The 6 Types of University Degrees (Associate to Doctorate)

The 6 types of university degrees are: associates degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, research doctorate, professional degree, honorary doctorate.

#Type of DegreeExamplesType of StudyAverage Length (Full-Time Study)
1AssociatesAssociate of Arts, Associate of ScienceCoursework3 years
2BachelorsBachelor of Arts, Bachelor of ScienceCoursework 4 years
3MastersMaster of Arts, Master of ScienceCoursework + Research2 years
4DoctorateDoctorate of Philosophy (PhD), Education Doctorate (EdD)Coursework + Research 6-9 years
5Professional DegreeMedicine (M.D), Law (J.D), Pharmacy (Pharm.D)Coursework + Research + Board Exams 4 years
6Honorary DoctorateN/A N/A N/A

1. Associate Degrees

Types of Associate Degrees

An associate degree can be awarded for both academic and professional subjects, like marketing and liberal arts, as well as in terminal career and technical programs like nursing and radiography.

Unlike diplomas and certificates, the associate degree is recognized by both the U.S. Government and many other countries.

Degrees earned in academic programs are almost always:

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

Associate of Applied Science (AAS) is a common degree in technical and vocational programs, but many indicate the specialization in the name, e.g., Associate of Electrical Engineering Technology (A.E.E.T)[2]

How Long is an Associates Degree?

Associate programs usually take about two years of full-time study or roughly 60 credits to complete. Many students attend part-time and take longer.

How much does an Associates Degree Cost?

Associates degrees have lower tuition costs than other postsecondary degrees. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, average yearly tuition from 2016-2019 was $3,800 at a public institution, $16,000 at private non-profits, and $19,000 at private for-profits.[3]

Average Tuition Cost for an Associate Degree (Excluding cost of supplies and board)

Public In-State Tuition

$3,800 per year

Private For-Profit Tuition

$19,000 per year

Non-Profit Tuition

$16,000 per year

What Jobs can you Get with an Associates Degree?

Associates degrees offer preparation for many different kinds of careers, from web designer to fire-fighting or the visual arts.

From 2018-2019, some of the most popular were in business, especially accounting, health professions, and liberal arts.[4] Requirements are completed in the classroom and in lab facilities designed to emulate “the real world.”

Learning during an associate degree is predominantly supervised and not self-directed. Most associate degree credits are recognized by undergraduate programs and can be transferred.[5]

How Popular are Associates Degrees?

Title IV Institutions awarded almost one million associate degrees in 2019-2020. Twice as many were awarded by two-year colleges than by four-year universities.[6]

A recent report by Georgetown University concluded not only that associate degrees now almost as common as bachelor degrees, but also that in technical fields they offer an excellent return (median yearly salary) on investment.[7]

2. Bachelor Degrees

Types of Bachelor Degrees

Bachelor degrees are offered in a wide range of disciplines, from the fine arts, to engineering, psychology, pre-law, or kinesiology.

Most bachelor degrees are either:

  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or
  • Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.),

However, but a number of discipline-specific names are also in use. Some of the more common are:

  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.)
  • Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (B.E. or B.Eng.), and
  • Bachelor of Computer Science (B.C.S).[8]

How long is a Bachelors Degree?

Completion of all requirements for a bachelors degree usually takes four years of full-time study or approximately 120 credits. Programs with a work-study component may take five years. In England, you can complete some bachelors degrees in three years.

How Much does a Bachelors Degree Cost?

A bachelor’s degree is expensive. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, tuition at public institutions for in-state resident averaged $8500/yr in 2019.

Average tuition at private for-profit schools was $17.5/k year and at nonprofit intuitions $30k/yr. Books and supplies are estimated at another $1200/yr. For students living on-campus, room and board is an additional $10,000.[9]

Average Tuition Cost for a Bachelor’s Degree (Excluding cost of supplies and board)

Public In-State Tuition

$8,500 per year

Private For-Profit Tuition

$17,500 per year

Non-Profit Tuition

$30,000 per year

How you Learn in a Bachelor Degree

Bachelor degrees are designed to either prepare the student for entry-level positions in the labor market or advanced research.

Courses are taught by instructors with graduate-level qualifications often with the help of currently enrolled graduate students.

