College Degree Types and Levels

Graduation CapEarning a college degree is still the most reliable way to improve your career opportunities and earning potential. One of the greatest benefits of College graduates is that your earnings potential is more than a non-degree worker and experience lower rates of unemployment. Universities and community colleges award degrees at varying levels, from associate’s degrees to doctoral degrees. When comparing different degrees, students can consider which program best fits their career goals and academic interests.

There are a variety of college degrees and each has advantages and disadvantages. There are four major categories of degrees available for post-secondary students: associate, bachelor’s, master and doctoral degrees. Earning one of these degrees can take 2-8 years, depending on the level of the degree and field of study. Graduate-level programs may require students to complete one or more undergraduate programs prior to enrollment.

Degree LevelType of DegreeTime to Complete
UndergraduateAssociate’s degree2 years
UndergraduateBachelor’s degree4 years
GraduateMaster’s degree1 – 2 years
GraduateDoctoral degree5-8 years
GraduateProfessional degree5-8 years

Undergraduate Degrees

There are two broad categories of undergraduate college degrees: associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. The average amount of time it takes to earn a degree – also called time to degree – is two years for an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree. Some credits from associate’s degree programs can typically be applied toward a bachelor’s degree, but an associate’s degree is not required for entrance to a bachelor’s degree program.

Associate Degree

This two-year degree is an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or Associate of Science (A.S.). Some students who earn this degree transfer to a four-year program to earn a bachelor’s degree. Others complete associate degrees to prepare to go straight to work. Community colleges, career colleges, and some four-year colleges offer these degrees.

Bachelor’s (or Baccalaureate) Degree

This degree requires completing a four- or five-year college program. Most students earn a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.). Other types of bachelor’s degrees include the Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Architecture degree.

Graduate Degree

Graduate degrees are advanced degrees pursued after earning a bachelor’s degree. Examples are a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) degree. Students generally can earn a master’s degree after two years of study. A doctoral degree (for example, a Ph.D.) requires four or more years of study.

Professional Degree

Students earn professional degrees to become licensed to work in professions like medicine or law. The M.D. degree is an example. Professional programs generally require a college degree before you start them and then at least three years of study to complete.

Joint Degrees

Students can earn a bachelor’s plus a graduate or professional degree in less time if they combine them. A student on this track may apply to a graduate program as an undergraduate and begin the graduate program in the fourth year of college.

Liberal Arts and Career Combination

In this program — also known as a 3-2 or dual-degree program — students usually complete three years of liberal arts study followed by two years of professional or technical study. In the end, students earn two bachelor’s degrees, usually a B.A. and a B.S.

Teacher Certification

Some colleges let you earn a teacher certification by combining bachelor’s degree study with state certification requirements. State requirements vary, but these programs usually feature professional education courses, including student teaching.