What is an Undergraduate (or Undergrad) Degree?

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An undergraduate degree is an academic program of study that follows graduation from high school or passing General Educational Development (GED) tests. Sometimes called first degrees, undergraduate degrees build upon secondary education and develop greater depth of professional knowledge. Undergrad programs are conferred by higher learning institutions, such as junior colleges, colleges, universities, and vocational/trade schools. Undergraduate studies typically involve a general education core of subjects like English, math, and biology. However, undergraduate students can declare a major to emphasize their curriculum in one field.

Types of Undergraduate Degrees

An associate degree is a two-year program offered to undergraduate students at community colleges and vocational schools. Associate degrees typically provide 60 to 70 credits of career-focused training. Undergraduate programs may lead to an Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.). Popular majors at the associate level include dental hygiene, web design, paralegal studies, and information technology. Graduates with an associate can pursue entry-level, skilled jobs or transfer.

The four-year bachelor’s degree takes students a step beyond the associate. Bachelor’s programs are the most commonly sought after undergraduate degrees. Undergrads can pursue a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), or Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.). These programs typically range from 120 to 130 credits at colleges and universities. Popular majors at the bachelor’s level are business administration, psychology, engineering, computer science, and communications. After finishing a bachelor’s, individuals can enter professional careers or apply to graduate school.

Undergraduate vs. Graduate Programs

Having a bachelor’s degree is required for entry into graduate programs. Graduate schools award master’s and doctoral programs, which prepare students for advanced or leadership positions in complex fields. Unlike the more generalized undergraduate degree, graduate programs are narrowly specialized in one profession. For instance, students could pursue a Master of Science in Industrial/Organizational Psychology or Doctor of Philosophy in Biomedical Engineering. Graduate programs are typically more focused on research and applied practice than classroom instruction. Undergraduate programs also have considerably larger classes than graduate seminars.

In post-secondary education, the coursework in a 4-year degree program is at a lower level than a graduate degree or doctoral degree program. There are general education courses that all students have to take at the undergraduate level before moving on to their major or main field of study. For instance, everyone has a humanities requirement, whether you’re studying social sciences or business. The most common types of degrees are bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, and bachelor of fine arts. However, there are many types of bachelor degree programs.

Of course, how long it will take depends on whether you study full-time or part-time, and whether you already have credit hours from associate degree programs. It may take less time if you can transfer credits from previous years of study.

Students interested in graduate studies (also confusingly sometimes called postgraduate) will build on their undergraduate courses and further specialize.

Benefits of an Undergraduate Degree

Educating yourself beyond a high school diploma is smart for many reasons. Investing in college tuition for an undergraduate degree boosts salary. The U.S. News and World Report survey found that workers with a bachelor’s degree made average lifetime earnings of $2.27 million. That’s nearly double the $1.3 million for high school graduates. Higher income results from an undergraduate degree unlocking more career opportunities. Bachelor’s degree holders are preferred for job openings and promotions, which means you’ll be more marketable.

Undergraduate degrees build critical thinking, reasoning, and communication skills that can translate into virtually any field, even outside your major. Living on a college campus helps undergraduates more easily mature into adulthood and find their career footing. Completing an associate or bachelor’s degree takes hard work, so doing so will provide a strong sense of pride. Having an undergraduate degree under your belt also opens future doors for attending graduate, medical, or law school.


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