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College Degrees Explained

College Degrees, Forensic Science Degree

Today, there are many different types of degrees available at colleges. This can be confusing and overwhelming. Ever wonder about the difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree? Did you feel confused about how long it was likely to take to earn one of these degrees? Whether you are a new college student, or a person looking into going back to college, this article can help dispel some of the confusion surrounding the subject.

College Credit Hours

The first thing to understand is the system of college credit hours. In college, each course is worth a certain number of credit hours. Theoretically, this is based on how many hours a student will spend in class, per week. Usually, credits are assigned to courses according to level of difficulty, or amount of time required for studying and homework. In reality, each college figures out their credit system differently. Even if one course is assigned more credits than another, it may not actually convey anything about how much time you will have to invest in it. Therefore, we will just focus on the credit hour as it applies to actually earning these college degrees.

When the college charges you for the course, they charge you by the credit hour. You need a certain number of these credits in order to graduate. For associate’s degrees, you need to take 60-70 college credit hours. For bachelor’s degrees, you need 120-130 college credits. Typically, introductory level courses in the sciences, humanities, mathematics, or writing, etc., are worth 3 credits. Some colleges may assign 4 credits to courses deemed to be more time intensive. For instance, an introductory Spanish course may be assigned 4 credits, because the college feels that more time will be spent in the classroom and on homework. For some courses, you may have to take both the an in-class portion and a lab, which you often enroll for separately. An introductory biology course, for example, might be worth 3 credits, and the accompanying lab might be worth 1 credit.

A semester usually lasts 14 weeks. 12 credit hours, or 4 courses, is considered “full-time” status. Some colleges operate on condensed schedules. For instance, you might attend a college that offers short 8 week courses and the courses will be very fast-paced. For this reason, the time it takes you to complete a degree will vary. If you go full-time to a community college that has 4 terms a year, you might be able to complete an associate’s degree in only 5 terms, or a year and a quarter. If you go to a typical college that has two semesters and a summer term, it will likely take you a year and a half. Obviously, for bachelor’s degrees, these times would double. For this reason, it is important to seek out colleges that have a schedule that will allow you to complete your degree in a timely manner.

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General Education Core

Many colleges have general education cores, or “gen ed requirements”, that need to be fulfilled in order to graduate. For associate’s degrees, anywhere from 30-70 of your credits may technically be “gen ed requirements.” For bachelor’s degrees, anywhere from 45-60 of your college credits may be used to fulfill these requirements. The point of this core is to make sure the student is receiving a well-rounded liberal arts education. (The history of the liberal arts education system is very interesting if you wish to do more research on the subject!) You will be required to take introductory courses in an array of areas, usually covering subjects like writing, math, history, science, and social science. Some of these gen ed requirements may be filled by courses you need to take for your Major.

Your Major

The number of courses that you take that will directly apply to your chosen major will vary depending on which degree you are getting. Around 60 credits in the bachelor’s degree usually come from courses in your major. In a typical four year college, you will spend your first 60 credits working on general education requirements and pre-requisites for courses in your major. For instance, as a biology major, you might take biology 101 to fulfill your science gen ed requirement. That course will also make you eligible for Biology 102, 202, and 303, all of which you need to graduate. A minor typically requires anywhere from 15 – 30 credits of study outside of your major and is usually given with bachelor’s degrees.

Degree Plans – The Associate and Bachelor Degrees

Associate’s Degrees

The first degree you may work toward is an associate’s degree. Associate’s degrees are generally awarded at community colleges or other types of two year colleges. Sometimes, four year colleges offer associate’s degrees, but not usually. Associate’s degrees typically require 60-70 credit hours to complete. A general education core will often be a part of any of the associate’s degrees offered. Two typical degrees are the Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS). These are usually transfer degrees, because they focus on a general education core that will easily transfer to a four-year college. That is why, as mentioned above, 30-70 of your credits will be used on gen ed requirements.

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Two year colleges also often have associate’s degrees that are geared toward students who do not want to attend college past the associate level. These degrees are referred to as professional degrees because of this fact. While they usually have some form of general education component, is is usually less than that of the transfer degrees. They largely focus on getting the student ready to enter the workforce immediately following the associate degree. These types of degrees are good for students who want to secure jobs in the workforce that only require associate degrees. For example, an Associate in Applied Science with a focus in Welding might only require some general education courses, and it would prepare you to get a job as a Welder upon graduation.

Bachelor’s Degrees

The two major bachelor’s degrees awarded by colleges and universities are the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree and the Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. If you major in something like history, you’d get a Bachelor of Arts in History. If you major in biochemistry, you’d receive a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry. Some majors result in a combined BSBA. The BS degree usually requires more math and science related courses, whereas the BA degree typically requires more courses in the humanities or social sciences. As already mentioned, the BA and BS typically requires 130-140 credit hours to complete. Depending on the schedule your college adheres to, it could take anywhere from 2.5 – 5 years to complete. If you transfer into a bachelor’s granting institution with credits from another college (like a community college, as in this article), it will obviously take you less time at the second college.

With a bachelor’s degree, you qualify for a very large pool of jobs that are not normally available to those without degrees or to those with only associate’s degrees. The bachelor’s degree prepares you for many different types of entry level jobs. Some careers require even more schooling beyond the bachelor degree, though. (More about this in my article series about choosing a career.)

Some More Useful Information About How College Degrees Work

At two year colleges, you can often take one or two year programs for certificates or other types of associate degrees. They don’t provide any general education requirements, but they prepare you for some jobs. The only downside to this, is that if you ever want to return to college for an associate’s or a bachelor’s, you will have to take all the gen ed requirements you didn’t take the first time.

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Community colleges also sometimes have agreements with four year colleges in their own state. The agreements stipulate that if a student earns an AA or an AS degree at a community college within the state, those credits will be accepted for transfer toward the student’s bachelor degree. This is very helpful, because you can very often knock out your gen ed requirements in the cheaper, two year college. If you happen to go to a two year college in one state, then wish to transfer to an out of state four year institution to complete your bachelor’s, you may lose some credits.

I have referred to bachelor’s degree granting institutions very loosely as “four year colleges” in this article, but in truth, it is more complicated than this. Some smaller colleges grant bachelor’s degrees only, or bachelor’s degrees and a few associate’s degrees. Some also grant the master’s degree, which is the degree a level up from the bachelor degree (you must have a bachelor’s degree before you can earn a master’s degree). The master’s degree usually takes 2 years of study.

Bigger universities, specifically, research oriented universities (vs. more teaching-oriented colleges and universities), often grant bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and PhDs. The PhD is the Doctorate of Philosophy Degree and is the highest possible degree granted. This degree is a research degree and can take anywhere from 3-7 years, or longer, to complete. Some PhD programs allow students with bachelor’s degrees to enter. In these programs, the students often receive their master’s on their way to their PhD. Other PhD programs require applicants to already possess their master’s degree in their field. Most colleges require their instructors to hold Phds. Some hire those that hold master’s degrees, though.

Hopefully this article has helped you to better understand some of the murkier areas in the topic of college degrees.