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College degrees in order: A guide to all 4 college degree levels

At a glance

  • Academic degree levels in order are associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctoral degree. Students may also earn certificates as academic credentials.
  • In general terms, a Bachelor of Arts is a four-year degree that focuses on holistic learning and typically focuses on communication, writing and critical-thinking skills. A Bachelor of Science is a four-year degree that is more specialized and focuses on a specific discipline, like business and healthcare.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment rate and median weekly earnings increase with educational attainment.
  • University of Phoenix has a number of academic programs at every degree level, which are aligned to real-world careers.

When it comes to planning for college and your educational future, it’s important to consider all the steps between you and your goals. Chief among these is the depth of knowledge you’d like to attain on a given subject. Are you looking to lay the basic groundwork or forge new ideas in your field?

How you answer that question can largely determine the degree or degrees you choose to pursue. The college degree levels that we cover here progress in terms of academic achievement. Knowing the college degrees in order can help you determine just how far you’d like to take your academic studies.

College degrees in order

In terms of level of study, the college degree programs in order are:

1.     Associate degree

2.     Bachelor’s degree

3.     Master’s degree

4.     Doctoral degree

It’s important to think of college degrees in order for a few reasons. For starters, knowledge for a bachelor’s degree differs dramatically from what’s required for a doctoral degree. By moving through the degrees in order, you leverage previous academic knowledge to address new challenges. Prior education can form a strong foundation for future learning.

It's also important to consider the different time and financial requirements of each degree type, as well as a given degree’s impact on your career prospects. You might, for example, research what education is typically required for a position in your desired field. This can help you figure out the level of education you need to earn to reach your goals.

College degree levels

Associate degree

Whether looking to move on to a bachelor's degree or join the workforce right away, many students take advantage of the flexibility and affordability of an associate degree.

Associate degrees are beyond a high school diploma but short of a bachelor’s degree. In terms of coursework, they tend to take about 60 credit hours per semester or two years for students to complete. (Curious to learn more? Read “How long does it take to get an associate degree?” on our blog!)

Types of associate degrees

Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS)

Both AA and AS degrees provide a strong entry point into a field of study. They often serve to help students transfer their education into a bachelor’s degree to further their studies and enter the workforce.

Examples include:

Associate of Applied Arts (AAA) and Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

AAA and AAS degrees are similar to the other associate degrees but tend to incorporate a more hands-on experience in the classroom.

Bachelor’s degree

If you’re looking for work, chances are you’ve noticed that a common prerequisite for employment in many fields is the completion of a bachelor’s degree program. With this degree, you demonstrate a strong, foundational level of know-how related to your field.

A bachelor’s degree is one of the most commonly required degrees for employment, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to achieve. A bachelor’s degree will likely take about four years to complete. In that time, students take a deep dive into their field of study, often undergoing several semesters’ worth of courses that include lectures, examinations and hands-on experience.

In a traditional four-year bachelor's degree program, students take general education classes primarily during their first two years of schooling. These classes are meant to give students a broad base of knowledge outside their particular specialization.

Many students choose to start getting their general education requirements out of the way by taking these classes at a community college. They can then transfer those credits when matriculating at a college or university.

Types of bachelor’s degrees

Bachelor of Arts (BA)

A BA represents the completion of an undergraduate program that focuses on a discipline in the arts or humanities. What distinguishes a BA from other types of bachelor’s degrees is that it tends to emphasize each student’s exploration of a given subject.

While a BA program has many required classes, students pursuing a BA tend to have more leeway as to how they plan and complete their studies. BA graduation requirements also often include classes outside of a student’s major to provide a broader liberal arts education.

Examples include:

  • English
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Creative writing

Bachelor of Science (BS)

As opposed to the more philosophical nature of a BA that focuses on the humanities, a Bachelor of Science degree tends to focus more on science and math. While some subjects can be studied in both BA and BS programs, the latter will likely focus more on a singular path of study with less emphasis on courses in other subjects.

If you have a specific academic focus in mind and aren’t as interested in learning about other liberal arts subjects, then a BS program may be more aligned with your goals. These programs tend to home in on the practical application of a course of study, which can help you when you enter the workforce.

Examples include:

Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

A BFA is a specific kind of bachelor’s degree pursued by students in the arts, particularly performing arts, visual arts and music.

