What Is an Undergraduate Degree? [2020 Guide]

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

What Is an Undergraduate Degree

Basically, you’re an undergraduate if you have an Associate or Bachelor degree. You’re a graduate if you have a Master or Doctorate degree.

What Is an Undergraduate Degree vs Graduate?

undergraduate degree students studying in university campus

Two common terms you’ll hear used when discussing college degrees are undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees.

Here we’ll explore exactly 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 two-year degree. Associate’s degrees are typically earned after you’ve completed two full-time years at a college or university of your choice. During these first two years of college, you’ll usually be taking your general education – core – classes.

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

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

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 be the same classes most other freshman and sophomore students are taking.

There are a few different types of Associate’s 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 a vocational college path. These degrees could allow you to finish your Associate’s degree and go straight into the workforce in fields such as welding, precision machining, cosmetology, and more.

A lot of the credits earned toward this degree aren’t transferable, though, so be aware of that.

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 four-year degree.

If you’ve earned your Associate’s degree already, you should only have about two more years as a full-time student before earning your Bachelor’s degree.

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

With a Bachelor’s degree, some students 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 can complement the major.

Another option is going to a two-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 four-year degrees in one of the humanities-related programs. 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. You’ll only receive this degree if you’re planning on taking a vocational path into the world of creative art.

If you plan to become a sculptor, dancer, actor, singer, or something similar, you might earn a B.F.A.

Because this degree focuses mainly on the specific concentration of your major, such as dance, and doesn’t require you to take a lot of different general education classes such as English, math, etc., it’s considered a vocational degree and isn’t usually 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 your Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree.

These degrees cover general education classes but are heavily focused on your 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, on the other hand, are higher level degrees, sometimes referred to as postgraduate degrees. Students working toward their graduate degrees are usually referred to as grad students.

There are two main 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 usually be earned a year and a half to two years after you’ve received your Bachelor’s degree if you’re attending school on a full-time Master’s schedule.

Some students take only one class at a time at this level. This is perfectly fine, of course, but it’ll make your timeline 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 a Master of Research, a Master by Research and a Master of Studies. Because they’re rare, we won’t discuss them 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, of course, 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 you complete all your coursework, finish your independent research project and pass an exam.

Master of Science

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

  • 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 your Doctorate could take you anywhere from four to eight years. This is the highest degree you can achieve, and there are many different types of Doctoral degrees you can work toward. 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.)
  • and Many More!

The Doctoral degree programs are the most intensive and comprehensive programs there are. By the time you earn one of these degrees, you should be a true Master in your field.

What Is an Undergraduate Degree Called?

What Is an Undergraduate Degree Called

An undergraduate can be called an Associate or Bachelor degree. As we discussed in the first section, an undergraduate degree is basically any degree earned within the first four 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 the Bachelor’s degree simply as a college degree because it’s the most common degree people receive.

Other people refer to Associate’s degrees as 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 two-year and four-year degrees, respectively.

Undergraduate Degree

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

The essential thing to remember is this: If someone tells you she’s working on her undergrad degree, she’s either working toward her Associate’s or Bachelor’s, usually her Bachelor’s, as undergrad degree is a typical colloquialism for a 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 four years of college. Any of the various types of Associate’s degrees and Bachelor’s degrees we listed above could potentially be an undergraduate degree.

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, could be considered by some to be an undergraduate degree, even though it isn’t technically a degree.

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

Either way, certificates can almost always 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, English, and all the rest. Instead, the program courses will 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 should 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
  • and More.

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 you 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 term undergraduate degree or undergrad degree, they are almost always speaking of a Bachelor’s degree instead.

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

Sometimes, they’re referred to as two-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 takes you to earn your undergraduate degree depends on a lot of factors. First and foremost, it depends on whether you’re talking about 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 need to take at least 60 college credit hours. To receive a Bachelor’s degree, you need a total of at least 120 hours. Of the 120 hours, 60 of them should be the first 60 hours you earned for your 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, that means you have to take approximately 20 college classes to earn your Associate’s degree and 20 more to earn your Bachelor’s.

Most full-time students take four or five classes a semester. If you’re a full-time student, this means you should be able to complete your Associate’s degree in about two years and your Bachelor’s degree in about four 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, then we can’t really give you an estimate of how long it will take you in years to earn your undergraduate degrees.

You’ll have to take the number of classes you generally take each semester and divide that into the 20 and 40 classes it takes to earn your degrees. That should tell you about how long it will take you.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you want to go to college in the summer semesters. 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 two or four 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, it’s nearly impossible to answer this question in terms of years. Technically we could say the average time for Master’s is two additional years and four additional years for a Doctorate.

However, because most graduate students have families and full-time jobs, they don’t always take a full load of classes each semester.

Furthermore, because a lot of people have to pay their own ways through graduate school, sometimes they can only 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 programs.

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

graduate degree students studying in library

After receiving your Bachelor’s degree, you will usually have to earn somewhere between an additional 36 and 54 hours of coursework to complete your Master’s degree program. This translates to between 12 and 18 Master’s-level classes.

If you’re working toward your Doctorate, it gets even hazier because some Doctoral programs require much more coursework than others. A good rule of thumb is that Doctoral programs require somewhere between 90 to 120 college credits to complete.

This translates roughly to between 30 and 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 admissions requirements for graduate programs are much stricter.

