4 degrees you can get in US higher education

May 2024

10 Minute Read

Tagged as: US vs UK, Choosing a School/Program

A brief discussion of associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees and where one would study go earn them

Depending on a) how ready a student is for university study, and b) the field they want to go into, they may choose to enter a four-year university straight away to begin their bachelor’s degree program. Alternatively, a student may benefit from completing two years at a community college before transferring to a bigger school. Higher education in the US follows a fairly predictable path, but there are many options available to students no matter what they want to study.

For many, a bachelor’s degree is all you will need to break into your chosen field and have a successful career. Further, the choice to attend a large research university or a small liberal arts college will influence the kinds of courses a student will take, and the degree of interaction they will have with their professors. However, more people are choosing to pursue advanced degrees to have a stronger foundation and more opportunities for advancement. This is especially true for research fields, engineering, and business.

Here are the four types of degrees most colleges and universities in the US will offer:

1. Associate’s Degrees

More than 10 million students (over half of all undergraduates) in America attend community and technical colleges. These are the institutions that grant associate’s degrees.

Some students are strictly interested in taking classes, rather than living in a dorm, attending a bowl game, or joining a club.  Others want to work in careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, including high-paying jobs in computer science and healthcare.  Alternately, some students can’t pay a small fortune to earn a degree. For this reason, they choose to attend a community college and eventually transfer to a four-year university.

There are two main types of two-year schools.

  • Community Colleges (or junior colleges) primarily offer two-year associates of arts (AA) and associates of applied science (AAS) degrees in a wide variety of fields. For example, Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, has departments in liberal arts, engineering, and even fine and performing arts. This is quite similar to a four-year college or university.  Many community colleges are also similar to four-year universities in non-academic ways.  Some community colleges also have terrific intercollegiate athletic programs, with many athletes eventually going on to star at major NCAA programs during their junior and senior years.
  • Technical Colleges focus primarily on providing students with a specific skill, and primarily offer associate of technical arts (ATA) and associate of applied science (AAS) degrees. These colleges offer a diverse range of programs—from automotive repair to Web development. In general, technical schools specialize in training students to enter the workforce, as opposed to pursuing a four-year degree.

2. Bachelor’s Degrees

Most students who complete bachelor’s degrees take between four and six years to do so. This degree, which is perhaps the most well-known in US higher education, is considered to be a standard requirement for entry into certain fields, such as engineering, teaching, or accounting.

  • Private four-year schools include some of the most prestigious universities within their ranks. Some of these are Harvard College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Brown University, among others. All eight of the schools in the "Ivy League" are private schools.
  • Public four-year schools are typically larger than private institutions, though this does not mean the quality of education is lower. Some of the most prestigious schools in this category are known for their innovative cultures and well-funded research facilities. The University of California at Berkeley, the University of Florida, and the University of Washington are three such schools.

3. Master’s Degrees

Particularly if a student wants to pursue an in-demand field, it may be worthwhile to consider pursuing a master’s degree to expand their skill set. These degrees may take between one to three years to complete. Many of these, in certain circumstances, may be completed concurrently with one’s bachelor’s degree, however, all require a bachelor’s degree in order to be obtained.

  • Professional master’s degrees are fast-tracked, intensive degrees that are generally designed to be completed in one to two years, depending on the institution. These include terminal degrees such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA). This degree is designed for people aiming for management positions or business ownership. Another, the Master of Public Administration (MPA), is for those interested in entering the public sector, government, or NGOs.
  • Master of Science or Master of Arts degrees are offered in nearly as many fields as bachelor’s degrees and take between two and three years to complete. Some of these programs prepare students to enter doctoral programs, while others are meant for securing more specialized careers. These programs will usually require the student to complete a thesis and pass a final exam to obtain.

4. Doctorate Degrees

This is the highest level of education one can complete in the US. This category includes both professional degrees and research-intensive degrees.

  • Professional doctoral degrees include the M.D., (awarded upon completion of medical school), and the J.D. (awarded after completing law school). These do not require a master’s degree to obtain, only a bachelor’s. However, some may find it helpful to complete a master’s program anyway, depending on how specialized their desired field is.
  • Other doctorate degrees, including the PhD., Ed.D., and D.Mus., are research-intensive programs. Doctorate programs may take anywhere between 4 and 10 years to complete and are often fully funded by the institution. Doctoral candidates complete a dissertation, defense, and a comprehensive exam.

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