College Degree Levels [2024 Guide]

By Joy Cromwelle
Edited by Briana Sukert
Updated on April 14, 2024
Edited by Briana Sukert
Ready to start your journey?
What are the different college degree levels? You may be curious about what the education pathway looks like when you follow it to the top.

What are the different college degree levels? You may be curious about what the education pathway looks like when you follow it to the top. Take a look at all you need to know!

College Degree Levels

It’s probably not surprising to hear that wages are almost universally higher in occupations that require college degrees for entry than occupations that don’t.

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You may stand to potentially earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over the course of your career if you get that degree in!

What Are the Levels of College Degrees?

college students walking together in university campus

There are actually four different types of degree levels to pursue; two in an undergraduate degree program and two in the graduate degree program. Each degree level can help equip you to specialize in your particular field.

The Associate Degree

An Associate degree can typically be earned as part of a two-year program that provides you with a very basic understanding of the topic of study. However, there’s actually quite a bit of range within this degree path.

Most people pursue Associate degrees because they’re looking to obtain entry-level positions in their desired fields. You commonly see this with nursing and education majors.

A percentage of people who earn Associate degrees simply stop there because this level of education provides all the qualifications needed for their degree paths.

Other students see an Associate degree as a bridge to another degree. For instance, you may complete a two year degree before jumping to a four-year school to earn a Bachelor’s degree. This often creates an affordable way to get your core classes done.

The Associate of Applied Science degree is a popular option among people who are interested in transferring to four-year programs. In contrast, an Occupational Associate Degree (O.A.D.) helps provide the hands-on training that may get graduates placed into career roles right away.

The Bachelor’s Degree

bachelors degree students walking in university campus

A Bachelor’s degree is that “traditional” four-year degree most of us know about. Bachelor programs are offered in just about every field. This includes education, nursing, computer science, biology, chemistry, film, foreign language, music theory, history, and the arts.

A Bachelor’s degree consists of general, core, and elective courses. All students start off taking the same general classes. Students then branch out based on the requirements of their majors.

There are actually different distinctions within the umbrella of the Bachelor’s degree. Here’s a look:

  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A)
  • Bachelor of Science (B.S)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch)

A Bachelor’s degree essentially serves two functions for graduates. Students may graduate equipped to enter the job market and pursue everything from entry-level to management positions.

In addition, a Bachelor’s degree can be a stepping stone on the way to a Master’s program.

The Master’s Degree

masters degree students sitting in university classroom

A Master’s degree can be obtained after a Bachelor’s degree. Most students complete a Master’s degree within one to two years. A Master’s program allows a student to focus on a very specific concentration of study.

Master’s programs are available for a wide range of fields. Here’s a look at the common degree types:

  • Master of Arts (M.A.)
  • Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A)
  • Master of Science (A.M.S.)
  • Master of Research (M. Res.)
  • Master of Philosophy (M.Phil)
  • Master of Laws (L.L.M)
  • Master of Business Administration (M.B.A)

It’s not necessary to jump to a Master’s program immediately after completing a Bachelor’s degree. Some students prefer to get in a few years of work experience before applying to graduate programs. Others go immediately from an undergraduate program to a Master’s program.

The Doctoral Degree

doctorate degree student studying in university library

A Doctoral degree is earned through a Ph.D. program. A Doctoral degree is considered to be the most advanced degree possible. Many Doctoral candidates desire to work in research or academic settings.

A Doctoral program is rigorous. Students are often required to do unique and independent research while also conducting hands-on work and completing heavy course loads. Here’s a look at some of the different Doctoral specialties:

  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed. D.)
  • Juris Doctor (J.D.)
  • Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M)

It often takes several years to complete a Doctoral program. Most medical programs require at least four years of study. In addition, medical students are typically required to complete residency programs.

What Degree Is 4 Years of College?

college students walking in university campus

The Bachelor’s degree is the degree that traditionally follows a four-year path. Some students that take extra credits each semester may be able to shave off a whole three to four months of schooling, which is how long a college semester is typically.

Additionally, some students find that it takes five years to complete degree programs due to class availability, semester-long internships, or year-long co-op programs.

Do You Have to Take the College Degree Levels in Order?

College Degree Levels in Order

This is a complicated question to answer. Let’s start by talking about what’s pretty much universally true. A Bachelor’s degree is going to be the baseline degree for both Master’s programs and Doctorate programs.

An Associate degree is what comes before the Bachelor’s degree. However, some people simply jump right into a Bachelor’s program without any need for an Associate program.

Every Master’s program requires a Bachelor’s degree. However, there’s some variation when it comes to requirements for Doctorate programs.

Some Doctorate programs require you to have a Master’s degree in a related field. Others will accept students with Bachelor’s degrees.

college students studying together in a library

It is also possible that a Doctoral program will allow you to put some of the credits and work done through a Master’s program toward a Doctoral degree.

