Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees: Which Is Better?

Have you already considered what you would do after you complete your education? Where do you want to work and in which role? How long do you plan to study? How much do you want to earn, and which budget can you spend on your education now? Answering these questions is not that easy, but it is essential for your future and career. Let’s try to find answers together.

Undergraduate Degrees

Undergraduate programs consist of the first two higher education levels and result in such degrees as Associate and Bachelor. 

To document that students have completed a course, they are awarded credit hours or credits. Usually, a student gets 15 credits per semester and 30 credit hours per year. A credit hour may be equal to 5-6 usual hours, depending on the course length. An associate degree requires you to earn around 60 credits to be eligible for the diploma, while to accomplish the bachelor’s level, you will need 120 credits.

Associate Degree

You can obtain this degree in technical schools or community colleges. Here you study general subjects and only a few disciplines that relate to your future profession. It will take you two years to complete the Associate Degree. However, there are Associate Programs that vary with their level of ‘generality.’

Associate in Arts (AA) is the broadest specialty that includes introductions to art, history, literature, writing, music, business, and communication. Associate in Science (AS) is more specific and usually chosen by students who intend to get further education related to science, like engineering or nursing. Associate in Applied Science (AAS) is a particular, often a single-career path. Trendy AAS programs include paralegal, web development and design, accounting, nursing, teaching assistant, etc. 

Pay and Be Paid

In 2021, you would spend around $4,800 per year if you are an in-state student of a public community college and $8,600 if you reside in another state. On average, private colleges’ programs cost from $15,500 per year as per the Community College Review. They report that New Mexico is the cheapest state for the first level higher education, with an average annual price of $3,850. Pennsylvania, with its price of $14,200, has the highest tuition price.

If you plan to study for two years only, you should enter a public community college as it will cost you less than the same program in a university. This is because community colleges don’t have such an infrastructure and so many various programs as universities, and it saves them costs.

According to Zip Recruiter, a legitimate hiring resource in America, the average annual pay to an Associate Degree worker in the US in January 2021 varies from $34,500 and $54,000. Such a gap appears due to different locations, gained experience, and skill levels. So, this career path may be quite lucrative, inexpensive, and quick.

Bachelor’s (Baccalaureate) Degree 

If you decide to continue studying after you get your Associate Degree, you move to the second level and start another two-year educational journey. At the bachelor’s level, you choose your major – a subject that is linked to your career goal. The Bachelor’s Diploma can become your ticket to better job opportunities. 

Bachelor’s program allows you to get one of the three degrees. Bachelor of Arts (BA) is the most common academic degree that covers communication, journalism, languages, and international relations. However, BA focuses on theoretical knowledge. The Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) is a professional degree that is concentrated on performing or visual arts, allowing only 30% of its time on Liberal Arts like literature, history, or psychology. The Bachelor of Science (BS) unites research practice with theoretical knowledge like mathematics, computer science, engineering, etc. 

There are bachelor’s degrees in almost every major you choose. Middle-management roles and professional positions are what your BA, BS, or BFA can promise. Though usually, the bachelor’s program requires four years of study, there are accelerated 3-year programs. Some colleges allow part-time options that result in postponing the graduation date. If you have limited time, you need to consider online bachelor’s programs that propose flexible education periods.

According to the College Board, the average year of a bachelor’s program in 2020 cost $11,000 in a private college. Zip Recruiter reports that the national average annual salary for a bachelor is around $59,600, ranging from $26,500 to $120,000!

Graduate Degrees

You can go to a graduate (or grad) school only after you have a Bachelor’s Degree. There you get more career-oriented profound knowledge to enter the job market at an advanced level. 

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is the most popular and common graduate diploma. It will usually take you two years to accomplish your master’s program. It focuses on regular assessments and structured training, which is why, in the US, this degree requires more time than in other countries. You will work towards your degree, acquiring professional skills and opportunities to develop. The most trendy is an MBA degree as obtaining the Master of Business Administration status promises you advanced skills that will let you grow as a professional in business-related spheres and have a higher salary. 

Here are several top-paying MBA professions with 2021 estimated median salaries according to the Northeastern University (Boston, MA):

IT Manager  – $146,360 per year

Marketing Manager – $135,900 per year

Sales Manager – $126,640 per year

Business Operation Manager – $100,930 per year

The Census Bureau states that the master’s degree graduates earn about 15% more than their colleagues with bachelor’s degrees. In numbers, this turns out to be close to $8,000 per year. 

Program Cost

The price you will pay for your master’s degree depends on the institution, offline or online delivery method, and the program you choose. FinAid.org reports that the cost of an MBA degree can start from $40,000 and go up to $120,000. Here is the list of top US universities with their master’s tuition fees:

Princeton University  – $44,000 per year

University of Chicago – $13,500 – $39,500/year

Yale University – $22,000 – $46,000/year

Harvard University – $5,500 – $33,000 per year

Columbia University – $23,000 – $59,000 per year

Still, there are master’s programs that you probably can afford: over 13,500 offers cost up to $5,000. For example, the cheapest proposals come from South Texas College, Western Kentucky University, California State University Long Beach, the City University of New York (CUNY).

