What Is a Bachelor’s Degree?

The benefits and advantages of a bachelor’s degree have been touted for decades. Stats suggest that college graduates do better than those with only a high school diploma, and a bachelor’s degree has become a must for many jobs, even entry-level ones. 

According to Best Colleges, over 42% of Americans have a college degree. This category includes all degree holders, including associates, masters, and PhD. 

According to the same source, Colorado, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia boast the highest percentage of college-degree holders. Attesting to the power of these credentials is the fact that these places also boast some of the highest employment rates in the country.

A college education, specifically a bachelor’s degree, has become a milestone baked into our culture. 

The pressure to pursue a college education feels so ubiquitous and overwhelming that we overlook a couple of questions: what exactly is a bachelor’s degree, and is it worth it? 

We will demystify the bachelor’s degree and decide whether it is worth pursuing in the first place.

Most colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs in a variety of fields. There are many advantages to completing one and many ways to go about earning one. 

What, exactly, is a bachelor’s degree? We discuss this in more detail.

Definition of a Bachelor’s Degree

Carleton College
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

The most basic definition of a bachelor’s degree is the degree that a college or university grants after four years of study. 

There are different types of bachelor’s degrees and it is referred to by various names. The Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees are the most common degrees offered.

Many schools also offer more specialized degrees, such as the Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A) and the Bachelor of Applied Science (B.A.S.) – for students who want to pursue professional education and training for a career in the visual and performing arts or in the applied sciences.

Other specialized bachelor’s degrees include the Bachelor of Library Science, Bachelor of Business Administration, and the Bachelor of Health Science. The Bachelor of Arts provides students the most flexibility and room to dabble in subjects outside of their major.

There is more to a bachelor’s degree than four years of study. For one, it is not unheard of for someone to take more than four years to complete their degree, and some people finish in less time than that. 

In fact, some schools offer 3-year bachelor’s degree programs for select majors.

A bachelor’s degree is synonymous with “college education.” Most institutions offer 4-year degrees, at a minimum. The bachelor’s degree is a ticket to entry-level positions for professional jobs. Most college curricula are designed to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a profession.

At most schools, students are required to take classes in writing, humanities, the sciences, and sundry general education requirements. 

General education requirements usually consist of half of the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. The idea underlying this program is to give students a well-rounded education beyond specialized education and training in their intended or declared major.

How Many Years Is a Bachelor’s Degree?

Most bachelor programs are designed with a typical, full-time student in mind. Many students complete their degree within four years, give or take a few months. A bachelor’s degree can take anywhere between 3 to 6 years.

A part-time course load may take longer to complete since the total number of credits taken each semester is lower than that of a full-time course load. If a degree program, for example, requires 120 credits to graduate, a student taking 12-16 credits per semester is more likely to complete this track within four years, assuming that they pass all of their courses.

According to Study.com, more than 60% of students take more than four years to complete their degree. There are various factors at play here. First, not all students are registered full-time. Whether it is because of finances or other circumstances, not all students take on a full-time course-load.

Second, more and more students each year fall under the “nontraditional” category; they are students who balance full-time jobs with their studies, are supporting families, or are older students returning to school after a hiatus. Undergraduate education is no longer only for students aged 18 – 22.

Students who switch their majors in their junior year may take longer to finish their bachelor’s degree. This is especially the case if they are changing from liberal arts to a STEM degree. Typically, Bachelor of Science degrees require more courses and more credits to graduate and require specialized training.

In contrast, a student who comes in with some college credits under their belt from an associate’s degree program or credits from another bachelor’s degree program may finish in 4 years or less.

Other circumstances may prolong the bachelor’s degree timeline, which we have not captured here. While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking longer to finish the degree, more time also means more money in terms of costs and may affect continued financial aid eligibility.

How Many Credits Is a Bachelor’s Degree?

Bowdoin College
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree can expect to take around 40 courses over four years or about 120 credits worth of classes. We present this as an estimation because the actual number of credits and courses required differ across programs and schools. 

It helps to glance at various programs at different schools to see what is required for a bachelor’s degree. The examples below are typical for credit requirements for standard, 4-year bachelor programs.

At Stanford University, degree candidates must have completed 180 credits of coursework, comprising credits that fulfill the school’s general education requirements, major requirements. Dual-degree candidates are required to complete a minimum of 225 credits.

Smith College requires degree candidates to complete 128 credits at minimum, 64 of which must be credits of coursework from outside of the declared major. In contrast with Stanford, Smith has an open curriculum that allows students greater flexibility in structuring their bachelor’s degree.

