Students pursuing higher education have a world of options to choose from, from credentials such as badges and certificates to a range of college degree levels.
Regardless of the path students choose, experts see a need for professional career training.
"I believe we're in a time where some sort of educational foundation is necessary," says Kia Hardy, dean of advising and campus dean at Tidewater Community College's Virginia Beach, Virginia, location.
While not every job requires a degree, a college diploma is a must-have for others. Some professions demand further academic pursuits, requiring multiple degrees in the field. Alternatively, college certificate programs also offer students a chance to learn a skill set. And some certificates are designed to be built upon, with those credits applicable to an eventual degree, Hardy notes.
"There are many different purposes behind a degree," says Frank J. Dooley, a professor and senior vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue University--West Lafayette in Indiana, adding that for some adult learners it can be about gaining credentials "so they can move forward in their job."
The guide below offers a look at college degree programs in order from lowest to highest.
An associate degree is often an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or an Associate of Science (A.S.). A degree earned in a professional program is often called an Associate of Applied Science, or A.A.S., though sometimes the name reflects the specific field of study, such as an Associate of Engineering.
An associate degree is designed to take two years for a full-time student to complete, requiring 60 credit hours or more, depending on the program. Associate degrees are typically offered at community colleges and some universities. After completion, graduates often enter the workforce or pursue a bachelor's degree, Hardy says, noting that most community college degrees are designed to transfer to four-year schools.
"There are some students who were admitted to a four-year college or university, but because of the cost they may not be able to attend -- it may not be possible for their family financially," says Hardy. Community college tuition generally costs less than at universities, which makes the transfer option appealing, she adds.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, 50% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 had an associate degree or higher in 2020. Those with an associate degree earn nearly an additional $200,000 over a 40-year career lifetime compared with those with some college education but no degree, per research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Broken down on a more granular level, American workers age 25 and over with an associate degree earned a median weekly income of $938 in 2020 compared with $781 for those with only a high school diploma and no college, per figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In addition to a credential such as an associate degree, there may also be licensing requirements to work in certain fields, which may mean additional exams for certification. Such requirements tend to vary by state and occupation rather than by education level.
A bachelor's degree requires a minimum of 120 credit hours, which adds up to an expected four years for a full-time student, though that length can vary by program. Bachelor's degrees can be earned at four-year institutions and a small number of community colleges that have added baccalaureate programs in recent years.
Schools offer Bachelor of Arts ( B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) and other specialty designations.
"The value of a bachelor's degree in lifetime earnings is fairly significant," says Daniel S. Feetham, director of undergraduate academic affairs advising at the University of Washington.
According to NCES, 39% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 had a bachelor's degree or higher in 2020, which is worth nearly $2.3 million in median lifetime earnings, Georgetown's CEW found. By comparison, those with a bachelor's degree earned nearly $1 million more cumulatively than those with only a high school diploma.
A master's degree follows a bachelor's degree for many continuing their postsecondary education.
Credit hour requirements for a master's degree can vary based on the graduate school program. Typically it requires 30 or more credit hours, spread across an average of two years of full-time study, to complete a master's degree. A final project or graduate thesis also may be required.
Common degrees include the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Business Administration ( MBA).
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers tend to earn more the higher they level up their education.
NCES data shows that only 9% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 had a master's degree or higher in 2020. According to Georgetown research, average lifetime earnings for a master's degree recipient is nearly $2.7 million.
A doctorate degree is the highest traditional academic degree. Earning a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) can be a long endeavor, taking anywhere from three to 10 years of study. Doctoral candidates also are commonly expected to conduct research and write a dissertation as part of their degree programs. Doctoral programs often require a minimum of around 60 credit hours.
Doctoral degrees are among the most difficult to earn, with more than 40% of students not completing Ph.D. programs within 10 years, per a 2008 study from the Council of Graduate Schools.
For those who complete the rigorous requirements of a doctorate program, it can lead to upward of $3.3 million in lifetime earnings, according to the Georgetown CEW research.
Separate from the Ph.D., there are professional degree programs for aspiring doctors and lawyers.
Prospective physicians attend medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or similar degree, such as Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). Others interested in medicine earn degrees specific to their fields, such as a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M) and similar endorsements in their areas of study.
Medical degrees typically take four years to complete plus a residency program after graduation, which is specialized training for doctors. Residency programs tend to last three to seven years, a number that varies based on specialty.
Future attorneys generally attend law school to earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.). To practice, they also must pass the bar exam in that jurisdiction. Law degrees typically take three years of full-time study to complete. Graduates usually must earn upward of 83 credit hours for a law degree.
Georgetown's CEW found lifetime earnings of more than $3.6 million for those completing professional degrees, noting that typically they are doctors and lawyers.
Deciding On the Right Degree
College officials say that computer science, information technology and engineering are currently the most in-demand majors. They also note a strong market for skilled trade workers such as electricians, welders and machinists, occupations that typically require only an associate degree or credential. But finding the right fit, they say, comes down to self-assessment.
"What are you really hoping to get out of it?" Feetham asks. He urges students to consider what learning environment they do best in and what opportunities a degree will open up for them.
Dooley says students should ask themselves where they want to be in two years and five years. "The time frames are really deliberate."
If a student hopes to be working in two years, an associate degree may be a better fit, Dooley explains. If he or she plans to still be in school in two years and begin a career in five, a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution is worth considering. From there, students should evaluate their professional needs to determine what is required for career advancement.
"There's really no downside to getting more education and training," Hardy says.
While some may wonder if they can still get a good job without a college degree, experts say it depends. Even with numerous certificate programs available, many employers still expect a college degree, Feetham says. He adds that it can be a factor in automated hiring processes where applicants submitting information may be weeded out based on the lack of certain academic credentials.
"Most employers are using (a college degree) as a sorting tool," Feetham says.
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