What Is an Undergraduate Degree? [2021 Guide]

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What is an undergraduate degree? You're not alone if you're confused about what the difference is between being a graduate and undergrad.

What is an undergraduate degree? You’re not alone if you’re confused about the different college degree levels and differences between being a graduate and an undergrad.

What Is an Undergraduate Degree

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Basically, you’re an undergraduate if you have an associate or bachelor’s degree. You’re a graduate if you have a master’s or doctorate degree.

What Is an Undergraduate Degree vs Graduate?

undergraduate degree students studying in university campus

Two terms commonly used when discussing college degrees are undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees.

Here we’ll explore which degrees fit into each of these categories.

Undergraduate Degrees

There are two types of degrees in college generally referred to as undergraduate degrees: associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Students working toward either of these degrees are often referred to as undergrads.

Associate’s Degrees

associates degree students studying together in library

An associate’s degree is also what some people refer to as a 2 year degree. Associate’s degrees are typically earned after completing two full-time years at a college or university. These first two years of college usually consist of general education or core classes.

These are the general classes that many students have to take no matter which degree they’re ultimately pursuing.

Included in these classes are usually things like English comp, math, science and science labs, research/study skills, public speaking, physical education, and history.

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At the associate’s level, you’ll likely start taking a few classes here and there that pertain to your intended major, but the majority of your classes will probably be the same classes most other freshman and sophomore students are taking.

There are a few different types of associate degrees.

Associate of Arts

associates of arts students studying together in library

Associate of Arts (A.A.) degrees are usually awarded to students who’ve completed the required credit hours to earn an associate’s degree in a humanities-related field.

If you’re majoring in an area that isn’t STEM-related, it’s likely to be in the humanities instead. This includes students majoring in English, art, music, and other similar fields.

Associate of Science

associate of science students studying together in library

Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees are awarded to students who’ve completed enough credits to earn an associate’s in a STEM-related field. This could include students majoring in science, mathematics, engineering, or similar areas.

Associate of Applied Science

Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degrees are given to students who are on vocational college paths. Earning one of these degrees may allow you to go straight into the workforce in fields such as welding, precision machining, cosmetology, and more.

Many of the credits earned toward this type of degree aren’t transferable.

Bachelor’s Degrees

bachelor degree students walking in university campus

A bachelor’s degree is usually earned after four full-time years as a college student. For this reason, it’s also sometimes called a 4 year degree.

If you’ve earned your associate’s degree already, you may only have about 2 more years as a full-time student before earning your bachelor’s degree.

If you enroll in a 4 year university from the start, you’ll probably work straight through toward your bachelor’s degree. This means you would likely stay at the same university for your freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years of college.

Some students earn a bachelor’s degree to pursue a minor along with their major. The difference between a major vs. minor is that the major is the main choice of study, while a minor is a secondary choice of study that typically complements the major.

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Another option is going to a 2 year community college for your first two years and transferring to a different college for your last two years to earn your bachelor’s degree.

There are three different types of bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor of Arts

Bachelor of Arts student studying in library

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degrees are usually given to students who complete 4 year degrees in humanities-related fields. These include students majoring in English, music, art, foreign languages, communications, theater, and other related fields.

Bachelor of Fine Arts

Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees are similar to the A.A.S. degrees mentioned above. These degrees are typically pursued by students planning on taking vocational paths into the world of creative art.

Those with a B.F.A. often want to pursue jobs as sculptors, dancers, actors, singers, or similar creative art careers.

Because this degree usually focuses on a specific concentration, such as dance, and doesn’t require a lot of different general education classes, such as English or math, it’s typically considered a vocational degree and usually isn’t transferable.

Bachelor of Science

bachelor of science in nursing students studying together

If you plan on studying something in a STEM- or business-related field, you’ll likely be working toward a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree.