Is a Thesis Obligatory to Get a Master’s Degree?

A thesis is a paper that a graduate student works on several semesters before graduation. Usually, a thesis paper requires a lot of research and writing from a student; however, this is the right time to demonstrate your skills and ability to apply them. In your thesis, you show that you are aware of the authorities’ opinions on your topic. Also, you would prove your thinking is original and dedicated. At the thesis defense, you are expected to demonstrate mastery of your topic and presentation, thinking, and speaking skills. 

There are non-thesis degrees, but such students have more courses and sometimes require more time to complete them. Nonetheless, before graduating, you will still have an alternative exam or be asked to do a project. If you think about the doctorate program, a thesis degree is the best option for you. 

Doctorate Degree

A doctorate is a term for a degree that you get after four to six years of study, depending on the institution, chosen subject area, and the offered program. In some cases, the doctorate program may require up to eight years! This degree is the most advanced, and you should have a master’s degree to apply for a doctorate. Students show the thorough research of the chosen topic, analyze and interpret the data, bringing a new solution. Completing the doctorate is challenging but rewarding.

There are two types of doctorate degrees:

Research-Oriented Doctorate – Doctor of Philosophy 

These degrees are called Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) The philosophy here has nothing to do with the philosophy as a subject, but it refers to the research concept. The dissertation process is essential for these degrees, and the most popular specializations are Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Public Health (DPH), Doctor of Arts (DA), Doctor of Business Management (Ph.D.).

Application-Oriented Doctorate – the Professional Doctorate

Applied doctorate, terminal doctorate, and professional doctorate is the same degree that requires the application of your knowledge about the subject in real-world cases. If career growth, reaching top corporate positions or establishing authority in a specific industry are your strategic goals, you need to pursue this degree. The most popular applied doctorates are Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Social Work (DSW), Juris Doctor (JD). The dissertation may not be obligatory here; instead, you are expected to research real-world problems and then analyze them and present the solutions.

The structure of a professional doctorate program includes four stages:

  1. The core of research classes, where you study applied statistics, research methodology, and profound analysis.
  2. Major focus courses.
  3. Choosing of electives. These are optional courses that you complete to improve your area of competence. Nonetheless, electives are credited.
  4. Writing a dissertation. 

The average salary of a doctorate degree is around $98,475 per year, according to PayScale, with Data Scientist earning roughly $111,000 and Research Scientist $88,000. The average cost of one year of a doctorate is a bit more than $11,000 in a public university against a private institution’s $44,000 price.

Today in the US, you may hear a ‘doctor’ title used for medical doctors and owners of a doctorate degree. 

Do Universities and Colleges Differ? 

Sometimes people think that college is a private ‘version’ of a university, which they think is always funded by a state. Others consider that the education level of a college is a bit lower than that of a university. In short, none of these ideas is correct; however, the differences between these two high-school institutions are not so straightforward.


US universities have a certain number of faculties and undergraduate, and graduate programs. Some of those will focus on specific disciplines and others on different teaching levels. Usually, a large US university comprises several undergraduate colleges. Such big universities are eligible to conduct academic research so that they can issue Master and Doctorate Diplomas.

Depending on the funding status, universities in America can be either public or private. The state funds public universities, which is why studying there is less expensive than in private institutions. Public universities are usually large and prestigious, having their network across the major cities. Most US states support one university, though sometimes they fund more. 

Though private universities do not get state funds, they are not always run on a commercial basis. Getting funds from charity investments for teaching and research activity, private universities may be non-profit organizations or get revenues from their tuition fees. Though private universities are usually more expensive, they have funding programs like scholarships to support and encourage students, including those from other countries.


Americans tend to substitute the words ‘university’ and ‘college’ when talking about their undergraduate degree program. You can also hear people meaning undergraduate programs when they refer to a college education. In fact, there are not so many colleges that offer graduate degrees, and these institutions are usually smaller. Two common college types are community colleges and liberal arts colleges.

In community colleges, you can get only an Associate Degree after two years of study and start working or proceed with your education in another institution. Sometimes you can also hear about junior colleges. Some think junior colleges are private, while community colleges are public. Or that ‘junior college’ term is primarily used in the sports context. But the truth is that community colleges and junior colleges are the same types of institutions. Depending on the subjects and location, they may also be titled as city college, county college, or technical college too. Liberal arts colleges may have graduate programs like Master’s and Doctorate, but usually, they just prepare undergraduate professionals. 

As you can see, the higher-level degree you get, the more job opportunities you may have. Still, the decision to go to a college or university directly depends on your ambitions, finances, and desire to study.

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