Some schools, such as Binghamton University, offer accelerated/4+1 programs, allowing students to complete bachelor’s degree coursework within the first three years, segueing into master’s level coursework in the 4th and 5th years. The requisite undergraduate credits for these hybrid programs can range from 80 to 100 credits.

For a standard, 4-year bachelor’s program, candidates are required to take anywhere from 120 to as many 180 credits – and over well over 200 credits for dual degree applicants. The number of credits for transfer students is typically lower since they have already earned some credits towards a college degree. 

Because the number of credits required for a bachelor’s degree is so varied, we advise anyone looking to apply or transfer to a bachelor’s program to review the school’s specific requirements carefully.

What Are the Best Bachelor’s Degrees?

Some bachelor’s degrees are “best” when it comes to career options and earning potential. 

Others are “best” in terms of versatility or prospects in careers that are rewarding and satisfying.

Strictly in terms of earning potential, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees are the best bachelor’s degrees to pursue. Engineers of various stripes, accountants, and mathematicians win out on this one. According to PayScale, the top-earning bachelor’s degrees are:

·         Petroleum Engineering

·         Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

·         Applied Economics & Management

·         Operations Research

·         Public Accounting

The entry-level pay for these degrees ranges from $60k to $182k, with a mid-career salary as high as $138k or more. According to GetEducated, there are more STEM jobs than there are skilled professionals to fill in these spots. 

In other words, the demand for STEM professionals is high, making a bachelor’s degree in these fields a promising and lucrative choice.

The list of most popular bachelor’s degrees is more eclectic. The list includes Business, Health Professions, Social Sciences, History, and some of the STEM programs not mentioned above. 

Entry-level and mid-level careers for these degrees have grown at least 5% over the last ten years, and most have and will continue to grow.

The payoff of a Bachelor of Arts degree, particularly in the arts and humanities, is not reducible to earning potential. Rather than condemning graduates to unemployment or working menial jobs, a bachelor’s of arts degree can lead to meaningful careers as technical writers, educators, public relations specialists, and editors.

According to College Ranker, some of the top-earning bachelors of arts degree jobs are economist, public relations specialist, and writers. The earning potential for these occupations and others is increased when graduate degrees are added to the mix.

Bachelor’s Vs. Master’s – What Is the Difference?

There are several key differences between a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is often a prequel to a master’s degree; most master’s programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant or comparable field. 

Master’s degrees are awarded upon completing higher-level studies in a specific field and usually take 2-3 years to complete.

In the US, the most common master’s degrees are the Master of Arts (M.A.), the Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), and the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A). 

One master’s degree that is on the rise is the Master of Public Health, which offers many career paths, in addition to the ones that we have covered here.

Master’s degrees offer more in-depth, specialized study and training in a chosen field. A master’s degree candidate in Political Science, for example, will take classes in sub-fields within political science. 

On the other hand, a bachelor’s degree is typically more general and eclectic.

A typical master’s program consists of 30 to 40 credits of coursework. Don’t be fooled by this number; while it is a fraction of the average number of credits required for a bachelor’s degree, graduate coursework is demanding. 

The material covered in a master’s course is advanced; there are more readings, more assignments, more work, and more preparation overall.

The master’s degree can either serve as preparation for doctoral studies and research or as a ticket to advancement in a professional career track. On average, master’s degree holders have better employment prospects and are paid more than someone with only a bachelor’s degree.

For some professions, a bachelor’s degree is not enough. According to US News & World Report, occupations that require a master’s degree include mental health counseling, library science, social work, and urban and regional planning.

In sum, a master’s degree is a level up from a bachelor’s degree.

What Is a Bachelor of Science Degree?

We have already indicated some of the differences between a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Science degree. 

One of the key differences between these degrees is that a Bachelor of Science Course of study tends to be more specialized. B.S. courses are centered on mathematical skills, analytical reasoning, know-how, and problem-solving.

A B.S. curriculum means fewer electives and more courses that count towards the successful completion of a major. The curriculum tends to be math-heavy, and lab work is often a co-requisite with lecture courses. 

The most popular majors that are offered under the Bachelor of Science degree are Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, Biochemistry, Computer Science, Statistics. 

There are as many career options available to Bachelor of Science candidates as there are majors. The degree prepares students for entry-level positions in a wide variety of fields, from health education and environmental policy analysis to astronomy and space sciences. 