Bachelor degrees require both breadth and specialization. The student must both complete advanced coursework in a declared “major” discipline and general education requirements (languages, introductory-level courses in other academic departments, etc.).

An assigned faculty advisor is responsible for helping the student construct a curriculum in which the two components complement each other and prepare the student appropriately for the next stage of their career.[10]

How is a Bachelor with Honors Different?

A bachelor degree with honors requires more independent study, the successful submission of a thesis or portfolio-type project, and oftentimes-stringent admission qualifications.

In other words, a bachelor with honors additionally requires seeing a large project through to completion and maintaining high academic standards.[11]

How Popular are Bachelors Degrees?

Bachelor degrees are the most common postsecondary award in America. 36% of the adult population over the age of 25 holds one and that proportion has been rising over the past decade.[12]

Roughly two million bachelor degrees were awarded by Title IV institutions in 2019-2020.[13]

types of degrees

3. Master Degrees

Types of Masters Degrees

A master’s degree is the first and most popular graduate-level award in the U.S. higher education system.

The most common academic master’s degrees are:

  • Master of Arts (M.A.) and
  • Master of Science (M.S.).

It is also common for professional fields to specify the subject matter of the program in the award title, e.g.:

  • Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) or
  • Master of Public Health

In recent years, doctoral research programs have increasingly accepted applicants without a master’s degree. The most common awards include health and medical fields, social services, public administration, business, and education.[14]

How long is a Master’s Degree?

Masters programs are usually two years, but can vary to accommodate part-time studies or the acquisition of additional skills.

How much does a Master’s Degree Cost?

Average tuition for a master’s degree is about $20k/yr. This varies widely between school and program. For example, although the average tuition at public institutions is only $12k/yr, the average among the most expensive schools (75th percentile or more) is almost $45k.[15]

2021-2022 tuition fees for a Master in Business Administration at Columbia are a whopping $77k/yr.[16]

What are the Requirements for a Master’s Degree?

The requirements for a master’s degree in an academic field are generally four-fold:

  • Completion of graduate-level courses;
  • Passing of comprehensive exams in the specialty field as well as at least one subfield;
  • Preparation and defense of a master’s thesis.

A faculty supervisor is responsible for helping the student craft a curriculum appropriate for their future goals and supervising the research project. In the fine arts, a portfolio or large project will often be substituted for the thesis.

In some professional fields, it is common for master’s degrees to be structured as for other academic degrees such as a bachelor’s. This is especially true of engineering, computer science, and public health.

In other fields, programs are structured to prepare students to work outside the academic research setting. Professional internships are a frequent component of these degrees as well as the completion of courses and a large capstone project.

How Popular are Masters Degrees?

The proportion of the population that holds a master’s degree has doubled in the last two decades, rising from 10.4% to 21%.[17]

Title IV institutions awarded 844k master’s degrees in 2019-2020.[18]

4. Research Doctorate

Types of Doctorates

The research doctorate is the highest academic qualification in the American education system.

By far the most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

More than three-quarters of all earned doctorates in 2019 were in the sciences and engineering.[19] Between those two fields, the life sciences and psychology and the social sciences are most common.

Although the sheer number of doctorates awarded in non-sciences and engineering fields each year continues to grow, they account for a smaller percentage than before the economic downturn of 2008.[20]

How Long is a Doctorate?

A doctorate usually takes between six and nine years to complete. Students tend to complete faster in the sciences and engineering fields than in the humanities, arts, or education.

Over the past two decades, the median time of completion for most degrees has stayed the same. In education, this number recently fell to twelve years (from more than fourteen in 2000).

How Much Does a Doctorate Cost?

Most research doctorate programs offer funding of some kind to admitted students. Often, the terms of their enrolment include teaching, laboratory, or research service in exchange for tuition and stipend.

This funding is often only for the first years of doctoral work, and afterwards the student is expected to secure grants and scholarships from within the university or from external sources like the NHS (in England).

In 2019, less than 30% of doctorate recipients in science and engineering fields excluding psychology and social sciences reported holding debt related to their graduate education. In psychology and social sciences, humanities and arts, and in other non-S&E fields, about 50%; in education, less than 50%.[21]

What to Expect

Structured doctoral programs combine doctoral-level coursework, comprehensive exams, and the submission and oral defense of a doctoral dissertation before a committee of two-to-five senior faculty.

