What is an Undergraduate

What is an Undergraduate?

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An undergraduate degree is one of two degree types that precede a master's, or graduate, degree. There is first an associate degree, which is structured to take two years to complete. These degrees are most often associated with community colleges, though they can also be earned at many four-year institutions of higher education. The coursework for an associate degree is primarily composed of the general liberal arts education curriculum plus a few courses in a major field such as marketing, accounting, or journalism.

During an undergraduate degree program, students have a course load that is certainly more than that they were likely used to in high school but less than what is expected in a graduate degree program. An upper-level undergraduate course may require term papers of around 20 pages, whereas a master's course may double or triple that work.

Ultimately, to embark on a satisfactory career path, students will need to complete an undergraduate degree. An associate degree will help them get started, but a bachelor's, or four-year degree, will set them on a trajectory for maximum success.

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General Undergraduate Education

Practically every degree requires a general education curriculum. This is designed to give every student a firm foundation in the humanities, sciences, and arts. These courses are typically at the introductory level and are included in every associate and bachelor’s level degree. Thus, the general education curriculum provides undecided students with a way to explore topics they may not have otherwise explored and at a richer, deeper college experience.

General education courses usually include two courses from the English department, most often composition and rhetoric. Most colleges also require a college-level algebra course, a laboratory science course (such as biology), social sciences, and humanities. However, each college can create a general education curriculum to suit its educational philosophy. For instance, some don't bother offering college algebra and instead let students take other science courses, though students who are prepared can take calculus if they desire.

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Types of Associate Degrees

An associate degree is a two-year program that sets a firm foundation for one's college education. These degrees are most often found through local community colleges, but many four-year institutions also provide the option for students to graduate with an associate degree. Even if this option is not explicitly listed in a student handbook or course catalog, students who are interested in an associate degree should ask their academic advisor about this option.

While students in an associate degree program all earn a degree in a major field, the degree is largely comprised of a general education curriculum. While each college may have its own approach to the general education curriculum, most follow a similar pattern. Ultimately, general education includes introductions to writing, math, science, humanities, and the arts.

Students in an associate degree program will find that they can major in nearly any field that is available at the bachelor's level. The depth and detail of their studies won't match that of students who take the extra two years, but an associate degree does provide an excellent introduction and overview of the field in question. This academic background can pave the way to a terrific entry-level position. In fact, there are many associate degree programs that are created specifically to prepare students for licensure or certifications in specific fields.

Associate of Arts

An Associate of Arts degree is one that focuses on fields in the arts and humanities. Some examples include psychology, English, marketing, graphic art, criminal justice, and journalism. Typically, an Associate of Arts degree is in a field that is non-technical. According to payscale.com, the salary range for this degree can go as high as $25/hr depending on one's region. Students with an AA degree might consider expanding their horizons with additional certifications or a four-year degree.

Associate of Science

An Associate of Science degree is a two-year degree that focuses on subjects in the hard sciences. While the label can be applied somewhat loosely, it is almost always used for majors in mathematics, engineering, computer science, information technology, cyber security, and accounting. Students who complete an AS degree often find an entry-level position in a technical field. In fact, many who complete an AS in engineering, for instance, go on to very successful careers. Those with an AS in computer science can bolster their resumes with certifications and programming languages that will help them garner very high salaries.

Associate of Applied Science

An AAS may sound much like an AS, and it is, but with a difference. An applied science degree indicates that one's coursework focused more on practical application than academically vetted theories. This does mean that the knowledge imparted may be more immediately relevant to one's work, but it also means that, if laws or technologies change, the student may need more retraining. It also may mean that some credits won't transfer to a full four-year bachelor's degree program. Those who pursue an AAS should discuss how well their credits will transfer if they plan to pursue a bachelor's degree at a later time.

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Career Outlook for Associate Graduates

The career outlook for an associate degree holder is always better than that of a non-degreed person. They have an easier time landing an entry-level job and, in the long run, they may find that it's easier to grasp new concepts on the job. After all, any college degree helps students learn how to learn and assimilate new information.

In general, an associate degree is best suited for more technical occupations. Students who graduate with an associate degree in a field such as engineering, nursing, healthcare support, legal support, or computers can find immediate success in the job market. Many students who start with an associate computer science degree find that they can build on their learning and credentials without having to return to a purely academic environment. The professional certifications available are often enough to help them build a career for a lifetime. Those with a degree in allied health or even nursing can often convert their degree into state licensure and a very rewarding career.

