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Bachelor’s vs. Master’s Degrees: What Are the Differences?

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

An Overview of Higher Education

Higher education is post-secondary education, that is, education beyond the secondary level.1 In other words, it’s something that can be pursued after graduating from high school (secondary school) or passing a high school equivalency exam. Higher education generally refers to colleges and universities,1 though it can encompass other types of schools such as professional schools (law schools, theology schools, medical school, etc.) and teacher training schools, for example.2

In colleges and universities, higher education can be broken down into undergraduate programs (associate degree programs and bachelor’s degree programs) and graduate programs (master’s degree programs and doctoral degree programs). Associate and bachelor’s programs can generally be pursued by those with a high school diploma or high school equivalency, while master’s and doctoral programs can be pursued by those who possess a bachelor’s degree.

Now that we know the basics, let’s dive into some other differences between bachelor’s and master’s programs.

Undergraduate Degree Programs: What Is a Bachelor’s Degree?

“Bachelor’s degree” is a term that refers to any type of baccalaureate degree, when in fact there are different types of bachelor’s degrees. For example, depending on your field of study and the school you attend, you may receive a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) upon graduating. These types of bachelor’s degrees generally align with the following studies:

  • Bachelor of Arts: humanities-focused (language arts, history, philosophy, etc.)
  • Bachelor of Science: mathematics- and science-focused
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts: fine-arts focused (fashion, media production, painting, etc.)

Bachelor’s degree programs could provide a greater opportunity for developing advanced and in-depth knowledge and skills compared to associate degree programs, the other type of undergraduate degree program. While a bachelor’s is generally considered a four-year degree (despite the fact that it’s possible to earn one in more or less time depending on a number of circumstances), associate degrees are typically understood to take about half the time. (How many credits do you need for a bachelor’s degree?) Regardless of which undergraduate degree program you want to pursue, having a high school diploma or GED is usually required.

American InterContinental University offers traditional and online bachelor’s degree programs in the following areas of study:

  • Accounting (BS)
  • Business Administration (BS)
  • Criminal Justice (BS)
  • Fashion Design and Marketing (BFA)
  • Healthcare Management (BS)
  • Information Technology (BS)
  • Media Production (BFA)

Our Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Fine Arts programs are designed as 48-month programs. However, transfer credits, prior learning credits, breaks and the number of courses taken per term all have the potential to affect program length.

Graduate Degree Programs: What Is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is a type of graduate degree that’s more advanced than a bachelor’s degree but typically not as advanced as a doctoral degree or doctorate. (We say “typically” because the fine arts is a notable exception. A master’s degree is the highest degree you can pursue in the fine arts. An MFA is therefore known as a “terminal master’s.”) Master’s degree programs are designed to focus only on your chosen area of study, which means that they won’t contain the general education requirements seen in undergraduate program curricula.

Just as there are different types of bachelor’s degrees, there are different types of master’s degrees: Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Education (M.Ed.), Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) are just a handful of examples.

People choose to pursue this type of graduate degree for many reasons. Some may want to advance in their current field, while others may want to develop new skills and knowledge to pursue opportunities in a different field. And still others may wish to enter fields where a master’s degree is the minimum amount of formal education required. If you’re weighing a bachelor’s vs. a master’s, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Finder is a useful tool for easily identifying the minimum degree required for various occupations.

How long does it take to earn a master’s degree? Broadly speaking, master’s degree programs may take around two years to complete. But at AIU it’s possible to complete an online master’s degree program in 12 months or less. However, it’s important to note that the same factors which can influence the length of time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree program—breaks, course load, transfer credits, etc.—also apply to master’s degree programs.

AIU offers online master’s degree programs in the following disciplines:

  • Business Administration (MBA)
  • Education (M.Ed.)
  • Healthcare Management (MS)
  • Information Technology (MS)

Bachelor’s vs. Master’s Program Requirements

A big difference between bachelor’s vs. master’s programs is the average length of time it takes to finish the program. A full-time bachelor’s degree student with a “regular” course load could take about four years to complete their program, while a full-time master’s degree student with a “regular” course load could take approximately half that time. This is because master’s programs are more focused on your chosen field and require a fraction of the courses/credits needed to complete a bachelor’s degree program.

Of course, these are broad generalizations—how long it takes to earn a master’s or a bachelor’s is unique to every student. However, AIU’s flexible online degree programs may make it easier for you to fit your courses into your schedule, which could help you work toward completing your bachelor’s or master’s degree requirements faster than you may think possible.

Bachelor’s vs. Master’s Prerequisites

Bachelor’s degree requirements for admission vary from school to school. Minimum grade point averages can vary and standardized test scores may or may not need to be submitted, while a high school diploma or GED is typically required.

Is a bachelor’s degree required for master’s programs? Yes. However, your undergraduate major does not necessarily need to be in the same or similar field as the master’s you pursue. Master of Business Administration programs are a perfect example of this—a bachelor’s degree in business or a business-related field is not necessary to pursue MBA studies. Additionally, in some areas of study, licensing or certification may be required to apply to a master’s program. You should always familiarize yourself with a school’s admissions criteria so that you aren’t surprised by any prerequisites.

Bachelor’s Degree Salary vs. Master’s Degree Salary

The increased earning potential that comes with earning a degree might be a motivating factor for many people. This is because, generally speaking, the more formal education you attain, the higher your weekly earnings can be.3

How does the average bachelor’s degree salary compare to the average salary with a master’s degree anyway? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 the median usual weekly earnings were $1,334 for a bachelor’s degree holder and $1,574 for a master’s degree holder.

Keep in mind, though, that wages vary widely by occupation, industry and experience. They can also vary by where you live. That is why you should not base your decision to pursue a degree on the median bachelor’s degree salary vs. master’s degree salary alone. You should do your own research to determine the typical earnings in your desired career path.

Which Degree Should You Pursue?

If you know you want to earn a post-secondary degree but don’t already possess a bachelor’s degree, then deciding whether to pursue a bachelor’s vs. a master’s is a somewhat easy decision. That’s because you simply can’t pursue a master’s without already having a bachelor’s. If you’ve never attended college before, only have some college experience, only have a high school diploma or GED or the highest degree you possess is an associate degree, then a bachelor’s degree program would be the next step.

If you do already have a bachelor’s, then you may want to weigh the time and financial commitments that graduate school might require of you—is a master’s degree right for you in light of those commitments? Ask yourself: Do you need a master’s degree to pursue your desired occupation? Could earning a master’s degree lead to a salary increase? Will it help you prepare to pursue more senior roles?

Take the time you need to make the right decision for you. And when you’re ready, come and explore AIU’s convenient online and on-campus bachelor’s degree and master’s degree programs.

1 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “higher education,” education (visited 7/5/2023).
2 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “Higher Education,”, (visited 7/5/2023).
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Education Pays, “Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment, 2021,” (visited 7/5/2023).

American InterContinental University cannot guarantee employment, salary, or career advancement. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. REQ1933263 7/2023

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