In the sciences, it is not uncommon for the dissertation to be substituted with a portfolio of two-or-three articles published in peer-reviewed journals about the candidate’s research project.

Most doctoral programs in the United States include some form of work experience for the student, either in preparation for a role as a postsecondary instructor or as a laboratory researcher.

In 2019, more than 40% of all doctorate recipients with jobs were employed in academia. Those employed in industry or business had higher median annual salaries.[22]

How Popular are Doctorates?

Approximately 56k doctoral degrees were awarded in 2019-2020.[23]

5. Professional Degrees

Types of Professional Degrees

There are ten fields that award professional degrees that prepare a student to qualify for state licensure in their field.

Tuition fees vary widely between programs. The figures provided are approximated medians.

  1. Medicine (M.D. And D.O.) — $30k resident $60k non-resident /yr —4 years[24]
  2. Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M) — $32k resident $55k non-resident /yr — 4 years[25]
  3. Law (J.D.) — $25k resident $50k nonresident /yr — 4 years[26]
  4. Dentistry (D.D.S. Or D.M.D) — $55k resident $72k non-resident /yr — 4 years[27]
  5. Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) — $25k resident $50k non-resident /yr — 4 years[28]
  6. Optometry (O.D.) — $36k resident $50k non-resident /yr — 4 years[29]
  7. Podiatry (D.P.M., D.P., or Pod. D.) — $40k/yr — 4 year[30]
  8. Physical Therapy (D.P.T.)— $18k resident $40k nonresident /yr — 3-4 years[31]
  9. Audiology (Au.D.)— $40k resident $100k/non-resident / full — 10 semesters[32]
  10. Chiropractic (D.C. Or D.C.M.)— $30k /yr — 4 years[33]

Divinity (D.Min or M.Div) is an outlier. Both tuition costs and program lengths vary widely in these programs, as does the focus of their curriculum. Some programs specialize in international missionary work, others in leading a local congregation.

What is the Purpose of a Professional Degree?

Professional degrees are designed to prepare someone for a specific profession that requires a license to practice.

Professional degree programs are generally accredited by a specialized agency. State-level licensing boards set their own policies about degree requirements, qualifying institutions, and mandatory standardized entrance or examinations, like the MCATs, LSATs, and bar exams.

In other words, professional licensure is not always easily transferable from one jurisdiction to another.[34]

6. Honorary Doctorates

Honorary degrees do not have formal requirements but are instead awarded in recognition for outstanding achievement to either the university or society at large.

The submission and selection process for honorary degrees is often shrouded in secrecy. At most universities, several people are nominated for such awards each year and discussed at length in closed-committee meetings.[35]

The recipient is often asked to deliver a formal speech at commencement ceremonies. For example, Dr. John Gottman addressed the crowd of University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates in 2020 on the occasion of his honorary PhD in recognition of his work on marital stability and divorce prediction.[36] While other diplomas open doors to further academic or professional studies, an honorary degree recognizes work already accomplished.

It is considered bad form for the holder to use the formal address “Dr.”, with the notable exception of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from both University of St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762).

Honorary degrees are awarded for far more than research, however.

Philanthropists, musicians, politicians, and entrepreneurs are frequent recipients. Oprah has four (Princeton, Howard University, Duke University, and Harvard), and before winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Malala Yousafzai was granted an honorary master’s for her work on children’s education from the University of Edinburgh.[37]

Because honorary degrees are a public and explicit acknowledgement of outstanding contribution, the actions of recipients can pose problems for university PR departments, often years later.

For example, Bill Cosby collected over sixty honorary degrees from such illustrious institutions as Temple, NYU, and Yale and was once a frequent fixture of college commencement podiums. Since 2015, most of these awards have been rescinded.[38]

Likewise, Pres. Donald Trump began his run for office with five honorary doctorates (LeHigh, Robert Gordon, Wagner, and Liberty), but in 2021, all but the two from Liberty have been revoked.[39]

Honorary degrees have long been criticized as a shady means of fundraising. Universities like the Michigan Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia, for example, have policies that prohibit these awards.[40] Others, like UCLA, have suspended the practice and award medals of recognition instead.[41]

In recent years, Internet sellers of honorary doctorates have become more common. Often these “colleges” claim “accreditation” from an acronym-named board with no government recognition. In exchange for a sizeable sum, the donor receives by mail an impressive-looking diploma to adorn their wall.

