Undergraduate Programs: What You Need to Know

Working professional studying for an undergraduate degree

Are you are considering going back to school and do not yet have a college degree? Whether you have zero college credits or are close to earning a degree, there are multiple options to consider. Perhaps you have accumulated credits from various colleges, the military, or a community college over the years without yet earning the degree, or maybe you started after high school working toward a degree you no longer have an interest in and have never been back. Even if you don’t have any college experience at all, there are more ways than one to officially earn that bachelor’s degree, and things to consider when thinking about where to start. 

Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree

Both of these degree programs are considered undergraduate degrees. At the most basic level, the biggest difference between the two is that one is a 2-year degree (associate), and the other is a 4-year degree (bachelor’s). However, with all the various options there are for working professionals these days (online, hybrid, accelerated), it may be best to think about the differences in other ways to determine which one would be the best degree for you. Here are a few of the important topics I speak with employees about when they are interested in pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Time to Degree

An associate degree typically requires a total of 60 college credits; conversely, a bachelor’s degree typically requires a total of 120 college credits. Therefore, the associate degree takes significantly less time to complete than a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes people find it in their best interest to start with the associate degree to receive a more short-term credential for their resume. Once completed, they can then continue with the bachelor’s degree.  

Cost

In some cases, starting with an associate degree can save a lot of money in the long term, even if a bachelor’s degree is your end goal. If you complete the associate degree at a community college, you can essentially get half of the bachelor’s degree done at half the cost. You can’t get any lower tuition rates than a community college, so it can provide huge cost savings. For either degree, you will be required to complete a set of general education (or liberal arts) courses so you can get these out of the way during the associate degree and then be ready to focus on the courses in your major of choice for the bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, if you know you want to complete a program entirely online and your community college does not offer this option, it may be beneficial to go straight to a bachelor’s degree. The cost per credit is no different for an online associate degree or the online bachelor’s degree at a 4-year university, so you would not incur the cost savings I just mentioned. I typically recommend going straight to the bachelor’s degree if you want to attend an online, accelerated program that is designed for working professionals, as long as what you are interested in pursuing has this option (which leads me to my next topic of consideration).

Career Path

Sometimes, depending on what you are interested in pursuing, an associate degree is required. Or perhaps it is something that cannot be done online. For example, careers in healthcare like Surgical Technologist, Radiology Technologist, etc. require a 2-year degree. If you are interested in nursing, you can start with an associate or go straight into a bachelor’s program so there are options. For anything general such as business, social sciences, education, or technology, you can also choose either option and start by getting your associate degree to transition into a 4-year school, or go straight into a bachelor’s degree program (depending on your preferences above, regarding online/on campus, and cost savings).

Certificate Programs

It is also possible to pursue an undergraduate certificate program in certain fields of study. These are typically even shorter than an associate degree (anywhere from 12 to 30 credit hours). Fields like medical billing and coding, design, technology, business, or finance have options for undergraduate certificate programs – most of which are designed to give you a very specific set of skills and training in a certain field. Sometimes they might suffice for the coursework you need to sit for an exam to become certified and gain that credential, such as a PMP (Project Management Professional).

There are many ways to begin as an undergraduate student, especially being a working professional with many factors to consider. I always recommend looking at how far along you already are with credits earned, and what career path you are considering, as well as the format and the cost of the program you are looking to pursue. Hopefully, this blog will help you determine the differences between certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees so that you can make the best choice to move forward with your pursuit of a college degree!

Written by: Valerie Jaquith

June 30, 2021

About the Author

Valerie Jaquith, Senior Manager, Academic Coaching

Valerie is the Director of the Academic Coaching team with Bright Horizons EdAssist, where she advises healthcare employees on how to further their education. She previously worked in undergraduate admissions and academic advising at the University of South Florida College of Nursing.