The Difference in College Degrees

Understand what the different types of degrees are, what they mean and how you can reach your goals.

Shawna Newman

June 21, 2022

The Difference in College Degrees
Any type of college degree is better than no degree!
Do you know the difference between an AA, BA, BS, BFA or MFA? You should – especially if one is going to have your name on it soon! You’ll even find there are specific scholarships for each type of degree. Distinguishing the different college degrees can easily become alphabet soup, unless you understand what each really means. It’s easy to confuse degrees with one another, since the degree differences are comprised of a variety of general education requirements, along with some elective courses.
In the United States, there is not a set standard degree program for each that colleges must follow, which is why there can be many variations between the two degrees. There are also colleges and universities within the U.S. that award BS degrees for all majors, like MIT. They’re also similar in that both types of bachelor’s degrees typically require four years of full-time study in order to complete the number of academic courses necessary. Consider this if you've decided to be a part-time college student. Such graduation degree requirements can vary and usually depend on the school, major, the credit hours required, and the intensity of a particular student’s schedule.
You likely won’t have to choose which degree you’d like to work towards because it will automatically fall under one of the three categories once you’ve chosen an area of study. Also, keep in mind that most employers pay little attention to the difference between types of bachelor’s degrees when making hiring decisions. Should your career path lead you to continue your education, a master’s degree would be the next degree level of completion. Even further is a doctorate (PhD), which is a highly specialized, expert degree. This is considered a terminal degree. Meaning you have reached the highest level of education in your field of study.
We’re breaking down the types of degrees so you can get a better understanding of what you’re working toward.

Certificate or Diploma

  • Most likely offered within a technical or vocational field, as in the occupational fields of an associate degree.
  • Often leads to a specified job within a field, such as a Certificate in Office Administration or Business Administration.
  • Associate Degrees

  • Requires completion of a two-year program equates to an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science (AS).
  • A degree awarded after completion at a two-year college.
  • Often at a community college, technical college or junior college.
  • Two types of associate majors are offered: technical/vocational and non-vocational or university paralleled.
  • According to The Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), the technical and vocational specialties are generally for entrance into an occupational field, and fall under one of six categories:
    1. Business & Commerce Technologies
    2. Data Processing Technologies
    3. Health Services / Paramedical Technologies
    4. Mechanical/Engineering Technologies
    5. Natural Science Technologies
    6. Public Service-Related Technologies
    The university paralleled degrees are often referred to as transfer degrees since they mirror the first two academic years of a four-year college curriculum, given in “Arts and Sciences” or “General Studies.”

    Bachelor’s Degrees

    Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Arts, and Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) fall under the category of bachelor’s degrees. It is commonly referred to as the undergraduate degree and is the first level of a complete college education.

    Bachelor of Science (BS)

  • Typically requires more courses within a specified major than a Bachelor of Arts.
  • Considered the more technical degree, in comparison.
  • Likely this type of degree is held in fields such as math or science (economics, computer science, engineering and accounting are among the usual fields).
  • Awarded more often in the natural sciences than the humanities.
  • Awarded more often in pre-professional academic majors versus purely academic.
  • Students receiving a BS have a sharper career focus, such as engineering or journalism.
  • Provides students with more specialized training, often involving technical and analytical skills.
  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)

  • Focuses on a wider selection of courses in social sciences
  • Fewer hours studying your major, more elective courses
  • The goal of this type of college degree is to prepare the graduate with a well-rounded education, not necessarily for a specific job.
  • This is the more popular, or traditional degree of the two.
  • Usually awarded after completing courses within liberal arts or social sciences school.
  • Often requires additional coursework requirements in language arts, literature or social sciences
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

  • Awarded for studying and completing coursework in the fine or performing arts fields.
  • Available at most universities, but usually awarded within an art school.
  • Commonly referred to as a “professional” degree due to the rigorous study/training within a student’s given major.
  • Master’s Degrees

    Students often refer this level of education as grad school. Grad students may even be employed professionals while working toward a graduate degree.
  • Includes Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA).
  • They make up the first level of graduate degrees.
  • Usually takes one to two years of additional courses to earn after a bachelor’s degree.
  • First Professional Degrees

  • Requires at least two years of previous college coursework for program entrance.
  • Requires a minimum of six years of college coursework for completion.
  • Degrees awarded under a first professional degree include, but are not limited to: JD Law, MD Medicine, DVM Veterinary Medicine, DC Chiropractic, DDS or DMD Dentistry, OD Optometry, DO Osteopathic Medicine

    Doctorate Degrees

  • Doctorate degrees are the highest level of graduate degrees.
  • Doctoral programs typically consist of independent research culminating in a dissertation or presentation of study results, in addition to additional coursework.
  • Can be awarded in humanities, arts, and sciences.
  • Title is often specialized by the doctoral program (ex. Doctor of Education, Ed.D; Doctor of Philosophy, Ph.D.).
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