What distinguishes BFA programs from BA programs? A BFA tends to include more hands-on work in a studio setting and less emphasis on examinations and lectures.

A college degree can help enhance your career. Click here for a breakdown of the cost of online vs traditional college and the ways you can save.

Master’s degree

Wondering what comes after you graduate with a bachelor’s degree?

While many students stop after they earn an undergraduate degree, other graduates — motivated by employment requirements or simply a curious mind — opt to go back to college to go further with their subject of choice.

Typically, master’s programs take about 30 to 60 semester credits or about two to three years to complete. Some master’s programs are shorter and can be earned in a year, depending on the college.

Regardless of which program you choose, it should be noted that a bachelor's degree in a relevant field of study is almost always a prerequisite to pursuing a master’s degree.

Classes in a master’s program are more rigorous than in a bachelor’s degree program. These classes build upon the knowledge gained during a bachelor’s degree program and introduce students to more specialized and distinct subjects in their field of study.

The class sizes tend to run on the smaller side compared with undergraduate classes, and they might emphasize group discussions over lectures and require a capstone or thesis project.

Types of master’s degrees

Three common types of master’s degrees are:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

For brevity, we won’t break down the differences between the types of master’s degrees, but the distinction is essentially the same as those between the bachelor's degrees. An MA tends to focus on subjects in the arts, while an MS focuses on a scientific subject and its practical applications.

In addition to those listed above, here are more types of master’s degrees:

Each of these degrees represents a specialization within a field, whether that be an MPH for public health or an MSW for social work. While the curriculum, rigor and requirements of each master’s program differ, they commonly require a bachelor’s degree in the field of study, or a related field. In addition, some programs require professional experience in the given field. 

Doctoral degree

The top of the academic degree hierarchy, a doctoral degree represents the most in-depth education within a discipline. Upon completion of a rigorous program, doctoral students are designated as authoritative experts in their field.

Completing a doctoral program isn’t just a feather in your cap. Doctoral graduates in 2020 had lower unemployment rates and higher median weekly earnings than individuals with less education.

As the level of attainment is so high, doctoral degree programs expect a lot from prospective students. Most doctoral programs require the achievement of a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. Upon entering a doctoral program, students face a difficult but rewarding curriculum in their subject before culminating their studies with a dissertation or an applied project in the case of a practitioner doctoral degree (like those offered at University of Phoenix).

A dissertation is at the heart of any doctoral program. A final project of sorts, a dissertation requires doctoral students to conduct research, present their conclusions to faculty in their program, and defend those conclusions. This process can take months, and many doctoral students fail to complete their degree precisely because of how difficult dissertations are.

For those who do successfully complete their dissertation, however, they are rewarded with a doctoral degree, as well as the honorific title of “doctor.”

A doctorate isn’t for everyone, but it can be for anyone. Click here to read about one University of Phoenix alumnus who went from a 1.3 GPA to a doctoral program.

Types of doctoral degrees

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The most commonly known and recognized doctoral degree is the Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD. Despite the name, these degrees are not exclusively conferred on students of philosophy. Instead, a PhD is a research degree that can be completed in a number of subjects.

Less focused on applying learned skills in the marketplace, research in a PhD program is focused on enriching a specific field. Original research is often a requirement for graduation in this kind of program. PhD students often work at the outer bounds of their field to uncover new discoveries.

Practitioner doctoral degrees

In contrast to PhDs, other doctoral degrees focus on practical applications within a specific industry. University of Phoenix, for example, does not offer a PhD, but rather doctoral degrees designed for scholar practitioners.

Some examples are:

Now that you’ve learned the college degree levels in order, we hope that you feel better equipped to plot out your educational future.

Frequently asked questions about college degree levels

Which degree comes first in college?

Most students start by earning an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree before moving on to a graduate degree, such as a master’s and/or doctoral degree.

What is a four-year degree called?

A bachelor's degree, and it generally takes about four years to complete.

What comes after a bachelor's degree?

Students may choose to return to college to pursue a master’s degree program after getting their bachelor’s degree.

What is the highest degree?

That would be a doctoral degree, which represents one of the highest levels of educational attainment within a particular field.

Ready to start your educational journey? Click here to explore more than 100 online programs aligned to 300+ occupations at University of Phoenix!