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These degrees typically cover general education classes but are heavily focused on a chosen scientific field of study. B.S. degrees are given to people majoring in nursing, economics, business, medicine, engineering, and other STEM- or business-related fields.

Graduate Degrees

Graduate degrees are higher-level degrees, sometimes referred to as postgraduate degrees. Students working toward graduate degrees are often referred to as grad students.

There are two main types of graduate degrees: master’s degrees and doctoral degrees.

Master’s Degrees

master degree students listening to their professor in university classroom

Master’s degrees can often be earned a year and a half to two years after receiving a bachelor’s degree if attending school on a full-time master’s schedule. Some students take only one class at a time at this level, which can make it take longer.

There are two main types of master’s degrees: Master of Arts and Master of Science. There are other lesser-known master’s degrees, such as Master of Research and Master of Studies, but we’ll be focusing on the two most common types here.

Master of Arts

You can potentially earn a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in the following fields:

  • English
  • Communications
  • History
  • Education
  • Music

There are other fields as well, but these are some of the most popular.

Master of Science students studying in class

Classes are generally taught using a mixture of seminars and lectures, and the degree is usually awarded after the completion of coursework, independent research projects, exams, and other requirements.

Master of Science

You could potentially earn your Master of Science (M.S.) degree in the following:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Engineering
  • Medical fields

Just as with the Master of Arts degree, there are other fields in which you could be awarded your M.S. degree. Some areas, such as social science fields and economics, could potentially be either M.A. or M.S. degrees depending on the course structure.

Doctoral Degrees

doctorate degree student studying in library with his laptop and books

Earning a doctorate can potentially take 4 to 8 years, or perhaps even longer. This is the highest degree that can be achieved, and there are many different types of doctoral degrees. These include:

  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Public Health (D.P.H.)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Business Management (D.B.A.)
  • Doctor of Social Work (D.S.W.)

Doctoral degree programs are often the most intensive and comprehensive programs there are. Earning one of these degrees can help you become a master in your field.

What Is an Undergraduate Degree Called?

What Is an Undergraduate Degree Called

Associate and bachelor’s degrees are undergraduate degrees. Undergraduate degrees are typically earned within the first 4 years of college.

There are many different names for these degrees in addition to just associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree. For example, many people refer to a bachelor’s degree as simply a college degree because it’s the most common degree people receive.

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Other people call associate’s degrees first degrees because they’re the first degree you could potentially receive after graduating high school or earning your G.E.D. and starting college.

Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are also commonly called 2 year and 4 year degrees, respectively.

Undergraduate Degree

As we outlined above, there are also several different types of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and each has its own specific name as well.

If someone tells you they are working on their undergrad degree, they are working toward an associate or bachelor’s degree. Most often, if someone says they are working on their undergrad, they mean their bachelor’s because many use “undergrad degree” colloquially for bachelor’s degree. Students working on their associate’s degree will often just call it that.

What Is Considered an Undergraduate Degree?

What Is Considered an Undergraduate Degree

An undergraduate degree could be any degree obtained in the first 4 years of college. Any of the various types of associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees we listed above could potentially be undergraduate degrees.

There is one other thing that can loosely be considered an undergraduate degree. If you’re going to college to work toward a certificate in a certificate program, this, too, might be considered by some to be an undergraduate degree, even though it isn’t technically a degree.

Unlike degree programs, certificate programs usually don’t take years to complete. In fact, depending on what particular program you’re taking, you might finish your program and earn your certificate within a matter of months or even weeks.

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Either way, certificates can usually be obtained in less than a year.

If you enroll in a certificate program, you likely won’t have to take many core education classes, such as math and English. Instead, the program courses will probably focus specifically on classes that cover only what you need to know about that program’s central focus.

undergraduate degree students studying together in library

In other words, if you’re in a phlebotomy certificate program, you will likely only be required to take training and classes that directly relate to what you’d be doing as a phlebotomist.

