What is an Undergraduate Degree?

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Bethanie Thomas sitting on a bench on the SNHU campus working on her undergrad degree

An undergraduate degree marks the first step on your higher education path. It describes two kinds of degrees: associate and bachelor’s degrees. By earning an undergraduate degree, you can better prepare yourself for a career or graduate school.

A yellow infographic piece with the text BLS reports 2020 median weekly earnings: $1,305 with a bachelor's degreeAccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers with undergraduate degrees typically earn more and have lower unemployment rates than their peers who have less education. In 2020, for example, workers with a bachelor’s degree reported median weekly earnings of $1,305, compared to their peers with a high school diploma who earned $781.

Is a Bachelor’s Degree the Same as an Undergraduate Degree?

A bachelor’s degree is often referred to as an undergraduate degree – but it’s not the only degree that falls under the undergraduate umbrella. An associate degree, often called a “2-year degree,” requires half as many credits and takes much less time to complete than a bachelor’s degree, but it is also an undergraduate degree. So, if you are wondering, “is a 2-year degree an undergraduate degree?” – the answer is yes!

What is an Undergraduate Degree vs. Graduate?

A yellow and blue infographic piece with the text 4 Types of Degrees: 1. Associate; 2. Bachelor's; 3. Master's; 4. Doctoral

In the United States, an undergraduate degree refers to a program of study that you can pursue immediately after high school – or any time thereafter. The first rung on the higher education ladder is the associate degree. It provides you the opportunity to earn credits that you can apply toward a bachelor’s degree or that can lead directly to an entry-level job role.

Bachelor’s degrees include general education courses and classes specific to your major that allow for direct entry into a variety of career fields. You do not have to earn an associate degree before enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program.

Only after you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree can you work toward a graduate degree—which includes a master’s or doctoral degree. Individuals pursuing graduate degrees gain expertise in a particular subject area, develop leadership skills or increase their earning potential. While some earn a master’s degree before they enter a doctoral program, others do not. A master's degree requirement to pursue a doctoral degree may vary by school and program of study.

What are the 4 Types of Degrees?

There are four types of degrees you can earn—although you must complete a bachelor’s degree before you are eligible to apply to graduate school. The good news: you can decide at any time after you receive your bachelor’s degree to take classes that lead toward a graduate degree.

With so many part-time and online options available, earning a degree is more attainable than ever for adults with family or work commitments.

Associate Degrees

An infographic with the text most associate programs are 60 credits or about 20 classes

Associate degrees require 60 credits (the equivalent of 20 classes) and typically take 2 years to complete. They fall into two categories: Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) and include courses that provide a foundation of knowledge in your major.

Popular majors include:

At some institutions, you can transfer the credits you’ve earned in your associate degree program toward your bachelor’s degree. For example, if you come to Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) with an associate degree, you can transfer up to 60 credits toward your bachelor’s degree program.

Bachelor's Degrees

A blue infographic piece with the text Most Bachelor's Programs are 120 credits – or about 40 coursesBachelor’s degrees require 120 credits (the equivalent of 40 classes) and traditionally take up to 4 years to complete. Today, online learning options and shorter, more frequent terms provide you with the flexibility to take classes that fit your schedule. Ultimately, your course load determines how long it will take you to finish.

Bachelor’s degrees generally fall into one of four categories:

A Bachelor of Arts often focuses on the liberal arts and social sciences, which include majors such as:

A Bachelor of Science emphasizes science, business and math-intensive majors such as:

The BFA focuses on the fine arts – such as studio art, creative writing, or music. Licensed nurses in pursuit of a BSN typically seek to advance in their field.

Master's Degrees

To earn a master’s degree, you must successfully complete a bachelor’s degree. Most master’s degree programs require you to earn up to 36 credits and can take 1 to 2 years to complete, depending upon your course load. Today, you can take advantage of part-time online programs – which can accelerate or extend the time it takes to finish – allowing you to progress through your degree at your own pace.

More specialized than a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree allows you to focus on one area of study. Common master’s degree programs include:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

Similar to a BA, an MA includes majors related to the liberal arts and social sciences – but allows you to go deeper into those subject areas. Popular MA programs include:

And, like a BS, an MS builds upon scientific and technical subjects. Popular MS programs include:

If you decide to go for your MBA, you will gain a broad business management background and have the opportunity to specialize in topics such as accounting, business operations, human resources and marketing.

An MEd helps you gain mastery in curriculum and instruction and builds upon your knowledge in areas like special education, reading and online teaching.

If you are a licensed nurse working in a health care setting, an MSN can help you improve patient outcomes by teaching you how to manage and improve healthcare systems, policies, processes and services. Finally, a Master of Fine Arts is a terminal degree that allows you to teach studio art, music or creative writing at the university level.

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees, or doctorates, are terminal degrees that can take 4 to 6 years to complete. You might choose to seek a PhD if you're looking for advanced research opportunities or want to teach at the university level.

Popular doctorates include the PhD in Educational Leadership, which explores topics in social justice, equity and leadership within the field and prepares you to drive organizational change. A PhD in International Business allows you to research global business opportunities and build upon research related to multinational business strategy.

Besides a PhD, other doctoral degrees include the Doctor of Medicine (MD), the Doctor of Education (EdD) and the Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

What is a College Major or Minor?

Ideally, choosing the right college major can lead to a satisfying job and a rewarding career. Your major is the subject area that you focus on within your college degree program. The purpose of choosing a major is to demonstrate competency in an area that will prepare you for a career in a particular field or for graduate study.

Before you earn your associate or bachelor’s degree, you will need to choose your major. According to College Board, you will take between one-third and one-half of your coursework in your major. You might choose to “double-major” or major in more than one subject area, and others also pick a minor—a specialization that requires fewer credits than their major. Still, at other universities, you might be allowed to create your own major.

While both associate and bachelor’s degrees require you to pick a major, they have different timelines when it comes to making a final declaration. You won’t have to declare your major until about midway through your bachelor’s degree at some colleges, but because associate degree programs are much shorter, you’ll need to declare your major right away.

To zero in on your major, U.S. News and World Report offers the following tips:

  • Take a variety of classes to figure out what you're passionate about
  • Calculate possible starting salaries related to majors you’re interested in
  • Consider advice from industry professionals
  • Understand what your major offers you at the undergraduate level
  • Pair your major with a useful minor
  • Know that you can change your major
Infographic with the text SNHU offers more than 150 bachelor's degree programs

It’s important to choose a university that offers a variety of majors in case your interests or goals change. For instance, SNHU offers more than 150 bachelor’s degree programs. If you plan to earn an associate degree first, you should also ensure that the credits in your major will seamlessly transfer over to your bachelor’s degree. Graduate programs by design are highly specialized, but they also offer both majors and concentrations.

Hung up on what to major in? Take heart: your college major alone is not likely to determine how successful you will be in your career. Your degree, prior work experience, soft skills, and professional network are all key factors employers consider. In fact, only 27% of college grads work in jobs related to their major, reports Inside Higher Ed.

No matter what your finals goal might be, an undergraduate degree gives you an edge in a competitive workforce and an opportunity to deepen your knowledge in a variety of subject areas.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks '11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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