Colleges award degrees, certificates, or diplomas to students who have completed specific requirements. Below is a description of the main types of college degrees available in the United States:
Certificate and Diploma Programs
Certificate programs and diploma programs are not actually college degrees but they are academic programs offered by many colleges. They are short programs that focus on a particular subject. Generally, these programs are career focused. They include few or no general education courses. Upon successful completion of the program students earn an official document (which is often referred to as a certificate or diploma) attesting to their accomplishment.
Diploma programs are usually offered at the undergraduate level. Coursework involved typically consists of only first- and second-year coursework. Certificate programs are offered at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Certificate programs typically require fewer courses than diploma programs. Some certificate programs only require the completion of non-credit coursework, usually followed by an examination.
Associate degrees are a type of undergraduate degree (below the graduate level) that typically require two years of full-time study. They consist of only first- and second-year college coursework.
Some associate degrees, usually an Associate in Arts (A.A.) or Associate in Science (A.S.), are designed for transfer into a bachelorís degree program. These degrees require a large portion of general education coursework, compared to other types of associate degrees in order to fulfill the general education requirements of bachelorís degrees. Many bachelor-degree granting colleges (also referred to as four-year colleges) have an agreement to award students who have completed their A.A. and A.S. degrees at the state's community colleges advanced standing with the first year and a half to two years considered complete. This type of agreement is referred to as an articulation agreement. Students transferring into programs without such an agreement may request to have their coursework evaluated on a course-by-course basis. In these cases, the evaluator would compare the requirements of the degree sought with the courses the student has completed.
Other types of associate degrees, such as an Associate of Applied Science or an Associate of Occupational Science, are designed to primarily teach students career skills. These programs require fewer general education courses because career coursework is emphasized. The career courses from these programs are often not transferrable.
Bachelorís degrees are undergraduate degrees that typically require four years of full-time study. Students may complete all four years as part of one college program or they may complete the third and fourth years after transferring in an appropriate associate degree from another college.
The two most common types of bachelorís degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.; abbreviated as A.B. at some colleges) and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.; abbreviated at some colleges as S.B.). These degrees typically require the equivalent of between 120 Ė 132 semester hours.
Masterís degrees are graduate-level degrees (also referred to as postgraduate degrees) that can be earned in a specialized field after completion of a bachelorís degree. These degrees generally require two years of full-time study. In addition to coursework, masterís degree programs typically require the completion of a thesis research project or a comprehensive examination at the end of the program.
Doctoral degrees are graduate-level degrees earned in a specialized field after completion of a related masterís degree. The masterís degree may be earned prior to enrolling in the doctoral program or earned en route to (while working toward) earning a doctoral degree.
The most common type of doctoral degree is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Doctoral degrees generally require three to four years of full-time study. In addition to coursework, doctoral degree programs typically require the completion of a comprehensive dissertation. Some doctoral degree programs also require practical experience in a related occupation.
Professional degrees are advanced occupational degrees in fields of study such as dentistry, law, medicine, pharmacy or veterinary medicine. Many of these programs award a doctorate degree. Most of these programs require completion of a bachelorís degree and specific coursework to be completed prior to matriculating into the program. Specific requirements for these degrees vary greatly by program.
When researching academic majors and career fields, it is important to have an understanding of the different types of degrees available. This understanding can give you a better understanding of the length of time it may take to meet the requirements of various academic programs and the requirements to enter certain professions. Such an understanding can help you make informed decisions your your future.