What is an Undergraduate Degree?

what is an undergraduate degree

By CVO Staff

Key Takeaways:

  • Undergraduate degrees are the first degrees earned before graduate studies, pursued mainly by high school graduates or first-time college students.
  • They include associate’s degrees (2 years, basic/technical skills) and bachelor’s degrees (more focused studies).
  • Most careers require an undergraduate degree; options include Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, and more specialized degrees.

If you are nearing high school graduation, then you may have seen and heard the phrase “undergraduate degree” come up over and over again. But exactly what are undergraduate degrees, and how do you get one? 

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Sometimes called a “first degree,” the term “undergraduate degree” refers to a handful of degree types available to students who have not yet earned a graduate degree — another general description for another type of degree. Usually, those pursuing undergraduate degree programs are recent high school grads or first-time college students. 

In this article, we will take a closer look at the different types of undergraduate degrees offered by a college or university. We will also break down the pros and cons of earning an undergraduate degree after high school, plus answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

What Can You Do with an Undergraduate Degree? 

Perhaps the question should be “What can’t you do with an undergraduate degree? 

Nowadays, most careers beyond entry-level positions and minimum wage require an undergraduate degree of some kind. Two years of general education and some focused studies are sufficient for some careers. For even more careers, it is required that an applicant have two additional years of study.    

what is an undergraduate

Different Types of Undergraduate Degrees

Generally speaking, there are two types of undergraduate credentials: associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Any student in the process of earning one of these undergraduate degrees can be referred to as an “undergrad” or an “undergraduate student.” 

Associate’s Degrees

An associate’s degree is an undergraduate degree that consists of basic academic knowledge and/or technical skills. Students usually pursue an associate’s degree when they are interested in a trade or when they are preparing to earn a bachelor’s credential. 

Associate’s degrees are mainly offered at community, junior, and technical colleges, though some four-year colleges and universities also offer them. 

Earning an associate’s degree typically requires completing a course load of 60 credit hours, which takes two years to pursue full-time. There are four types of associate’s degrees: Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Science, and Associate of Applied Arts. 

Associate of Arts (AA)

Associate of Arts degrees is abbreviated as AA. These degrees are broad in nature, with required coursework covering a little bit of every subject making up the Liberal Arts. For example, writing, humanities, and social science classes are usually included in the AA degree requirements. 

AA degrees are typically pursued by students who intend to continue on to complete a bachelor’s program in another subject related to the Liberal Arts. 

Associate of Science (AS)

Associate of Science degrees are abbreviated as AS. Like AA degrees, AS degrees are broad in nature but typically cover coursework more focused on math and science. Students who intend to transfer into a Bachelor of Science program may choose to complete an Associate of Science degree first. 

Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

AAS degrees tend to be more focused in nature, and are usually earned by students who intend to go into a vocation. A few common AAS degrees include: 

  • AAS in Radiological Technology
  • AAS in HVAC
  • AAS in Web Design

Associate of Applied Arts (AAA)  

Associate of Applied Arts degrees are abbreviated as AAA. Like the AAS degree, AAA degrees are focused on a particular subject. They are usually earned by students who intend to go straight into their careers without earning a bachelor’s degree. A few common AAA degrees include:

  • AAA in Visual Arts
  • AAA in Digital Arts
  • AAA in Performing Arts 

Associate’s degrees are most commonly offered in the United States, though some colleges in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong also offer them. In the United Kingdom, what we call associate’s degrees are called foundation degrees. 

The Pros & Cons of Earning an Associate’s Degree


  • A flexible undergraduate degree that can be completed part-time or at an accelerated pace
  • Typically takes about two years to complete at a community college, less time than a bachelor’s
  • Credits earned as part of an associate degree can often be transferred into a bachelor’s program 
  • The overall cost of earning an associate degree is considerably less than earning a bachelor’s  
  • Much less competitive admissions process; fewer admission requirements than other undergraduate programs


  • The average salary for those with an associate degree is less than for those with a bachelor’s
  • You are likely to compete for jobs against those with a bachelor’s or even graduate programs
  • Most supervisory and managerial positions require a bachelor’s or higher
what is an undergraduate degree
Those with an associate degree may find themselves competing for jobs against those who have a more comprehensive bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree comprising both general classes and focused, major-specific coursework. Students are not required to have already earned an associate’s degree to pursue a bachelor’s credential. However, any student who intends to further their education with a master’s or doctoral degree must first complete a bachelor’s degree program at a college or university. 