According to ZipRecruiter, the median salary for the Bachelor of Science degree is $67,256/year, with an annual salary as high as $154k.

The Bachelor of Science degree is ideal for students who are intensely interested in acquiring practical knowledge and skills in science, technology, and mathematics. The B.S. is also ideal for anyone who wants to apply to med school or do advanced research in the sciences. But, as with its B.A. counterpart, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the B.S. degree.

Is a Bachelor’s Degree Better Than An Associate’s?

An associate’s degree is awarded as an Associate of Arts (A.A)., Associate of Science (A.S.), or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) 

As much as we like a direct and clear-cut answer to the question of whether a bachelor’s degree is better than an associate’s degree, the best answer is: it depends. 

But before we delve into this, we want to review the advantages of pursuing a bachelor’s degree over an associate’s degree.

Upfront, an associate’s degree generally costs less than a bachelor’s degree and takes less time to complete. This is assuming an expected timeframe of 2 years, which is the average amount of time it takes to complete an A.S. The longer it takes, the more it will cost. 

A distinct and frequently cited advantage of pursuing a B.A. or B.S over an associate’s is earning potential. 

For one, bachelor’s degree holders have more career opportunities that are likely to pay well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they earn more and are less likely to be unemployed. 

The difference can be anywhere from several hundred dollars to $1k a week, depending on the course of study and other factors.

These stats do not suggest that an associate’s degree is not worth it or that a bachelor’s degree is inherently superior. 

An associate’s degree is an optimal choice for anyone looking to get into the technical and vocational trades. 

While a Bachelor’s degree confers many advantages, there is nothing wrong with deciding to pursue an associate’s degree. It all comes down to educational goals and feasibility.

Can You Go From a Bachelor’s to a PhD?

An undergraduate education, usually a bachelor’s degree, is a necessary foundation for graduate coursework. A master’s degree is often an essential foundation for a PhD program. However, it is possible to apply and enroll in a PhD program fresh out of college.

In the U.S., a master’s degree is often not required for a PhD program. In some PhD programs, a student can earn a Master’s en route to earning the PhD, with the option of pursuing a terminal master’s. 

In many cases, candidates earn a master’s degree from one institution and subsequently apply to a PhD program at another.

There are several advantages to completing master’s level coursework prior to taking on a PhD, especially when coming fresh out of undergrad. 

While the workload of a master’s program is demanding and challenging, the master’s route is an excellent way to ease into the more high-level and intensive work involved in a PhD program. 

Additionally, a master’s offers an opportunity to delve into different topics and areas of specialization within a field before committing to one narrow area of specialization. Master’s degrees are specialized; PhD courses of study are even more so.

Another vital factor to consider is the highly competitive nature of PhD admissions and PhD programs in general. The top doctorate-granting programs in any field are incredibly selective. Not only are applicants vying for a few spots, but they are also competing for funding packages and the opportunity to work with top-notch scholars in their chosen field.

An applicant with only a bachelor’s degree may not be as competitive as an applicant who has garnered some experience in the field via their master’s program. 

Therefore, a master’s degree is a good way to build up a competitive curriculum vitae, which serves as evidence to academic and professional credentials.

Is a Bachelor’s Degree Worth It?

Connecticut College
Beyond My Ken, Fanning Hall Connecticut College, CC BY-SA 4.0

If a bachelor’s degree aligns with desired skills, career goals, and lifestyle, the answer is yes. Overall, bachelor’s degree holders fare better in the job market than associate’s degree holders and certainly better than those with only a high school diploma. But this is only a general picture and does not apply in every case.

There are people with only a high school diploma who do well for themselves. According to a CNBC profile, commercial pilots, air traffic controllers, nuclear technicians, and first-line firefighters can earn as much as $75k a year – without an undergraduate degree. The bonus of a non-college route is no student loans!

Another attractive alternative is the entrepreneurial path. 

Starting a business does not require a bachelor’s degree, even though a few finance and business management courses would help. 

While there are many successful business owners without one, there are many benefits to undergraduate education. A robust social and alumni network is as much an important ingredient for a successful business as money. Thus, another distinct advantage of a bachelor’s degree is social capital.

Overall, the stats paint a favorable picture for a bachelor’s degree. There are other benefits of acquiring a college degree, such as creativity and strong problem-solving skills.

At the end of the day, the worth of a bachelor’s degree depends on desired goals, financial viability, and other highly subjective and individual factors.