College Degree Levels Guide

Written By: Jordan Beliles

Published: 8/16/2022

Earning a college degree is an important step in the pursuit of a lucrative career. The job market can be highly competitive and a degree can help you earn a higher salary and land a more fulfilling role. For some professionals, such as psychologists and nurses, a degree is required.

When choosing a specific type of degree in college, several factors should go into this decision, so it's important to ask yourself the following questions: What position do you want to hold as a professional? How much are you willing to spend on your education? Do you want to study online, on campus, or through a hybrid learning model?

Importantly, the college degree level you achieve is likely to dictate your salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that those with only a high school diploma earn an average of $809 per week, while bachelor's graduates bring in a median weekly salary of $1,334. That number goes even higher when you've earned a master's degree or doctoral degree.

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What Are the College Degrees in Order?

What Are All the Types of Degrees in College?

The four main college degrees in order are associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. Each level is another beneficial, albeit costly, addition to your overall education. Most students start with an associate degree and decide if they want to pursue a higher degree from there.

With each degree level, you can expect to benefit from a deeper understanding of the subject matter, more practical skills, and a higher overall salary as a professional.


In fact, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that of graduates aged 25 to 29, 49% earned an associate level degree in 2021. That number drops to 39% for bachelor's degrees and only 9% for master's degrees and higher.

Majors

Majors are the main subject you study in your degree program. They are typically attached to bachelor's programs because they allow you to zero in on a concentration while still taking your general college requirements. This allows you to try out certain classes in the first year before committing to a single major. Two-year associate programs often ask that you choose your major before the school year begins given the shorter program.

There are also double majors which allow you to study two separate programs simultaneously. Ideally they'll be within a similar or complementary subject, but it's not usually required.


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In some cases, you may be allowed to design your own major. The biggest benefit with personalized majors is that you can tailor your degree to exactly where you want to take your career, especially if it's a bit unusual.

Minors

Minors often compliment the major. For example, you may have a major in economics and a minor in statistics. This combination will teach you the fundamentals of the economy with the added bonus of learning computational programming and data analysis.

Minors generally make up about one-third to one-half of the required major credits. Keep in mind, minors are not usually required, even if you have a major.

Vocational Schools and Certificate Programs

There are also options outside of the traditional levels of degrees. Vocational schools, for example, offer specialized programs that are designed to prepare you to enter the trade workforce with all the necessary skills for your particular role. The positions you can achieve through vocational schools range widely, from wind turbine technician, outdoor adventure guide, or most commonly, HVAC technician. These schools may also offer associate and bachelor's degrees for a particular trade.

Certificate programs, on the other hand, offer a quicker route to achieving your career goals through one to two-year educational tracks. Much like vocational schools, certificates are specialized programs focused on learning the necessary skills to enter the workforce. The options are vast, which may make it hard to choose the right path. However, if you have a specific career in mind, one that may not require a full four-year education, then earning a certificate may be the best way forward.

Both vocational and certificate programs can be earned online, although some may require in-person studies, depending on the program.

Are Online Degrees Available at All Degree Levels?

Every degree level can be earned online.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions had no choice but to adjust their programs for distance learning. Students were able to earn their degrees online through learning management systems (LMSs) in the safety and comfort of their own homes.



As of Fall 2020, 73% of students at private, for-profit institutions were enrolled in exclusively online programs.

Many experts say that this caused a permanent change in the higher education system, as many more schools are beginning to put more attention into creating distance learning programs, even after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.

In 2022, you can study nearly every subject through online coursework. Some programs may require in-person practicums, lab work, or hands-on learning, but online degrees mostly consist of video lectures, classroom meetings through Zoom, and test-taking on a school's LMS.

Associate Degree

Associate degrees are generally the first choice for high school graduates. This is partly because they are less expensive and less committal than bachelor's degrees, but they also provide a solid foundation and understanding in a given subject.

Associate degrees can be earned in two years with 60 credit hours.

They're often completed at local community colleges and state colleges, with some traditional universities also offering these degrees. Earning an associate degree doesn't have to be the end of your education. Many students use this degree as a jumpstart to their bachelor's degree by transferring relevant credits. It may also be an opportunity to explore areas of interest while deciding what to major in at the bachelor's level.

Associate degrees may be listed as the following designations:

Associate of Arts (AA) degree allows students to study liberal arts subjects including history, literature, life sciences, psychology, creative arts, or writing.

Associate of Science (AS) looks at technically advanced STEM programs in computer science, mathematics, information technology, chemistry, and biology.

Associate of Applied Arts (AAA) takes a more hands-on approach to artistic learning through programs like photography, graphic design, fine arts, and fashion design.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS) programs are designed to teach practical skills alongside academic studying in areas such as health science and information technology.

Even if you don't pursue a bachelor's degree, completing an associate program alone may allow you to earn $44,100 per year. Compare this to high school graduates who, as of 2020, only earn $36,600 annually.

Explore some of the highest paying associate degrees, such as an associate degree in nursing.

Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degrees are the next level above associate degrees.

They generally require 120 credit hours and may take students four years to complete on a full-time schedule.