Bachelor’s degree programs are offered at four-year colleges and universities. While most students still choose to complete their bachelor’s credentials on campus and in person, more and more bachelor’s programs are becoming available to complete entirely online.   

Earning a bachelor’s credential typically requires completing a course load comprised of 120 credit hours of coursework, which takes four years when pursued full-time. The are two common types of bachelor’s credentials: Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts.

Bachelor of Science

Bachelor of Science degrees can be abbreviated as BS, SB, BSc, or ScB. These degree programs take four years to complete when pursued full-time. They consist of approximately two years of general education, followed by an additional two years of coursework specific to the student’s choice of major. Most students who complete this type of degree program intend to pursue a career in a research-based field. 

A few common examples of these degree programs include: 

  • B.S. in Computational Mathematics
  • B.S. in Psychology
  • B.S. in Political Economics 

Bachelor of Arts

Short for artium baccalaureus, these degrees can be abbreviated as BA or AB. Traditionally, they consist of 120 credit hours and take full-time students about four years to complete. The first two years of a BA degree are made up of general courses, while the final two years allow a student to specialize in a chosen subject. Because BA degrees tend to require fewer math and science courses, most students who choose this type of degree intend to pursue career opportunities relating to the Liberal Arts. 

While most bachelor’s credentials can be categorized as either Bachelor of Arts or Science, some universities offer additional Bachelor of _____ degrees such as a BFA, the fine arts bachelor. There are quite a few other specialized degrees in the higher education arena, and specific programs include:

  • Bachelor of Accountancy (BAcc)
  • Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Design (BDes)
  • Bachelor of Education (BEd)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Music (BMus)
  • Bachelor of Theology (BTh) 

The Pros & Cons of Earning a Bachelor’s Degree


  • A more competitive undergraduate degree than a high school diploma or an associate’s degree. It leads to more job opportunities and career paths
  • Highly customizable for undergraduate study
  • Those with a bachelor’s have a higher average salary than those with a lesser degree, according to labor statistics
  • Financial aid may be available


  • High cost that usually requires taking out loans 
  • Earning a bachelor’s degree takes 4+ years to complete; more coursework to complete and more difficult undergraduate courses compares to an associate’s degree
  • Bachelor’s credentials are much more common now, and therefore some employers may prefer those with a higher, graduate-level credential
  • Admission requirements such as a high school transcript and minimum GPA

What is the Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees? 

When it comes to undergraduate and graduate degrees, a graduate credential is a more advanced category of degree type than an undergraduate credential. There are some positions and some industries which require workers to have a graduate credential, as graduate programs equate to additional years of schooling. 

Grad students must have earned an undergraduate education (specifically a bachelor’s degree) before they can begin working on their graduate program. Many graduate students begin their programs of study immediately following the completion of their bachelor’s degree.

Another difference between undergraduate and graduate programs is that graduate degrees are highly specialized higher education offerings. Depending on the program, graduate studies typically require students to complete about 30 credits of coursework directly related to graduate students’ area of focus. Many graduate programs culminate in a special research project, capstone project, or written thesis, depending on the graduate school and the specific degree students are pursuing.

Types of Graduate Degrees 

Graduate programs require more in-depth study than bachelor’s degree programs. The various graduate degrees can be broken down into two categories of graduate studies. 

Master’s degrees are the most common type of graduate credential. Graduate students can earn a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), or Master of Business Administration (MBA). If you want to enroll in a master’s degree program, you’ll need to apply to a graduate school. Most graduate students complete their master’s degrees within two years.

