Types of Degrees Available
Below is an overview of your usual options for education after high school. (If these don't cut if for you, do some research and ask around — there may be additional paths you can find for yourself!)
Two Types of Degrees
There are two basic types of education you can get after high school: the sort meant to lead into specific jobs, and the sort meant to provide a flexible foundation for multiple types of jobs.
Within those two types, we then have the shorter/cheaper options, and the longer/more expensive options. That leaves us with four total degree types:
- Job-specific degrees can be vocational (the shorter/cheaper option) or professional (the longer/more expensive option). Note: The word 'degree' is used, but educational programs that lead to job-specific certificates or licenses would also be included here.
- Flexible degrees can be 2-year, aka an Associate's (shorter/cheaper) or 4-year, aka a Bachelor's (longer, more expensive)
Again, those are broad-strokes classifications, but most types of post-high school education will fall into one of those four camps, and it's a useful way to think about your options if you're trying to figure out which degree to pursue. For more information about each degree type, see below.
Four Total Routes
VOCATIONAL DEGREES include any degree/certificate/license meant to provide trade-specific training and lead directly into a particular job. Examples include everything from mechanical and paralegal degrees to becoming a certified cosmetologist or air traffic controller. These degrees are often able to be completed in around 2 years (although some are shorter and some more extensive), and they usually offer the opportunity for flexible class scheduling, low tuition cost and a solid return in income. The big downside is that if you do not care for the job that comes after the degree, your training will not transfer well (or at all) into other career paths. Depending on the type of training necessary for your program, you may be able to finish your degree completely online, or a significant amount of in-person/hands-on training may be necessary. You can usually find vocational programs available through community colleges or similar area institutions.
Note: Degrees are sometimes referred to as 'vocational' or '2-year' interchangeably, because many vocational degrees take 2 years to complete. However, whenever this site refers to '2-year' degrees, we will be referring to the flexible, non-job-specific version of the Associate's degree.
PROFESSIONAL DEGREES likewise provide job-specific training, but typically require the completion of a 4-year Bachelor's degree followed by several more years of education and often a practicum: examples include degrees to become a doctor, accountant, lawyer etc. (Specifically, a 'professional' degree will usually involve a Master's or a PhD.) Basically, 'professional' degrees are the amped-up version of vocational degrees and are not for the faint of heart, as they typically require much more time and tuition expense and still don't provide much flexibility if you don't end up liking the job. Professional degrees are usually well-respected and do often lead to some of the best-paying jobs available (although this cannot be *guaranteed* for you), but the trade-off is that they tend to involve a greater amount of stress/responsibility. In addition, if you finally get into your field of choice and it pays well, much of that 'big' income may not reach your pocket for years if you still owe a great deal in tuition loans. Generally speaking, unless money is no object, you should feel very firm in your decision if you choose to pursue a professional degree — especially when they involve the completion of a PhD, they are often best for those who consider their field a 'calling' rather than a job.
ASSOCIATE (AKA '2-YEAR') DEGREES: When non-vocational (see above), this is a general degree commonly completed in two years and providing basic higher education skills. Typically awarded at community colleges and similar institutions (and also available through online study), the Associate's degree can be considered complete in itself, or it can be applied towards a Bachelor's degree. These can be very advantageous to have, as 1) they allow for minimal tuition debt, 2) they're often flexible enough to complete while already working a job, and 3) employers for many types of jobs would like to see higher-level skills but may consider Bachelor-holders overqualified. Potential drawbacks to this degree: if pursued non-vocationally, it may still be too general to be of much help to you when applying for jobs, unless coupled with relevant job experience; additionally, Bachelor-holder's will still be preferred for many positions.
BACHELOR (AKA '4-YEAR') DEGREES: When non-vocational (see above), this is a general degree commonly completed in 4 years and providing basic higher education skills as well as more specific training in defined areas of study. Usually awarded at universities and state or private colleges, the Bachelor's degree can be considered complete in itself or could be applied towards further graduate/professional programs. It is usually by far the most costly entry-level degree to get, although many employers require that applicants have this degree before they can even be considered, and graduate/professional degrees can almost never be pursued without having this degree first. Drawbacks: as the job market is flooded with Bachelor's degrees it is becoming more and more necessary to have a Bachelor's degree and experience, and obvious talent, or some other and that makes you stand out from the sea of equally-qualified candidates. Also, as concerned family members will gladly tell you if you announce your intentions of pursuing a degree in something like art or theater, there is a very real danger that you could get your Bachelor's and just end up with a lot of debt and no job prospects; if you do intend to pursue a field that has few real-world applications, it is usually a good idea to either have in mind a list of job options you could look into, or be prepared to continue your education until you are qualified for more specialized positions or for work as a teacher/professor.
Note: As stated above, Bachelor's degrees can be complete in themselves or can lead into either 'graduate' or 'professional' programs. The difference between 'professional' and 'graduate' degrees is that the first is meant to lead to a specific job; for example, a medical student may study specifically to become a certain type of doctor and then graduate to go apply their learning and practice medicine. (See 'PROFESSIONAL DEGREES' section above.) Graduate degrees, on the other hand, are meant to help a student master a field of study, but these are still 'flexible' degrees and are not specifically intended to train a student for particular real-world jobs. For example, a student may get a PhD in English, but the goal is not to go out in the world and 'practice English' — the student may apply their education to becoming a writer or professor, but their education is not meant to lead from 'degree' to 'specific job'. Graduate degrees will not be covered here, because while a student should know from the beginning that they are setting out to pursue a professionaldegree, graduate degrees are often best pursued after completing a Bachelor's degree and determining whether further work is even necessary or desired.
If you are not sure which degree you would like to pursue at this point, consider our Tips for the Undecided
If you have any further questions about the different degrees or certification/licensing programs out there, try searching online for what's available in the fields you're interested in, or feel free to Ask a Librarian for assistance