If you’re one of millions of Americans considering going back to school (or if you’re going to school for the first time) you face not only an exciting decision, but a daunting one as well. There are hundreds of degrees and fields out there, and trying to decide on one can be confusing, to say the least. We’ve put together a guide to the different types of college degrees and what they mean, but before you get started, here are a few things to think about:
Type of College Degrees: Frequently Asked Questions
- What level of degree do you need? Make sure a given college degree program is tied to a specific career goal. For example, if you want to become a public school teacher, you need a teaching certificate.
- Do you meet the program’s prerequisites? Many types of degree programs, especially the more advanced ones, require you to hold previous degrees or qualifications. No matter how nicely you ask, an MSN program will not admit you unless you have a practical nursing degree.
- Once you find a degree program, make sure you have thought about how to fit your new educational commitment into your life. College is a substantial time commitment, and it can be expensive as well. This is not to say you shouldn’t do it; for millions of Americans, education is a liberating-and financially rewarding-experience. Just make sure you have a plan.
Without further ado, here’s our comprehensive guide to the various types of college degrees.
High School Diploma
The High School Diploma is the foundational type of degree in the American educational system: you will need to have one in order to enroll in nearly any postsecondary educational program. If you are still in high school, you must finish this degree to move on. If you didn’t graduate from high school, don’t give up. Almost all employers and schools consider the GED an acceptable substitute for a high school diploma.
Many schools, both online and at ground campuses, offer affordable GED programs-so you don’t really have any excuse. If you didn’t finish high school, go get your GED!
Certificates, Certifications, Diplomas
These often involve certification in a particular field or area, in anything from Medical assisting to Paralegal Studies. Furthermore, there are many certifications for particular technologies, such as web developer or repair technician. These kinds of degrees tend to be relatively quick; they typically take from about six weeks to a year to complete.
Types of Undergraduate Degrees
AA/AS-Associate of Arts/Associate of Science Degree
This is the basic, two year type of college degree. It is often awarded at community colleges, as well as many distance learning programs. There are many different versions of this degree which signify the subject of study, from the AAS (Associate in Applied Science) to AFA (Associate in Fine Arts).
In some fields, such as medical assisting, Associate’s degrees may demonstrate the necessary expertise to qualify graduates for immediate employment in a designated profession. In other fields, such as business administration, Associate’s degrees often involve a set of basic preparatory coursework, equivalent to the first two years of a Bachelor’s program.
BA/BS– Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science Degree
This is the standard terminal four-year college
Nursing Degree Levels
CNA-Certified Nurse Assistant & Nursing Degrees
This is the most basic nursing degree. As such, it is also the quickest course to complete: students can graduate in as little as six-weeks, and it is even offered at some high schools. In the workplace, CNAs usually work under the supervision of their nursing colleagues: LPNs and RNs.
LPN/LVN-Licensed Practical Nurse/ Licensed Vocational Nurse.
This is the basic practical nursing degree. While LPN/LVN programs involve one-year of study, prerequisites can often stretch the program into a second year. These degrees signify a significant increase in skills and responsibility over the CNA degree, and usually entail an increase in pay as well. LPNs must attend an accredited nursing school and, due to the “hands-on” nature of this training, most such programs are usually offered at ground campuses.
ASN-Associate of Science in Nursing/ AND-Associate Degree in Nursing BSN-Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
These two degrees account for the vast majority of RNs in American healthcare. Involving either a two- (ASN/AND) or four-year course of study, these degrees involve training in many of the more complex responsibilities of the nursing profession. Again, these programs are usually campus-based, but students already possessing an associates degree or practical degree as well as an RNcan complete an RN-BSN program online.
RN – Registered Nurse.
While not technically a college degree, the RN credential is a commonly-held qualification at thousands of hospitals, and a necessary prerequisite to graduate nursing degrees. RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN examination, which is required by all US states and territories. Again, in order to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam, either an ASN/ADN or BSN is required.
MSN-Master of Science in Nursing.
Graduate work in Nursing requires at least a Bachelor’s degree, and specifically the BSN degree. MSN degrees can involve many different specializations, from Nurse Practitioner to Nurse Administrator. Unlike many other nursing degrees, Master’s degrees are often offered online.
Graduate Degree Types
MA/MS-Master of Arts/ Master of Science.
(*These degrees require AT LEAST a Bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite.)
This is the standard graduate-level degree. It usually consists of a full-time two-year program of study, but both part-time and accelerated programs are common, meaning Master’s degrees can take as little as nine months or as much as three or four years, depending on the volume of coursework.
Because Master’s degrees are offered in hundreds of different fields, their status varies widely in the workplace: for example, Physician’s Assistants must obtain a terminal Master’s degree in order to practice medicine, whereas in many other disciplines, especially in the Arts and Sciences, a Master’s degree involves continued training in research, perhaps in preparation for further graduate study at the PhD level.
MBA – Master of Business Administration.
By far the most common graduate degree in business, MBAs come in many shapes and sizes. Most students enroll in general MBAs, although many specializations, such as marketing, accounting, or even non-profit management, are common as well.
MBA degree programs are offered both online and on-campus, full-time and part-time, and in standard (two-year) and accelerated (nine months) timeframes. Executive MBA programs are a special kind of course usually taken by professionals with as many as ten years of business experience, with a special focus on high-level leadership. For more information, see our MBA degree guide.
PhD-Doctor of Philosophy.
This is the highest degree attainable in most university departments. It is most commonly associated with scientists and professors. Its cost, duration, and length differ by field, but completion usually takes anywhere from five to ten years. Graduate students studying for the PHd are called doctoral candidates, and some universities offer them the chance to teach undergraduates or assist in faculty research while they study, receiving tuition remission and a stipend in exchange.
Ed.D/D.Ed-Doctor of Education.
This college degree is held by many education administrators, principals, and education school professors.
Whereas the training received by primary-secondary school teachers usually emphasizes curriculum and pedagogy, education doctorates are more commonly focused on administration and educational theory.
MD-Doctor of Medicine.
This is the standard degree held by all physicians. It typically requires four years of coursework, after which an MD is obtained, but practicing doctors must then follow this with an internship and then residency, each offering hands-on medical training at a working hospital. These latter two phases can take anywhere from 3 to 8 years or more, depending on a doctor’s particular specialties.
JD-Doctor of Jurisprudence.
This is the degree received by students following successful completion of a three-year course of study at law school. Along with the Bar exams offered by individual states, it is one of the two credentials possessed by most practicing lawyers.