Compared to a master’s degree, a doctoral degree is an even more advanced pursuit for graduate students. This is why it’s sometimes called a postgraduate degree. Doctoral degrees are abbreviated as Ph.D. Additional types of doctoral programs include Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), and Juris Doctor (JD). Doctoral students may be required to conduct scholarly research in their field of study and prepare a dissertation.

Is Having an Undergraduate Degree Enough? 

Previously, most people had just a high school diploma while a considerable few were able to earn a college degree. As time went on, associate degrees became more popular, with bachelor’s degrees being the degree that set job applicants apart from one another.

These days, most people who attend college earn at least a bachelor’s in an undergraduate program. This could mean that if you want, or need, to set yourself apart, a bachelor’s credential as the bare minimum might prove unworthy. You might want to attend graduate school for a master’s degree or even a doctorate.

However, a bachelor’s obtained from an undergraduate program is usually “enough” for most jobs. A few careers — such as medical doctor, university professor, lawyer, and dentist — require students to complete a graduate degree as the minimum.   

undergraduate vs graduate degree

Frequently Asked Questions About Undergraduate Programs 

What are the four types of degrees?
The four types of college degrees are associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral. Associate and bachelor’s degrees are undergrad degrees, while master’s and doctoral degrees are graduate degrees. 

What is the difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s?
Both bachelor’s degrees and associate’s degrees are considered undergrad degrees. Much of the coursework required to complete an associate’s degree is also included among the coursework for a bachelor’s program. While a bachelor’s credential typically takes four years to complete, for an associate’s degree, students must attend for two years.  

What is an undergraduate? 

An undergraduate, also called an undergrad, is a student who is pursuing, or has already earned, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. Undergraduate students have not yet enrolled in grad school or graduate courses.

What is a graduate student? 

A graduate student, or grad student, is a college student who is pursuing graduate studies or has already earned advanced education such as a master’s degree or doctorate. Sometimes, grad students assist the professor in teaching.

What is the average salary of someone with an undergraduate degree? 

According to Zip Recruiter, the average salary of those with a bachelor’s credential is $51,212. Meanwhile, those with an associate’s degree make an average of $45,989 per year. 

Should undergraduate students get a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree?
Whether they choose to pursue an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, students must consider their budget and the amount of time they have to devote to their undergraduate studies. When choosing your education level, you might also want to keep in mind that a bachelor’s program may require students to have a minimum grade point average for admission. But the biggest consideration should be your career goal. 

An associate’s degree can lead to well-paying job prospects. There are dozens of career choices available incuding:

  • dental hygenist
  • veterinary technician
  • paralegal
  • HVAC technician
  • ultrasound technician
  • court reporter
  • medical assistant

However, earning a bachelor’s degree can lead to a broader job market with even more job opportunities at a likely higher salary. 

How much does an undergraduate degree cost?
According to U.S. News & World Report, the average tuition cost of a bachelor’s degree ranges from $38,496 to $60,593. The total cost is partially determined by whether a bachelor’s degree is earned at a private college or a public college. If the latter, the cost is further dependent upon whether the student is attending as an in-state or out-of-state student.  

How much does an associate’s degree cost? 

The average cost of an associate degree is $7,140 when earned at a public college. Those who choose to earn their associate degree at a private college are likely to pay closer to $14,587. 

Are certificates granted by certificate programs considered degrees?
No, certificate programs do not carry a degree title. Though they can be earned at any time to effectively supplement either an undergraduate degree or graduate degree, certificate programs on their own will not be enough to qualify someone for a job that requires a college degree or postsecondary education.   


There are two types of undergraduate credentials: associate’s degrees and bachelor’s credentials. While two years of general education coursework are required to earn an Associate of Art, an Associate of Science, an Associate of Applied Art, or an Associate of Applied Science, a Bachelor’s of Art or Bachelor’s of Science requires four years of more focused undergraduate studies. Both types of undergraduate programs can lead to high-paying careers, though typically more opportunities are available for those with a bachelor’s. An associate degree program is not required to earn a bachelor’s degree, but a bachelor’s program is required to earn a higher-level graduate degree.