Some of the most popular certificate programs include:

  • Web development
  • Dental assistant
  • Phlebotomy
  • Construction
  • Heavy equipment operator
  • HVAC
  • Veterinary assistant
  • Mechanics
  • Cosmetology
  • Real estate
  • Massage therapist

Another essential thing to know about certificate programs is that even though many people refer to them as undergraduate work, they don’t actually qualify as undergraduate courses, which means they also don’t qualify for federal Pell Grants or federal loans.

There are sometimes school-specific, local, and state grants available to help pay for certificate programs.

Sometimes, scholarships will allow you to apply for them if you plan on pursuing a certificate, but oftentimes, you have to find ways to pay for certificate programs yourself.

Is an Associate’s Degree an Undergraduate Degree?

associate's degree students hanging out together in university campus

Yes, an associate’s degree is an undergraduate degree. Although, as we’ve already mentioned, when someone uses the terms undergraduate degree or undergrad degree, they are most often speaking of a bachelor’s degree.

When people are working toward their associate’s degrees, they usually just call them that.

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Sometimes, they’re referred to as 2 year degrees as well, but the short answer is yes, an associate’s degree can be considered an undergraduate degree.

How Many Years Is an Undergraduate Degree?

number of years it takes you to earn your undergraduate degree

The number of years it will take you to earn your undergraduate degree depends on a lot of factors. First, it depends on whether you’re pursuing an associate’s undergraduate degree or a bachelor’s undergraduate degree. However, that’s not the only factor to consider.

To earn a typical associate’s degree, you’ll probably need to take at least 60 college credit hours. To receive a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely need a total of at least 120 hours. Of the 120 hours, 60 of them might be the first 60 hours needed to earn an associate’s degree.

Most college courses at the associate’s and bachelor’s levels are worth three credit hours apiece. There are a few exceptions to this, but generally, most classes are three hours.

Using three hours as the standard, approximately 20 college classes are needed to earn an associate’s degree, and approximately 20 more are needed to earn a bachelor’s.

Most full-time students take four or five classes a semester. If you’re a full-time student, you will likely be able to complete your associate’s degree in about 2 years and your bachelor’s degree in about 4 years.

However, as we mentioned, there are other factors to consider. For instance, what if you’re not a full-time student? Well, if that’s the case, it will take you longer to earn your degree than if you were a full-time student.

You can take the number of classes you plan to take each semester and divide that number into the number of classes needed to earn your degree to get an estimate of long it will take you.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you want to go to college during the summer. Summer semesters aren’t required for you to be regarded as a full-time student.

However, if you decide to take classes in the summer, you could potentially graduate earlier than the usual 2 to 4 years.

How Many Years is a Graduate Degree?

number of years it takes you to earn your graduate degree

When it comes to master’s and doctoral degrees, the number of years it takes to graduate can vary greatly. The average time to earn a master’s degree is 2 additional years, and on average, it takes 4 additional years to earn a doctorate.

Many graduate students have families and full-time jobs, so they don’t always take a full load of classes each semester, which can make it take longer to finish a degree.

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Many people have to pay their own way through graduate school, so they may only be able to afford to take one class at a time. If this is your situation, then it could potentially take you several more years to finish your graduate degree program.

It’s easier to answer this question in terms of semester hours.

graduate degree students studying in library

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, an additional 36 to 54 hours of coursework is typically needed to complete a master’s degree program. This usually translates to 12 to 18 master’s-level classes.

Some doctoral programs require more coursework than others, so there is a good bit of variance depending on the degree pursued. On average, doctoral programs typically require somewhere between 90 to 120 college credits to graduate. This translates to roughly 30 to 40 additional college courses.

What Is the Difference between an Undergraduate and a Graduate Degree Admission Requirements?

student being interviewed by panel during admissions interview

When applying for admission into undergraduate and graduate programs, the main difference is that the admissions requirements for graduate programs are often more rigorous.

