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What Is an Undergraduate Degree?

In this article, we'll explain the basics of an undergraduate degree, from its structure and costs to the doors it can open for your future.

Apr 11, 2024
  • Education
What is an undergraduate degree?

As high school comes to an end, many students are faced with the decision of what to do next. Pursuing higher education is a very popular option.

In this article, we'll explain what an undergraduate degree is, explore different types of undergraduate degrees, and the possibilities they open up.

What is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is the first-level degree of higher education offered by colleges and universities that many students typically pursue after high school. It provides a foundational education within your field while expanding your knowledge of general subjects outside your major in most cases.

The two most common types of undergraduate degrees are Associate and Bachelor's degrees.

Benefits of a Bachelor's degree or an Associate degree

Apart from getting one step closer to mastering your chosen field, an undergraduate degree can offer you an opportunity to build connections with potential colleagues, as well as better job prospects and higher salaries.

An Associate degree alone raises your salary by 18% on average. It also lowers the unemployment rate: the latest report from BLS shows that Associate degree holders have an unemployment rate of 2.7%, while 4% of high school graduates are unemployed.

A Bachelor's can give you even more - a 68% increase in median salary and only a 2.2% unemployment rate.

Bachelor's degree

A Bachelor's degree (or baccalaureate) is an undergraduate degree awarded by colleges and universities. It is usually a requirement if you want to pursue a Master's degree.

Bachelor's degree types include the popular Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS), as well as Bachelor of Technology (BTech or BT) and others. Depending on your institution and program, you may be required to write a thesis to get a diploma.

How long is a Bachelor's degree?

Bachelor's degrees typically take from 3 to 5 years for full-time students and require at least 120 credits to complete depending on where you study. Part-time students can complete their Bachelor's program in 6 years or even longer.

How much is a Bachelor's degree?

For the academic year 2022/23 an average Bachelor's student in the US spent $17,700 on tuition and fees, as reported by the NCES. Public institutions charged their students around $9,750 annually, while tuition in private colleges and universities averaged $35,200 per year.

The cost of a Bachelor's degree in Europe ranges widely from one country to another:

CountryTuition fees for national and EU/EEA studentsTuition fees for international and non-EU/EEA students
GermanyFreeFree
UKUp to £9,250 per yearFrom £10,000 to £38,000 per year
FranceFree€2,770 per year
Spain€700-€2,500 per yearAbout twice as much or more
Netherlands€2,530 per year€6,000-€15,000 per year, over €30,000 for medical programs

What jobs can you get with a Bachelor's degree?

Bachelor's graduates have many job opportunities available. For example:

  • Airline or commercial pilot: You can fly planes with flight training and a Bachelor's degree! The median annual wage for airline pilots is $211,000 and $104,000 for commercial pilots.
  • Top executive: After working in the industry for a considerable time, you can become a chief executive and earn about $189,000 per year.
  • Advertising, promotions, and marketing manager: For planning programs and generating interest in products or services you can earn a salary of $130,000 annually.
  • Financial manager: Creating reports and developing plans for long-term financial goals can get you around $140,000 per year.
  • Human resources manager: HR managers typically overlook the administrative functions of a company. The median annual salary for this position is $130,000.

All the salary data is taken from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Associate degree

An Associate degree is a level of academic qualification above a high school diploma and below a bachelor's degree. It is usually awarded by community colleges, junior colleges, and technical colleges.

There are different types of Associate degrees. The most common are:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

The AA and AS degrees can serve as a foundation for your Bachelor's degree. An AAS degree, on the other hand, is more focused on practical skills and helps you master a certain profession, so credits from that program usually can't be counted toward a Bachelor's.

How long is an Associate degree?

These degrees require around 60 credits so it usually takes 2 years to get an Associate degree if you're a full-time student. However, some schools offer accelerated programs that can earn you an Associate degree in 12 to 18 months.

How much is an Associate degree?

According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate students in Associate degree programs paid $3,900 on average in the 2022/23 academic year for tuition and required fees. However, the tuition for private institutions was much higher - $17,500 per year.

What Associate degree jobs can you get?

Here are a few careers you can consider after an Associate degree and how much they pay according to the US BLS:

  • Dental hygienist: If you get an Associate degree in dental hygiene, you can become a dental hygienist. You can expect to earn around $81,000 per year.
  • Air traffic controller: For coordinating the movement of aircraft you can expect your annual salary to be $132,000.
  • Computer network support specialist: You can choose to maintain computer networks and provide technical help to computer users. This profession can earn you about $60,000 annually.
  • Physical therapist assistant: People who work as physical therapist assistants help patients regain movement and manage pain after injuries and illnesses. On average, your salary can be $62,000 per year.
  • Paralegal: At this job, you would assist attorneys with gathering documents, researching, and contacting clients. The median annual wage is $62,000.

Undergraduate vs graduate degree

A graduate degree is one level higher than an undergraduate, as the name suggests. The main difference between the study programs is in the coursework: graduate programs typically only include classes that are specifically related to the major.

When someone talks about a graduate degree they usually refer to a Master's, although the term includes Doctorate (PhD) degrees as well.

A very common path towards the highest level of academic qualification you can achieve looks like this:

  1. A Bachelor's degree
  2. A Master's degree
  3. A Doctorate degree

Every next step here requires the completion of a previous one.

A Master's degree usually takes 1-3 years to get with a thesis, an internship, or a capstone project as the final part of a program. A Doctorate can be much longer - up to 7 years, and most PhD programs require you to write a dissertation.

However, those additional years spent on education do pay off. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median usual weekly earnings could increase by 16% if you earn a Master's degree and by 25% after you get a PhD.

Some jobs are only open to graduate degree holders. For example, you can't be a teacher at a college or university without at least a Master's, or a psychiatrist without completing a PhD.

Conclusion

An undergraduate degree is your first step in higher education. Depending on whether you choose to get an Associate degree or a Bachelor's, it can take you from 2 to 5 years of full-time studies.

To decide which undergraduate degree is right for you, determine your long-term goals before choosing a level. Both degrees can lead to a successful career. If you plan to continue your education and pursue a graduate degree, you should go with a Bachelor's. On the other hand, an Associate degree allows you to enter the workforce faster and at a lower price.

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