What Is an Undergraduate Degree?


Whether you're considering colleges following high school or looking into returning to school to pursue your degree, you have a lot of options to consider. Even once you've settled on a program of study, there are variations between traditional, online and hybrid programs, and even different types of undergraduate degrees one can receive. So what is an undergraduate degree, exactly, and how do you go about pursuing one?

Types of Undergraduate Degrees

People may think of a traditional four-year college program when they hear the words "undergraduate degree," but that's not actually accurate. There are essentially two categories of undergraduate degrees, typically distinguished by the amount and level of coursework required to attain each.

Associate Degree

An associate degree is considered the next educational step following a high school diploma. Typically taking two years of full-time study at the undergraduate level, an associate degree can offer a way to potentially qualify for a broader scope of jobs and higher pay rates than are available without a degree, while requiring a lower time commitment than a full four-year bachelor's program. Often, some or all of the credits from a completed associate degree may be transferable if you choose to enter a bachelor's degree program, meaning it may take less time than starting on a bachelor's from scratch, and making it a good stepping stone toward a higher degree down the road.1

Bachelor's Degree

While a bachelor's degree is typically what people think of when they talk about a traditional four-year degree, many students are now taking longer to complete coursework.2 A bachelor's program involves more extensive and advanced study in one's area of concentration than is required by an associate degree, and holding a bachelor's degree enables job candidates to qualify for more positions and earn a higher annual salary on average than an associate's or high school diploma. Research also shows that the unemployment rate is lower among those with at least a bachelor's degree than those without.3

What is an Undergraduate Degree vs. a Graduate Degree?

Because undergraduate degrees are the first level of post-secondary education students can pursue, they involve a mix of general education requirements and courses specific to a particular degree program. They are designed to provide a solid, broad base on which to build future knowledge and education, in addition to developing the skills needed to pursue a career in one's chosen area of study.

Graduate degrees, on the other hand, are any degrees students may pursue after receiving their bachelor's—this typically includes master's degrees and Ph.Ds.

  • Master's degree – Master's degrees offer students the opportunity to develop additional knowledge and specialization in a specific area of study, and may be required for mid- to- high-level positions in a number of industries. Typically, a master's program takes at least two years to complete - though some professional programs can be completed more quickly - while others may be completed over a longer period by attending classes part-time.4
  • Ph.D. (Doctoral degree) – A Ph.D. is the highest graduate degree (referred to as a "terminal degree") one can obtain in any area of study. Doctoral degrees provide advanced specialization in one's field and are intended to indicate degree holders' significant level of expertise. Ph.D. programs typically take longer than master's degrees to complete, averaging anywhere between two to five years.4

People may choose to find a job and enter the workforce after earning their undergraduate degree in order spend some time finding out whether they actually need to pursue an advanced degree. Some graduate programs also cater to working professionals, offering the chance to pursue an advanced degree while still working full-time.

Ready to learn more? Explore online degrees at AIU.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Quarterly, "Associate Degree: Two Years to a Career or a Jump Start to a Bachelor's Degree," on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2002/winter/art01.pdf (viewed March 26, 2016).

2. New York Times, "Most College Students Don't Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds," on the Internet at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/02/education/most-college-students-dont-earn-degree-in-4-years-study-finds.html?_r=0 (viewed March 26, 2016).

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, 2015," on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm (viewed May 2, 2016).

4. CollegeAtlas.org, "Types of College Degrees," on the Internet at http://www.collegeatlas.org/types-of-degrees.html (viewed March 27, 2016).