When it comes to undergraduate programs, many students are able to gain admission into a program with just a high school diploma, home school certificate, or G.E.D.

You may need other requirements to get accepted into your dream school, but there are many undergraduate programs with simpler admission requirements.

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When it comes to graduate programs, many schools are more exclusive about who they accept. In part, this is because master’s and doctoral programs usually have less space for new students.

In many graduate programs, space is minimal because the course load is harder, which requires professors to be able to spend more one-on-one time with students doing independent projects.

undergraduate student studying in library

In order to be accepted into a master’s or doctoral program, you may have to meet some pretty stringent requirements.

Most graduate programs require a specific G.P.A., often a 3.0, and several recommendation letters from employers and past professors stating they believe you can make it through the demanding coursework required for graduate students.

Furthermore, most grad schools will require you to write an admissions essay explaining why you want to be accepted into the program and why the school should accept you.

Some programs may even require you to submit your resume to prove that you’ve had actual hands-on experience in the field for which you’re applying.

For comparison, most community colleges only require proof that you’ve finished high school, home school, or a G.E.D. program to apply for an associate degree program.

Even when it comes to many bachelor’s degree programs, as long as you’re in good standing academically and have enough credits to transfer, you’ll likely be able to gain admission into a program.

What Is the Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate Students?

Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate Students

When it comes to college students, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to age, gender, experience, or anything else. There are always exceptions to the norm.

For instance, there are a few rare instances of child prodigies who haven’t even finished junior high school that take the G.E.D. or finish home school and enter college before they can even drive.

On the other side of the coin, there are senior citizens who never had the chance to go to college when they were younger because they had to work all their lives.

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Now that they’ve retired, they’re taking the opportunity to go back to college and get the education they never had the opportunity to earn before.

However, if we discount those exceptions, there are some pretty standard characteristics that many college students share. This section will discuss the characteristics of “typical” undergrad and graduate students at each level.

Associate’s Degree Students

Associate's Degree Students meeting in university hallway

Many students working toward their associate’s degrees have minimal real-world experience. This is because most students working on their associate’s degrees are coming straight out of high school.

The majority of associate’s degree students are between 17 and 20 years old, depending on whether they graduated at 17, went straight to college, or took a year off before starting college.

Some of them may be holding down part-time jobs, and a small selection of them may actually have a full-time job outside of college, but most are either jobless or doing work-study on campus.

If they don’t live in the freshman dorms on campus, they’re more than likely living at home with their parents.

Bachelor’s Degree Students

Bachelor's Degree Students meeting in library

Many students working on their bachelor’s degrees are entering their junior and senior years of undergraduate college.

The majority are 20- to 24-year-olds moving up after earning their associate’s degrees. But since many people stop for a while after receiving their associate’s degrees, many schools have a good mixture of people coming back to college in their late 20’s to work on their bachelor’s degrees.

Students on the younger end of the spectrum are usually either living at home with their parents, on campus in the dorms, or in off-campus housing with other college students close to their age.

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Students on the older end of the spectrum don’t usually live in dorms, choosing instead to live in their homes, perhaps with spouses or children.

Younger students often work on campus or have part-time jobs off campus, commonly in restaurants or retail stores or as interns in offices related to their majors.

Bachelor's Degree Students studying together

Older students typically have full-time jobs and often only take classes in the evenings or online.

Most students of any age at this level have some real-world experience. Though older students probably have more than younger students.

Some of the older students may already be working in their fields of study and are only coming back to school in order to receive promotions or keep up-to-date with the latest innovations in their career field.

Either way, most bachelor’s degree students have some level of experience of being out in the real world on their own.

Master’s and Doctoral Degree Students

Master's and Doctoral Degree Students researching in library

At the graduate school level, students are even more varied. There are students who move into master’s programs immediately after earning their bachelor’s degrees and then into doctoral programs after receiving their master’s.

There are also plenty of students who stop going to college after receiving their bachelor’s degrees and only go back to graduate school later in life.

