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Studies repeatedly show that college graduates consistently pursue more and may have greater job security than those with only a high school diploma. The higher the degree you pursue, you may have the greater earning power. Regardless of the potential economic benefits, one universal truth about education is that it deepens your thinking and always expands your horizons.

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Understanding Your Options for College Degrees

Everyone talks about the value of a college degree, but with so many degree options, what is the best way for you to capture some of that value? The ultimate answer depends on your academic aptitude and career goals, but obtaining some basic degree information can help you start to sort out your educational options.

The U.S. Department of Education defines a degree as an award given by a college, university, or other post-secondary educational institution to mark the successful completion of a particular program of studies. Of course, there are many different types of degrees, so a logical next step is to look at some of the major categories.

Degree Information: Climbing the Ladder
Broadly speaking, college degrees may be thought of as different rungs on a ladder, in that they represent different levels of academic achievement. Looking at this visually, from highest to lowest, may give you a feel for what level represents your ultimate goal:

  • Doctorate degree. This is the highest level of academic award, and can represent up to six full-time academic years. While you might think of doctors most commonly in connection with medicine, there are also doctorates in academic and professional fields. So, while a doctorate degree is an appropriate goal if you hope to practice medicine, different kinds of doctorate degrees are applicable if you plan to reach the highest levels of teaching or research.
  • Master's degree. A master's degree typically involves one to two years of study beyond completion of a bachelor's degree. Master's degrees are often prerequisites for certain fields, such as teaching, and a master's of business administration (MBA) is increasingly in demand in the business world.
  • Bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree represents the equivalent of four years of academic study beyond high school. This is a key degree both for entering the business world, and for being eligible to go on to master's and doctorate degrees. There are many different major subjects of study for bachelor's degrees, but they generally are separated in to bachelor's of arts (BA) or bachelor's of science (BS) degrees.
  • Associate's degrees. Associate's degrees are typically two-year programs. They can be useful for learning basic career skills, or as preparation for continuing on to a bachelor's degree.

Where the ladder analogy breaks down a little is that you don't necessarily need each lower-level degree to go on to the next level. For example, you may not need an associate's degree to pursue a bachelor's degree, and you may not need a master's degree to pursue a doctorate. This ranking of studies is typically broken down into graduate studies, representing everything up to and including a bachelor's degree, and post-graduate studies, comprising master's and doctorate degrees.

Working your way up this ladder can be well worth it. For example, Department of Education figures show that people with bachelor's degree earn on average 50 percent more than people who only have a high school diploma. However, to get value out of your college education, you should make sure you are pursuing an accredited degree. An accredited degree is one recognized by an independent agency which sets standards for, and monitors compliance with, academic operations.

However high you ultimately go, each rung on the educational ladder has value, so the first step can be the most important.

U.S. Department of Education, Definitions
U.S. Department of Education, Education and Income