The short answer is that everything has to be done in order. For instance, it would be impossible to obtain a Master’s degree without first obtaining a Bachelor’s degree.

What Is the Highest Degree You Can Get in College?

A Doctoral degree is the highest degree you can obtain in any field of study. It is often referred to as being a “terminal degree” for this reason.

How Many Credits Do You Need for the Different College Grade Levels?

Credits You Need for Different College Grade Levels

Your path to graduation is generally based on how many credits you earn instead of how many classes you take. A Bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits in total. Here’s a rundown of the credits needed for each undergraduate grade level:

  • Freshman: 0 to 29
  • Sophomore: 30 to 59
  • Junior: 60 to 89
  • Senior: 90 or more

A student will more than likely be on track to graduate within four years if they have 90 credits going into their senior year. Of course, some students graduate with far more than 120 credits. This is especially true in the case of a double major.

You don’t get to stop thinking about credits just because you’ve graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. Anyone going on to obtain a Master’s or Doctoral degree will need to complete specific credit totals to qualify for degrees.

college students studying together in library

How many credits do you need for a Master’s degree? Most programs require anywhere from 35 to 55-semester credits to be completed. The average credit requirement is somewhere around 40.

The credit total required for most graduate programs typically works out to be around 18 to 20 courses. That might not seem like a lot. However, it’s important to remember that these are often very intense courses.

Most four-year Doctoral programs require between 90 and 120-semester credits. That works out to somewhere around 30 or 40 courses! This is one of the reasons why many people opt to pursue Doctoral degrees on a full-time basis!

What Are the Admission Requirements for the Different Degree Levels in College?

student being interviewed during university admission interview

Both Associate degrees and Bachelor’s degrees require high school diplomas or equivalent. Additionally, colleges and universities almost universally require either the SAT or ACT exam.

Specific requirements regarding test scores, GPA, entry exams, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities will vary by school. You will need to base your decisions regarding where to apply on your own qualifications versus a school’s requirements.

Entry into a Master’s degree program varies by school. Most require a 3.0 GPA in a related undergraduate field of study.

It is often necessary to pass the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), or Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Although a growing number of graduate schools have no GRE or GMAT requirement for admission.

A Doctoral program will often require a Master’s degree in a related field of study. However, some programs do accept graduates with Bachelor’s degrees only. Most Doctoral programs require a minimum GPA of 3.3 or 3.5.

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) are two exams that are commonly required for entry into Doctoral programs.

What Is Accreditation College Degrees?

Accreditation College Degrees

Did you know that all degree programs aren’t the same? In fact, where you decide to study may shape your odds of landing the job you want after graduation. The school you choose may also impact your ability to be accepted into another degree program down the road. Let’s talk accreditation!

Yes, you really are going to need to know a bit about accreditation when making the best education choice. This means you’ll need to be proactive about asking questions as you research schools.

Accreditation is a form of “quality control” within the education sector. The U.S. Department of Education isn’t actually the entity responsible for granting accreditation.

The Department of Education instead approves a set of independent agencies utilizing the guidance of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).

business professionals walking in university campus

The agencies that are approved review the programs offered by colleges and universities using strict and rigorous guidelines.

What are some of the things that accrediting agencies look at? Factors like educational resources, student services, and faculty are at the top of the list. Additionally, accrediting agencies also take a close look at the quality of learning provided.

The most important type of accreditation to look at for most programs is regional accreditation. Here’s the list of the seven regional accreditations that signal a college or university offers a quality experience for students:

There are also nationwide and international accrediting bodies to consider. The list includes the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), and the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE).

What Are the Financial Aid Opportunities for the Different Levels of Degrees in College?

Financial Aid Opportunities for the Different Levels of Degrees in College

You may have robust options for financial aid at every degree level. Here’s a rundown of what’s available:

Associate Degree: Federal loans, education tax credits, work-study programs, and private scholarships.

Bachelor’s Degree: Federal loans, education tax credits, work-study programs, and private scholarships.

Master’s Degree: Federal loans, education tax credits, work-study programs, private scholarships, and state grants.

Doctoral Degree: Federal loans, education tax credits, scholarships, fellowships, grants, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships.

college students searching online for scholarships

Some of the specific loan options to look into include the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), the Federal Stafford loan, the Federal PLUS loan, and the Higher Education Grant.

Check what government aid you qualify for by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Don’t forget that employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement could be in the cards for you if your employer allows.

How can you get your employer to pay for a degree? Most employers that have tuition reimbursement programs require you to attend a college or university that is on their list of approved schools. In addition, you will probably be required to maintain a certain G.P.A. to be reimbursed for tuition costs every semester.

Are You Ready to Choose Your Degree Path?

graduating students sitting in university graduation hall

It’s always a good time to carve out a fresh start if you’re looking to start a new career or reach new levels in the one you already have.

Don’t forget that signing up for an Associate or undergraduate program today might mean that you’ll be applying to Ph.D. programs in just a few years!

Ready to start your journey?