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This means you could potentially run into students in their late-20s to their late-70s and even older. However, the average age of a master’s-level student is 33, and the average age of doctoral students is just a little bit older.

By the time you make it to grad school, you’ll likely have quite a bit of real-world experience, and you may even have several years of actual work in your chosen career field. If you’re like many other grad students, you may be married and even have small or adolescent children.

Doctoral Degree Student working on her assignment in library

Most graduate students live on their own or with their own families—spouses and children, not mothers and fathers—and hold down full-time jobs while working on classes whenever their schedule allows.

Students in graduate school tend to be much more focused and less immature than undergraduate students.

Pell Grants do not pay for graduate school, and you and many of your fellow grad students may have to pay for this out of your own pockets. For this reason, most students take the courses more seriously and work harder than students at the undergrad levels.

Is an Undergraduate Degree Good?

graduating student hugging her mother during graduation ceremony

Yes, many students benefit from having an undergraduate degree. Whether or not an undergraduate degree is good depends on what you want to do with it. Education in and of itself is usually always good.

However, if you’re hoping to become a brain surgeon, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree isn’t going to be enough.

There are many careers out there that require at least a master’s degree and sometimes a doctoral degree to be qualified. There are many more jobs, though, that only require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Either way, an undergraduate degree can still be a good thing.

If you want to hold a job as a nurse, teacher, welder, dancer, accountant, or one of a thousand other jobs, an undergraduate degree can help you.

Furthermore, some jobs don’t require a degree at all, but if you get a degree, you could potentially be paid quite a bit more than you would without the degree. In those instances, many people find undergraduate degrees to be worth the time it takes to earn them.

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Undergraduate degrees are typically the most reasonably priced degrees, and if you qualify for federal Pell Grants and/or scholarship money, you might even be able to get a degree for free, depending on the school you choose.

Most would consider a free degree that could potentially allow you to be paid more and get promotions to be a good thing.

If you are hoping to become a brain surgeon or any of the other jobs that require you to have a doctorate or a master’s degree, undergraduate degrees are useful because they are needed to move into higher levels.

What Are the Pros and Cons of an Associate vs Bachelor Degree?

Pros and Cons of an Associate vs Bachelor Degree

There are specific jobs out there that actually require you to have at least your bachelor’s degree in a related field. However, for jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, should you get one anyway?

Here are some of the pros and cons of an associate’s degree vs. a bachelor’s degree.

Associate’s Degree

Associate's Degree students studying in class

The following is a list of some of the best things about earning an associate’s degree:

Pros:

  • An associate’s degree usually costs less than a bachelor’s degree.
  • Less time in college is usually needed.
  • For many jobs, you can earn your associate’s degree and then go straight to work, allowing you to start making money more quickly.
  • If you decide to go back for your bachelor’s later, you can probably transfer at least some of your credits.

Although there are quite a few pros, there are also some cons to only earning your associate’s degree. Those include the following:

Cons:

  • You might not be eligible for specific jobs and/or promotions.
  • You may be less likely to get a job if you’re up against a candidate with a bachelor’s degree.
  • You could potentially be paid less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
  • You may be ineligible to work in upper management.

These are some things to consider when deciding whether or not to continue your education after getting your associate degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor's Degree students sitting in university campus grounds

There are also pros and cons to getting your bachelor’s degree. Some of the pros include:

Pros:

  • You may have increased job prospects.
  • It can help you develop better, more in-depth knowledge of your particular field of study and subsequent career.
  • It can increase your potential to be promoted to upper-level management positions.
  • You may make more money than people in your field with only associate’s degrees.

There are, of course, some cons to continuing on to get your bachelor’s degree as well. Some of these include the following:

Cons:

  • It will likely cost you more than getting your associate’s degree.
  • You’ll likely be in college for years longer.
  • If you work a full-time job, you’ll have to find time in your schedule to continue school.
  • You may be required to take night classes and give up your weekends for homework.