When it comes to undergraduate programs, as long as you have a high school diploma, home school certificate, or G.E.D., you’re pretty much guaranteed admission into a program somewhere.

You might not get accepted into your dream school, of course, but you can be accepted somewhere for undergrad work.

When it comes to graduate programs, though, the schools are much more exclusive on who they accept. In part, this is because Master’s and Doctoral programs usually have less space for new students.

Because the course load is so much harder, and there is more pressure for professors to spend more one-on-one time with students doing independent projects, space in these programs is minimal.

undergraduate student studying in library

So, in order to be accepted into a Master’s or Doctoral program, you have to meet some pretty stringent requirements.

You’ll almost always have to have a specific G.P.A., usually 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 require you to write an essay explaining why you want to be accepted into the program and why the school should accept you.

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

By contrast, all you need to get into a community college for your Associate’s degree is proof that you’ve finished high school, home school, or a G.E.D. program.

Even when it comes to the Bachelor’s degree program, as long as you’re in good standing academically and have enough credits to transfer, you’re pretty much set.

What Is the Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate Students?

Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate Students

When it comes to college students, we all know that 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.

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 most 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

Most 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.

They’re between 17 and 20 years old, depending on whether they graduated at 17 or whether or not they took a year off before starting to 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 and have very few responsibilities.

Bachelor’s Degree Students

Bachelor's Degree Students meeting in library

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 because many people often stop for a while after receiving their Associate’s, you will get a pretty good mixture of people coming back to college in their late 20’s working 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.

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.

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

Bachelor's Degree Students studying together

The older students typically have full-time jobs in all different types of fields and often only take classes in the evenings or online.

All students at this level usually have some real-world experience. Admittedly, the older students commuting back and forth to campus probably have more than the 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 areas.

Either way, most 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, there is no “typical” student. 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.

However, there are also plenty of students who stopped going to college after receiving their Bachelor’s degrees and only came back to graduate school later in life.

This means you could potentially run into students as young as late-20s and as old as late-70s. However, the average age of a Master’s level student is 33, with Doctoral students being 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

Odds are you’re living on your own or with your family – spouse and children, not mother and father – and are holding down a full-time job, working on your graduate-level classes whenever your schedule allows.

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

Pell Grant no longer covers you once you hit graduate school, and you and many of your fellow grad students may be paying for this out of your own pockets. For this reason, most students take the courses much more seriously and work a lot harder than students at the undergrad levels.

Is an Undergraduate Degree Good?

graduating student hugging her mother during graduation ceremony

Yes, an undergraduate degree is good. Whether or not an undergraduate degree is good depends on what you want to do with it. Education in itself is always good, so in that sense, yes, undergraduate degrees are undoubtedly good.

However, if you’re hoping to become a brain surgeon, an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree isn’t quite going to cut it.

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 is all you need.

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

Furthermore, undergraduate degrees are the most reasonably priced degrees, and if you qualify for federal Pell Grants and/or scholarship money, you can even get the degrees for free depending on which school you choose.

Free degrees that could potentially allow you to be paid more or get promotions? Those are always 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 still useful because you have to earn your undergraduate degrees before you can move into the higher levels.

You can’t directly jump straight to the Doctoral degree without taking care of the other three degrees first.

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 your Associate’s degree:

Pros:

  • An Associate’s degree costs less than a Bachelor’s degree.
  • You spend less time in college.
  • 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 transfer 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 thinking about stopping after getting your Associate’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor's Degree students sitting in university campus grounds

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

Pros:

  • You could have increased job prospects.
  • You should have a better, more in-depth knowledge of your particular field of study and subsequent career.
  • You have the potential to be promoted to upper-level management positions.
  • You should 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 cost you more than getting your Associate’s degree.
  • You’ll 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.

As you can see, no matter which route you take, there is good, and there is bad. You simply have to weigh the options and see which path is the best for you to take to achieve the career goals you’re hoping to achieve. Remember that anything is possible with some hard work.

What is Undergraduate and Postgraduate Accreditation?

Undergraduate and Postgraduate Accreditation

Whether you’re working toward an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate degree, one of the most important things to establish right away is whether or not your college and your program of study have accreditation.

Without it, your degree isn’t 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 almost certainly 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, and any graduate program worth the money should have regional 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 can be transferred to practically any other school, whether that school is regionally or nationally accredited.

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

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

There is a third type of accreditation that students should also look for when checking out the accreditation of their program, and 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 the colleges and universities as a whole, this type of accreditation focuses specifically on programs within the school, not the schools themselves.

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

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 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 you should look for financial aid for undergraduate degrees is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA is your gateway to both a federal Pell Grant, which is free money that doesn’t have to be paid back, 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 things you should be looking for are scholarships. 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, you should still 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 can just come to you as free money that you can use for anything you need. It’s an excellent way to help support yourself through those first few years of college.

The first place you should 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. These are excellent scholarships to receive if you’re eligible for them.

Other places to look are on Scholarships.com, Fastweb.com, and on Google for any 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, you should still fill out the FAFSA.

If you fall within a particular financial bracket, you could still be eligible for federal loans, which have better rates and repayment options than loans you’ll take out from anywhere else.

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.

However, don’t discount the merits of a proper Google search. Just remember that no legitimate scholarship should ever ask you for your social security number or for you to pay a fee to be considered.

Natalie Anderson
WRITTEN BY
Natalie Anderson