term earning potential. Master’s degree holders’ median weekly earnings were 19.4% higher than bachelor’s degree holders and 67.6% higher than associate degree holders, according to BLS.
Master’s degrees, like Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA), are available across a wide variety of subjects. Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs are among the most well-known master’s degree programs, with opportunities to study finance, accounting, international business, criminal justice, information technology management and more.
If you’re looking to advance your education even further, you may be wondering what comes after a master’s degree. The answer depends on your career goals.
If you’re looking to advance your education to the highest degree in college, a doctoral degree may be right for you.
Doctoral degrees can take years of intense study to complete. After completing doctoral degree coursework, you’ll sit for comprehensive subject matter exams. A dissertation based on your research interests must also be completed and reviewed by a committee of graduate school faculty, and is expected to make a contribution to your field of study.
Doctoral degrees are typically required to become a university professor and can help you get started with a career in research. A PhD in international business, for example, can give you extensive theoretical business knowledge and expand your independent thinking to prepare for a career in business and economic research.
Determining Your Educational Path
What is the degree that will help you advance your career? To define your path, take some time to explore job descriptions and industry news to better understand the educational requirements of your chosen field.
While advancing your education can have significant economic impacts, each career has its own unique job requirements and there are often benefits to remaining in the workforce while working toward a college degree. Many companies offer tuition assistance programs, for example, that can help pay for more advanced degrees.
Do some research and reflect on your long-term goals and you’ll be on the path to choosing the college degree level that is right for you.
Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer and marketer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.