Conclusion

There are six major types of university degrees. These range in progression from an associates degree up to a doctorate. Below associates degree are certificates and diplomas, which are not considered degrees.

Usually, you cannot get one degree until you have completed the lower form of degree. The major exception is an honorary doctorate, which is recognition for life’s work rather than coursework. Still, honorary doctorates are not honored as true degrees.

[1] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[2] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[3]. The U.S. Department of Education only receives information from “Title IV” institutions, or those that qualify for federal aid programs.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2011 and Winter 2016-17 through Winter 2019-20, Student Financial Aid component; and Fall 2010 through Fall 2019, Institutional Characteristics component. (This table was prepared September 2020.)

[4] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Fall 2009 through Fall 2019, Completions component. (This table was prepared June 2020).

[5] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[6] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, Fall 2020, Completions component (provisional data).

[7] https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/CEW-SubBA-PR.pdf

[8] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[9] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, Fall 2020, Institutional Characteristics component (provisional data).

[10] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[11] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[12] https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/educational-attainment.html

[13] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, Fall 2020, Completions component (provisional data).

[14] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[15] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), “Fall Enrollment Survey” (IPEDS-EF:89-99), “Completions Survey” (IPEDS-C:90-99), and “Institutional Characteristics Survey” (IPEDS-IC:89-99); IPEDS Fall 2000 through Fall 2018, Institutional Characteristics component; and IPEDS Spring 2001 through Spring 2019, Fall Enrollment component. (This table was prepared December 2019.)

[16] https://academics.gsb.columbia.edu/mba/tuition-financial-aid

[17] https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/02/number-of-people-with-masters-and-phd-degrees-double-since-2000.html.

[18] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, Fall 2020, Completions component (provisional data).

[19] https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/report/fields-of-study

[20] https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/report/fields-of-study

[21] https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/report/executive-summary

[22] https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/report/postgraduation-trends

[23] https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/report/executive-summary

[24] https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/reporting-tools/report/tuition-and-student-fees-reports

[25] https://www.aavmc.org/becoming-a-veterinarian/funding-your-degree/cost-comparison-tool/

[26] https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-law-schools/articles/law-school-cost-starting-salary

[27] https://www.ada.org/en/science-research/health-policy-institute/dental-statistics/education

[28] https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/aacpdata/viz/TuitionDashboard_16300967895330/TuitionandFeesDashboard

[29] https://www.sco.edu/optometry-schools-in-usa; https://eyesoneyecare.com/resources/the-best-optometry-schools/

[30] https://www.aacpm.org/wp-content/uploads/2018-2019_CIB_FINAL_FOR-WEB-1.pdf

[31] https://www.ptprogress.com/best-physical-therapy-schools/

[32]  https://www.asha.org/siteassets/uploadedfiles/data-at-a-glance-for-audiology.pdf; https://www.kumc.edu/school-of-health-professions/hearing-and-speech/audiology-(aud)/tuition-costs-and-financial-assistance.html

[33] https://handsdownbetter.org/about-chiropractic/; http://doctorly.org/cost-vs-reward-of-a-chiropractic-school-education/

[34] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/edlite-structure-us.html

[35] https://commencement.jhu.edu/our-history/honorary-degree-nominations/ https://www.nyu.edu/about/policies-guidelines-compliance/policies-and-guidelines/honorary-degrees-policy-statement0.html.

[36] https://news.wisc.edu/broadway-star-prominent-psychologist-to-be-speakers-for-spring-commencement-ceremonies .

[37] https://www.ed.ac.uk/news/2013/malala-211013.

[38] https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/the-academy-has-spoken-but-how-will-colleges-handle-cosby-630691/ https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/09/bill-cosby-is-being-stripped-of-his-honorary-doctorates/408235/

[39] https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2021/01/09/liberty-is-now-the-only-university-to-not-rescind-donald-trumps-honorary-degrees/?sh=6f3d635c10b9

[40] https://news.mit.edu/2001/commdegrees.

[41] http://www.adminpolicies.ucla.edu/APP/Number/140.