The most common credentials you can earn from colleges and universities are certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. Other specialty terminal degrees include juris doctorates, medical doctorates, master’s of business administration, and more. You do not need a certificate to earn an associate degree, and you do not need an associate degree to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, you do need a bachelor’s degree before you can earn a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. Some graduate school students get accepted into “MA/PhD” programs in which they will earn both degrees, while others might simply get accepted into “PhD” programs that skip over the requirements for earning the master’s degree.
The explanation of differences between certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees below is remixed from the open textbook A Different Road to College, pp. 23-24:
The main difference between certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees come down to these five factors: time, tuition, admission requirements, amount of coursework, and career opportunities. A certificate usually means you have completed a specialized form of training. It may demonstrate technical knowledge in a field, and it is generally faster to complete than a degree. Sometimes, a certificate can be a benchmark showing progress toward a degree. An associate degree is commonly referred to as a “two-year” degree. Examples of careers that often minimally require an associate degree include health care professionals, information technologists, and culinary artists. An associate degree will often meet most, if not all, of the general education required classes needed to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Some students who complete an associate degree will then transfer to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is commonly referred to as a “four-year” degree, and it requires around 120 credits (or about forty courses) to complete. These numbers vary based on whether the college operates on the quarter or the semester schedule. People working in education, engineering, business, finance, and other fields are often required to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
There are two major types of bachelor’s degrees: a bachelor’s of arts (BA) and a bachelor’s of sciences (BS). Before you can earn a bachelor’s degree, you must decide on a major. The University of Washington’s degree overview website plainly explains that a major is “an extended study of one academic area, usually within one department of the University.” Some large public universities (with around 30,000 students), such as The Ohio State University, Purdue University, the University of Minnesota, and Temple University, have around 150 different majors students can choose from.
There are also minors students can pursue in addition to a major. Minors are not full degrees, and the name of your minor study might not be printed on your physical degree. Instead, it shows up on your official university transcript. For example, I received a BA in English, and I completed a minor in Asian studies. My printed degree only lists my degree in English; the information about my Asian studies minor can be found on my official university transcripts.
A somewhat unique feature of United States colleges and universities is that you can pursue more than one major and earn more than one degree simultaneously. For example, if you complete all required courses for a bachelor’s in American ethnic studies as well as for a bachelor’s in architectural studies, you will receive a single BA degree with “double major” listed on the degree. However, if you complete all required courses for a bachelor’s of arts in geography as well as for a bachelor’s of sciences in earth and space sciences, you will receive two separate degrees.
You can also choose to take honors classes to graduate “with honors.” There are two types of honors at most universities: honors based on grade point average and “university honors.” Anyone can graduate with honors if they get good enough grades. Your university will have its own standards for different levels of honors, but the three typical grade point average-based honors are (in Latin and in English): cum laude (with honors), magna cum laude (with high honors), and summa cum laude (with the highest honors). Graduating with “university honors,” however, typically requires an additional application procedure and the completion of an honors project. University honors is separate from grade point average-based honors. For example, I graduated from the University of California, Riverside “magna cum laude,” and that honor designation is printed on my degree. However, I also received a separate certificate recognizing my “university honors” that bears the title of my honors thesis paper. This “university honors” granted me the rights to wear special cords as graduation regalia. Not every college or university has an honors program. Therefore, if yours does not but you are interested in completing an honors project, contact your dean of academic affairs and ask how an honors program could be created on your campus.
As for graduate students, you can sometimes pursue a concentration or a graduate certificate in a particular field of your degree program. To complete a concentration or graduate certificate, graduate students normally have to take a few extra classes beyond the minimum needed to graduate, or they have to carefully plan all of their classes from their first semester in order to complete the concentration within the standard course hours required. For example, my doctorate in English from the University of Connecticut had graduate certificate options in American studies, digital humanities and media studies, human rights, feminist studies, literary translation, and college instruction.
Generally, students at colleges and universities in the United States must study a wide variety of subjects. In fact, each college or university has a set of required classes that every undergraduate student must take in order to graduate. Regardless of what major you choose, you must pass this set of classes. Many universities will break courses down into “foundational” courses and “breadth” courses. Your school might call them something different, such as Columbia University’s infamous “Core Curriculum” and its requirements, but the meaning is essentially the same. Foundational courses are courses all students must satisfy, while breadth courses are requirements with a bit of flexibility in what you choose. “Elective courses” are used to meet graduation requirements but are almost completely your choice. However, electives are not considered part of your “general education” because not everyone is required to take the same types of electives.
For example, Temple University (a large, public university) has four “foundational” course requirements: analytical reading & writing, quantitative literacy, and two courses in “intellectual heritage.” All students must satisfy exactly these courses; there are no options or substitutes. However, there are six different types of “breadth” courses: arts, human behavior, race and diversity, world society, science and technology, and US society. Students must take one course in each breadth area except for “science and technology” in which students must take two courses. There are dozens of options that students can pick from that satisfy these breadth requirements. For instance, to satisfy the US society breadth requirement, students could choose to take courses such as “The American Economy,” “American Revolutions,” “Gender in America,” and “The US Constitution and Popular Culture.” These courses come from different subjects of study such as American studies, anthropology, economics, geography and urban studies, history, law, sociology, women’s studies, and more.
You can learn all about the general education requirements at your college and more in your school’s catalog or student handbook (the terms are sometimes used interchangeably and other times very differently). Consider the catalog as an all-encompassing map of the bridges currently established at your institution. Indeed, it is a very important document!
The explanation of college catalogs below is remixed from the open textbook A Different Road to College, pp. 22-23:
The most important book on campus is the college catalog, or the student handbook. A college catalog is where you can find all the specific details and rules of your school. The purpose is to have all that information in one easy place for prospective students and current students. College catalogs are updated when degree programs, school rules, and student expectations change. Catalogs are usually published each year, so make sure you are looking at the most current one. Specific topics covered include: an overview of the college’s history, the availability of financial aid, academic expectations, degree programs and course descriptions, cost estimates for tuition and housing, campus life information, mission statements, statements of faith (for religious institutions), school policies, and student services offered. Most colleges give the general public access to the catalog on the school website. You can also probably pick up a printed copy on campus. However, finding easy-to-use online college catalogs may be frustrating for new college students. Some are complex searchable websites with multiple dropdown windows for selecting parameters, while others are PDF files that are hundreds of pages long. If you ever get frustrated by your school’s catalog, visit the welcome center or the admissions office for assistance.
1.Do you think colleges and universities should require all students to take “foundational” courses? Why or why not?
2.Are there any subject areas (writing, mathematics, science, etc.) you are nervous about taking in college? Why or why not?
3.Are you interested in pursuing a degree in arts or in sciences? Why?
4.Would you consider double majoring or pursing a double degree? If so, which ones and for what purpose?
5.Is graduating with honors important to you or not? Do you think employers care much about grade point averages?
6.For graduate students, what concentrations or graduate certificates are available in your area of study? Do you think they are worthwhile to complete or not? Why?