There are a large number of choices for students who wish to continue their education beyond high school. Making the right choice for obtaining an educational degree depends on a number of factors including career goals and the budget of the student and/or her family. Beginning in the late 20th century, online choices for educational programs became numerous as well, along with evening and weekend-based educational degree programs targeted toward mid-career professionals.
Certificate Programs and Associate's Degrees
Certificate programs and associate's degrees are designed for students who wish to obtain training in a specific area, such as nursing or mechanics, without obtaining a 4-year degree. Associate's degrees are also offered for students who wish to begin their education at a community college in order to save costs. Students in transfer-oriented associate's degree programs often obtain credits for basic courses such as English or Mathematics, then transfer to a 4-year institution to complete courses in their majors, or areas of academic concentration.
Bachelor's degrees are 4-year degrees offered by liberal arts colleges, research universities, specialty educational institutions or technical schools. The bachelor's degree is the degree which people refer to most often when they mention college degrees. Typically, a bachelor's degree requires basic or foundation courses in the first 2 years of study, with the second 2 years of coursework largely devoted to the student's chosen major.
Master's degree programs typically run from 1 to 3 years. They are offered in the same areas as bachelor's degrees. However, coursework for a master's degree is typically focused on a single subject or course of study. Typically, students are required to complete a major paper or project along with their coursework to receive a master's degree. Master's degrees may be "terminal" or the final degree available at an educational institution, or offered as a component of a doctoral degree program.
Doctoral degrees are the highest level of educational degree offered in the United States. Students may begin doctoral programs after completing a master's degree or directly after completing a bachelor's degree. Students also often work for a period of time before beginning a doctoral degree program. Doctoral degrees are offered in liberal arts and in specialized areas of training; for examples, a doctorate in psychology is a commonly held degree for therapists. The MD, or medical doctor degree, is considered a doctoral degree. Doctoral degree programs almost always require students to complete a major thesis of original research or some other substantial project in order to receive the degree.
Online, or distance learning, programs allow students to complete coursework either in real time via teleconferencing or on their own schedules. Either option often allows students to work from home on their own computers. Such programs are designed to allow working adults to pursue educational programs without leaving their jobs. Online degree programs are available in a number of areas and at every level of educational attainment. Legitimate online programs will be accredited with one or more educational accreditation agencies.
Academic vs. Technical or Vocational Degrees
Degrees in liberal arts programs are known as academic degrees. They can be offered in the arts and humanities or in the sciences. Programs that offer degrees in technical or vocational programs are often associated with technical schools, although this is not always the case. The master of business administration degree, or MBA, is considered a career-oriented degree; however, many prestigious educational institutions offer the MBA as part of their curricula.
While there are many legitimate online educational degree programs, students should always be cautious about a degree program that offers too much for little or no effort. "Diploma mills" are unaccredited schools or organizations which claim to be schools; they are scams that offer "degrees" which are not worth the paper on which they are printed. Unwitting students who attempt to enhance their credentials through a diploma mill will find that they have wasted their money. Unscrupulous individuals who use credentials issued by diploma mills to obtain jobs or promotions are subject to immediate termination whenever their ruses are discovered.
Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.