As of 2021, 39% of 25 to 29 years olds have earned a bachelor's degree, making it the second most earned degree level next to associate degrees. Though BAs are more costly and time-consuming, the data shows that graduates earn an average of $367 per week more than associate degree holders and $524 more per week than those with only a high school diploma.

Data from the BLS shows that bachelor's degrees are required for a majority of entry-level management roles. Once hired, however, you can expect to earn a fairly lucrative salary. Although bachelor's degrees are more costly and time consuming than associate degrees, the data shows that graduates earn an average of 59% more per year than those who only completed high school.

Bachelor's degrees come in the following designations:

Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees teach interpersonal skills — otherwise known as soft skills — alongside liberal arts subjects, such as communication, English, and psychology.

Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) is similar to a BA but with a focus on visual arts, fine arts, and performing arts, teaching students hands-on skills through creative endeavors.

Bachelor of Science (BS) blends practical skills and lab work with academic STEM courses ranging from engineering to computer science.

Master's Degree

Next up is the master's degree — a high level program for students who have achieved a bachelor's and can demonstrate their knowledge on the subject at hand. A Master in Business Administration is the most popular graduate program, followed by graduate degrees in education, health care, and social services.

Master's degrees, often called graduate programs, can take up to two years to complete on a full-time schedule. Students must finish 30 credit hours before capping their program with a thesis or dissertation.

In the past decade, the amount of graduate degrees earned nationwide have increased by 22% making master's degrees more commonplace today than ever before. While this may increase competition in the workforce at this level, master's graduates can still expect to earn $240 more per week than bachelor's graduates.

Master's degrees have the following distinctions:

Master of Arts (MA) degrees take a high-level look at subjects in the humanities, including communications, English, and history, through a mostly theoretical lens.

Master of Science (MS) programs teach research and analysis skills through intense lab work in areas of science including public health, environmental health, and biology.

Master of Fine Arts (MFA) explores creative disciplines such as theater, painting, or photography through the study of practical skills meant to prepare students to enter the workforce.

Master of Business Administration (MBA) is the most popular graduate program and one that's centered around learning team management, finance, entrepreneurship, risk management and other professional business skills.

Check out our article asking the big question: Is a Master's Degree Worth it?

Doctoral Degree

Doctoral degrees, also known as doctorates, are the final step that most students take in their pursuit of higher education. Aside from a professional degree, this is the highest you can go when it comes to traditional degree levels. Doctoral students often pursue this high level degree with the intention of becoming tenured professors or securing roles in academic research facilities.

Doctorates require a significant time commitment, with programs lasting between four to eight years and requiring 60 credit hours.

When it comes to salary, doctoral graduates can expect to earn an average of $1,909 per week, which is $335 more per week than master's degree holders. Price is also important to consider when contemplating your return on investment, as average doctoral degrees cost $114,300, according to the Education Data Initiative. Keep in mind, this cost is on top of your bachelor's degree.

Here are the two most common examples of doctorate designations:

Doctor of Education (EdD) is a research-focused degree for experienced educators interested in leadership positions at an academic institution.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the most common type of doctorate and one that designates an individual's achievements in original academic research and a scholarly understanding of a wide range of subjects, although not exclusive to philosophy itself.

Choosing the Best Degree For You

Understanding how to pick a college is just as important as deciding which degree is best for you. You should start by noting your interests and abilities. Achieving a fulfilling career can take years of studying and a lot of learning on-the-job. Before embarking on this journey, you should be confident that you love what you do and that you're capable of doing it long-term.

Next, you should think about your specific career aspirations and the likelihood that the job will be viable years down the line. Does your job appear on the BLS list of occupations with the most job growth? If not, it may be worth reconsidering if job stability is important to you.

Another consideration might be regarding the financial stability of your career. For this, you should look at OnlineU's Salary Score, which is based on a major's alumni earnings in comparison to the average earnings of other schools with similar programs. The BLS has plenty of data surrounding the earnings from degree levels, but our Salary Score can help you narrow down your degree search by institutions' individual programs.

FAQs About College Degree Levels

Which Degree Level Is Best?


The degrees in college that you choose should depend on the profession you want to obtain. Before committing to certain degree levels, take a deeper look into what your state requires for your specific career, be it licensure or degree achievements. This will help determine which degree level is best for you.

Also, each degree level you earn means a higher salary in the long run. Doctoral graduates earn more than master's graduates, and master's graduates earn more than those who stopped at the bachelor's level, and so on.

What Comes After a Bachelor’s Degree?


A master's degree comes after a bachelor's degree. Bachelor's degrees are generally four-year programs that provide a foundation of knowledge and skills. Master's degrees take a closer look at a subject based on your understanding of the fundamentals. They also allow you to apply for state licenses in areas such as psychology and teaching.

What Is the Highest College Degree?


Doctoral degrees are the highest degree you can earn when it comes to traditional degree levels. They are a considerable undertaking, especially given the high cost and amount of time you'll need to dedicate to the program. Beyond doctorates, some careers require a professional degree, which is sometimes necessary for licensure or accreditation in a given field. Dentists, lawyers, and veterinarians, for example, all require a professional degree.

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