There are pros and cons for whichever route you choose. The best route for you will depend on your personal career goals.

What is Undergraduate and Postgraduate Accreditation?

Undergraduate and Postgraduate Accreditation

Whether you’re working toward an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate degree, an important thing to consider is whether or not your college and your program of study have accreditation.

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Without it, your degree may not be worth the time and money you put into getting it. There are two main types of accreditation: national and regional.

National Accreditation

National accreditation focuses on schools that offer trade, vocational, and some career paths. There are many different agencies that can provide schools with national accreditation.

If you’re working on an undergraduate degree, depending on your chosen field of study, you may be at a school with national accreditation.

However, at the graduate level, you’ll likely want your program of study to be regionally accredited.

Regional Accreditation

undergraduate students walking in university hallway

Regional accreditation is the most widely recognized and prestigious type of accreditation.

Regional accreditation is given to schools that focus not on trades or vocations but on higher academic learning. Credits earned at regionally accredited schools are more likely to be able to transfer to another school, whether that school is regionally or nationally accredited.

However, credits earned at nationally accredited schools can usually only be transferred to other nationally accredited schools.

Also, regional accreditation is only given to non-profit institutions, whereas national accreditation is often given to for-profit colleges and universities.

There is a third type of accreditation that students often want to look for as well. This is programmatic accreditation, sometimes called specialized or professional accreditation.

Programmatic Accreditation

professionals accreditors walking around university campus

While the other two types of accreditation apply to colleges and universities as a whole, this type of accreditation focuses specifically on programs within a school, not the schools themselves.

This type of accreditation ensures that a particular program is accredited and up to par with other colleges’ programs in the same field.

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This type of accreditation is often given to programs like nursing, business, marketing, psychology, and other specific programs that are popular fields of study.

What Financial Aid Is Available for Undergraduates vs Postgraduates?

Financial Aid Available for Undergraduates vs Postgraduates

While it is typically easier to find financial aid for undergraduate programs, finding financial aid for postgraduate work isn’t impossible. For both types of degrees, you just need to know where to look.

Undergraduate Degrees

The first place most undergraduate students look for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA may be your gateway to both a federal Pell Grant, which is free money that doesn’t have to be paid back as long as it is used appropriately, and federal loans, which have some of the best repayment options of any loans available on the market today.

Undergraduate Degrees student studying in classroom

The next type of financial aid you can look for is scholarships. It is usually beneficial to apply for all the scholarships you can find. Even if you’re eligible for a full Pell Grant that will cover the entire cost of your college degree, it can still be beneficial to apply for scholarships.

Scholarships will be applied first to your expenses. Then your Pell Grant will be used if you still owe anything.

However, if you receive enough scholarships to pay for your entire college experience, your Pell Grant may just be given to you to use for anything else you need. It can be a great way to help support yourself through those first few years of college.

Typically, the first place to look for scholarships is your college’s specific website. There should be a financial aid tab on the site, and any scholarships the school offers should be listed there.

You can also look for scholarships on Scholarships.com and Fastweb.com and by doing an internet search for local scholarships available in your area.

Postgraduate Degrees

Postgraduate Degrees students studying together

Although you won’t be eligible for Pell Grants at the graduate level, filling out the FAFSA can still be beneficial.

If you fall within a particular financial bracket, you could still be eligible for federal loans, which usually have better rates and repayment options than loans taken out elsewhere.

Furthermore, although scholarships for graduate work are a little harder to find, they do exist. The same sites mentioned above, Scholarships.com and Fastweb.com, are good places to start, as is your college’s financial aid page.

A simple internet search may also help you find scholarships that are available. One important way to make sure scholarships are valid is to remember that no legitimate scholarship should ever ask you for your social security number or for you to pay a fee to be considered.

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Joy Cromwelle
WRITTEN BY
Joy Cromwelle
Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration. Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.