Since the 1800s, the U.S. higher education system has offered undergraduate and graduate degrees. Undergraduate degrees prepare students for specific careers or provide a basic university education with a specialty in a particular discipline. Graduate-level degree programs enable students to develop expertise in a chosen field of study.

Types

There are four levels of college degrees in the United States.
There are four levels of college degrees in the United States.

There are four levels of college degrees in the United States: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. The first two are undergraduate degrees; the last two are graduate-level degrees.

Associate's Degree

Associate’s degrees prepare recipients for specific occupations.
Associate’s degrees prepare recipients for specific occupations.

Informally known as a “two-year” degree, an associate’s program can cover basic education requirements, which can apply toward a bachelor’s degree. Other associate’s degrees prepare recipients for specific occupations.

Bachelor's Degree

The bachelor’s is the basic four-year degree.
The bachelor’s is the basic four-year degree.

The bachelor’s is the basic four-year degree. It includes basic requirements, plus a major, and often a minor, field of study.

Master's Degree

A master’s degree program focuses on developing one's expertise in a specific area. The degree generally requires one to two years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree.

Doctoral Degree

Doctoral degrees can require four to six years of study beyond a bachelor’s.
Doctoral degrees can require four to six years of study beyond a bachelor’s.

A doctoral degree requires students to master a particular discipline and contribute to that body of knowledge through their own research. Doctoral degrees can require four to six years of study beyond a bachelor’s.

Professional Degrees

Specialized professional degrees exist at the graduate level.
Specialized professional degrees exist at the graduate level.

Specialized professional degrees exist at the graduate level. Examples include the Juris Doctor (J.D.), a law degree, and the Master of Business Administration, or M.B.A. The best-known professional doctoral degree is the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.).