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Types of college degrees in order by level

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Marc Booker, PhD,  Vice Provost

Reviewed by Marc Booker, PhD, Vice Provost, Strategy

By Michael Feder

In this article

  • 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 areas like communication, writing and critical thinking. A Bachelor of Science is a four-year degree that is more specialized and focuses on a specific discipline, like business or healthcare.
  • University of Phoenix has a number of academic programs at every degree level, which are aligned to real-world careers.

This article was updated on 02/01/2024.
 

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 for a career change or to 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 types of college degrees in order can help you determine just how far you'd like to take your academic studies as well as which ones may be right for you based on your prior educational journey.

It's also important to consider the time and financial requirements of each degree type, and 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 and which degrees can help you gain skills to potentially move forward in your career. This can help you figure out the level of education you need to pursue your goals.

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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.

1. 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 are designed to take 15 credit hours per semester to be completed over approximately two years, though students may take longer. 

Types of associate degrees

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

Both AA and AS degrees can provide an entry point into a field of study. Students can build on the credits earned and knowledge gained in these programs and go on to earn a bachelor’s degree to further their studies.

This makes an associate degree a good option for those who want to earn a degree in a shorter time and aren’t ready for a four-year program. However, the number of credits students can transfer will depend on the institution offering the bachelor’s degree and the course of study chosen.

Examples of AA and AS degrees:

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 and specialized courses. They are designed to provide practical skills and knowledge that students can use in the workforce. University of Phoenix does not offer AAA or AAS degrees but offers other associate degree programs.

2. 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.

Of all the college degree levels, jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree have the largest projected growth through 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A bachelor's degree is typically designed to take about four years to complete, though students sometimes take longer. During that time, students take a deep dive into their field of study, often taking 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 specialization. In the second two years, they take classes that are more focused on the area of study related to their interests and career goals.

Many students choose to get their general education requirements satisfied by taking these classes at a community college. They can then use those credits when transferring to and being admitted to a college or university.

Transferability of credit is at the discretion of the receiving institution. It's the student's responsibility to confirm whether credits earned at University of Phoenix will be accepted by another institution of the student's choice.

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. A BA differs from other types of bachelor's degrees in that it tends to emphasize critical thinking and insights in the chosen area of study.

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.

Example:

Bachelor of Science (BS)

As opposed to the more philosophical nature of a BA that focuses on the humanities, a Bachelor of Science tends to focus more on technical and scientific areas of a discipline. While some subjects (like business) 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 and career path 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, in which you gain abilities and expertise you can apply immediately when you enter the workforce.

Examples:

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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 focused study and hands-on work, sometimes in a studio, and less emphasis on examinations and lectures.

3. Master's degree

Wondering what types of college degrees you can earn after 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 require successful completion of 30 to 60 semester credits. Some master's programs are shorter and can be earned in a year, depending on the college and how many classes the student takes.

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 degree program are more rigorous than in a bachelor's degree program. The classes often 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 with instructor guidance instead of instructor-led lectures. They may also require more projects, including 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, MFAs emphasize a narrower field study in the fine arts, and the 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 type 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.

Some master’s degrees, such as the MSW and the MPH, may also have a fieldwork requirement, in which students work in a real-world setting.

4. Doctoral degree

At the top of the hierarchy of college degree levels, a doctoral degree represents the most in-depth education within a discipline..

Completing a doctoral program isn't just a feather in your cap. Nationwide in 2022, those with a doctoral degree, on average, had lower unemployment rates and higher median weekly earnings than individuals with less education, according to BLS.

As the level of attainment is so high, these types of degrees expect a lot from prospective students. Most doctoral programs require students to have already earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Upon entering a doctoral program, students may face a difficult but rewarding curriculum in their subject before culminating their studies with a dissertation or, depending on the degree, an applied project.

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 and time-consuming dissertations can be.

Those who successfully complete their dissertation are rewarded with a doctoral degree as well as the honorific title of “doctor.”

Types of doctoral degrees

Doctor of Philosophy

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, including science, math, the humanities, business and social science.

Less focused on applying learned skills in the marketplace, research in a PhD program is focused on enriching and furthering knowledge in 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 and insights.

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Practitioner doctoral degrees

In contrast to PhDs, other doctoral degrees focus on practical applications within a specific industry, similar to the difference between a BA and a BS. University of Phoenix, for example, does not offer PhD programs, but rather its doctoral degrees are designed for scholar-practitioners.

Examples:

Knowing the types of college degrees in order can help you feel better equipped to plot out your educational future. Which degree you choose and how many you decide to earn throughout your career depends on your goals. Many people also decide to change careers at some point, which may mean earning a different degree or level of degree. 

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