College Degree Guide: Degree Levels, Requirements, and Outcomes

Updated January 10, 2023 · 4 Min Read

College degree levels vary in length, requirements, and outcomes. View our guide on the different degrees and levels of education for your next program! is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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College Degrees Overview

Associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees vary in terms of prerequisites, lengths, and requirements. College degrees generally fall into four categories: associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. Each college degree level varies in length, requirements, and outcomes. Each college degree aligns with students' different personal interests and professional goals.

Understanding college degree levels can help you decide which degree will meet your needs, while potentially saving you time and money.

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College Degrees in Order: Levels of Education

Most undergraduate degrees span four years or less. Graduate programs can run from 12 months to 10 years. College degrees have unique prerequisites, curricula, requirements, and outcomes, all of which vary by level.

Associate Degree

Typical Length of Time to Complete
1-2 years

Typical Required Credits
60 credit hours

Typically offered by community and technical colleges, an associate degree includes roughly two years of coursework. Depending on the discipline, students may also complete practical requirements. Internships and practicums are common in healthcare and technology programs.

Applicants need at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Some schools may require individuals to submit test scores for admission.

Many associate degrees prepare students to enter the workforce immediately upon completion. An associate degree also serves as the foundation for a bachelor's program.

An applied associate degree in accounting, education, or technical fields can lead to entry-level positions in finance, teaching, or information and computer technology. An associate of arts includes foundational coursework for a bachelor of arts, while an associate of science degree equips students with skills to pursue a bachelor of science degree.

Associate degrees fall into three categories:

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Bachelor's Degree

Typical Length of Time to Complete
Four years

Typical Required Credits
120 credit hours

Offered by private and public colleges and universities, bachelor's degrees include roughly 120 credit hours of coursework. To enroll in a bachelor's degree program, students need at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the school, applicants may need to submit ACT or SAT scores. Individuals with an associate degree can also enter a bachelor's program, often transferring as many as 60 credit hours into the degree.

The first two years of a bachelor's degree consist of general education requirements and introductory classes for a student's major. During the second two years, students take advanced courses in their major. Learners may complete a cumulative capstone project, paper, or practical requirement.

With a bachelor's degree, learners can enter careers in business, information and computer technology, education, and healthcare. Depending on the field, a bachelor's degree is sufficient for mid-level and managerial positions.

Several types of bachelor's degrees exist:

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Master's Degree

Typical Length of Time to Complete
1-2 years

Typical Required Credits
30 credit hours

The variety of master's degrees attests to the unique requirements, outcomes, and opportunities associated with earning a master's degree. Master's programs blend coursework, projects, and research requirements. Programs typically end with a thesis, capstone project, or cumulative examination. Applicants to master's programs need at least a bachelor's degree. Some schools require GRE or GMAT scores for admission.

Working professionals and individuals who want to move into managerial and administrative roles benefit from earning a master's degree. A master's degree also leads to doctoral work in a specific discipline. Students can apply for scholarships to help pay for their master's degree.

While master's programs typically last two years, students can complete accelerated degrees in as few as 12 months.

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Doctoral Degree

Typical Length of Time to Complete
2-10 years

Typical Required Credits

A doctorate is the highest level of formal education available. Doctoral programs include coursework, comprehensive exams, research requirements, and a dissertation. Doctoral programs require students to have a master's degree, although some doctorates incorporate a master's as part of the curriculum. Many doctoral programs set a specific schedule for completion, but some doctoral programs last for many years due to the subjective nature of research and completion of the dissertation.

In many fields, a Ph.D. meets the requirements to teach at institutions of higher education. With a doctorate, individuals working in business can excel to executive positions. Lawyers need a JD, physicians need an MD or a doctor of osteopathy (DO), and chiropractors must have a DCM to practice.

Below are some of the doctoral degrees that students can earn.

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Portrait of Melissa Sartore

Melissa Sartore

Melissa Sartore holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her BA and MA in history are from Western Illinois University. A medievalist by training, she has published on outlawry in medieval England with additional publications on outlaws in popular culture and across geographic and historical boundaries.

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