Types of Bachelor’s Degrees

An associate degree is an undergraduate degree but, when people speak of an undergraduate degree, they are often referring to a bachelor's degree. This is a four-year degree that may take even longer to complete if you cannot attend full-time. These days, the typical time frame for a bachelor's degree is six years, though students are well-served to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to finish in four years. Students with an associate degree can build on their major degree with more in-depth courses that expand their understanding while often allowing for greater specialization. The four years often can open up opportunities to expand one's education to include a minor concentration or even a double major. Bachelor's degree programs also have more options such as co-op, work/study programs, accelerated master's degree programs, and internships, to name a few.

Programs such as accelerated master's degrees, engineering programs, and others may take longer than four years to complete. Accelerated master's degree programs will usually take five years to complete, but they do include two degrees under that five-year umbrella. Students who find a co-op education will naturally take a bit longer, as well, since these program can have students working as much as full-time every other term, though each program is unique in its requirements.

Bachelor of Arts

A Bachelor of Arts degree is a four-year diploma that is often in a field which is considered outside of the scope of hard science, math, or other technical fields. Bachelor of Arts degrees are often focused on the humanities. This includes degrees in fields such as history, English, political science, sociology, or economics. However, note that sometimes programs will offer students the option to have their diplomas reflect a bachelor of science instead.

Since most BA programs may not instill any specific technical skills, the entry-level opportunities may pay less than those BS students find at graduation. Nevertheless, students with a Bachelor of Arts can always build up their resumes and experience so that their earnings soon match or surpass their peers.

Bachelor of Fine Arts

A Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is somewhat rare, but these degrees indicate a lot of hard work and achievement in the arts. BFA students can focus their talents on fields such as film, theater, painting, sculpture, or even creative writing. To graduate with a BFA, students often need to create a large portfolio of work and may even need to complete an internship. Each BFA degree program will have its own requirements, naturally.

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For the salary potential, BFA students often start their working lives with earnings on the lower end of the spectrum. However, there are some very well-paid positions for those in graphic arts, film/television production, and theater. Yet another option for design students is product design. Visual arts students also find great opportunities in the world of commercial illustration and some work in the art department for film and television.

Bachelor of Science

A Bachelor of Science degree indicates a course of study that focused on quantitative analysis, laboratory experiments, and other STEM activities. However, students in fields such as economics, psychology, sociology, and political science might graduate with a BS degree. While those social science students may choose to have a diploma that indicates a BA or BS, they are likely to find the same success regardless of which letters punctuate their degree.

Some studies seem to suggest that those with a BS tend to make more than those with a BA. However, the differences are typically small and likely reflect the higher demand, and salaries, for specialized technical jobs, which skew the data. With that said, if a political science student has a choice between having their diploma say BS or BA, the bachelor of science option may offer some slight advantage.

Career Outlook for Bachelor’s Graduates

Those who graduate with a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university are generally considered imminently hirable. Employers place a premium on a four-year undergraduate degree because it demonstrates a depth of knowledge as well as a proven track record of completing complex tasks on schedule. That is, not everyone will end up working in their major degree field. In fact, it's very common for people to work in an area apart from their degree.

However, those who study for specific skills are likely to be valued more than those who enter the job market as generalists. A bachelor's degree in accounting, for instance, means that a person can get to work immediately on bookkeeping tasks without much training. Students who pursue a licensed field may also find that their earnings are higher than those who don't need special credentials. Fields such as nursing, for instance, can pay upwards of $200,000 per year, with enough experience, of course. Still, entry-level registered nurses start their careers with median salaries that reach into the $90k range, depending on where they live and/or work.

Graduate Degrees

Graduate degrees are specialty degrees that hone students' knowledge of a particular subject in ways that are particularly desirable in the marketplace. After all, these degrees are called master's degrees because students become a master of a particular subject. To earn a master's degree, a student needs to study for approximately two years, though some degrees take a bit longer.

For instance, a law degree is structured to take three years and a dual-MBA is likewise designed as a three-year program. A dual-MBA is a bit different in that it combines a master's-level business education with a second graduate degree, such as a law degree, in three or more years. An MBA/JD program would take around four years, but a master of science in computer science paired with an MBA is likely to take three years. Whether a person opts for a dual degree or a single master's degree they are sure to be in high demand in the job market.

Students should also note that there is a possibility to earn a master's certificate in certain fields. These certificate programs take a fraction of the time a full master's degree takes and can be a boon to anyone's career. Furthermore, the credits from a certificate program may be applied to a full master's program later on.

However, all master’s degrees require that you have the education of a bachelor’s degree, so it’s important to get that undergraduate degree under your belt if you think you might need more specialized training later.