What Is an Undergraduate Degree?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Use this guide to learn about undergraduate programs: where to begin, factors to consider, choosing a degree, and how to maximize your potential.

[Featured image] A group of undergraduate degree students sits outside on some steps. They're talking and holding notebooks and laptop computers.

Undergraduate degrees are a form of post-secondary (after high school) education that many students pursue to further their academic and professional pursuits. You can take many different career paths after high school graduation, but pursuing an undergraduate degree can open up career opportunities tailored to your talents and interests. In this article, we'll discuss what undergraduate degrees are, who they might be right for, and how you can get started.  

What is an undergraduate degree? 

An undergraduate degree is a credential you typically pursue after high school. In the United States, undergraduate degrees include associate and bachelor’s degrees. Three main institutions typically offer undergraduate degree programs: universities, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges.  

Undergraduate vs. graduate degrees 

Undergraduate degrees provide a foundational education within your field of study while allowing you to build on your knowledge of general subjects outside your major. As an undergraduate student, you’ll often get the chance to build a community of people from different backgrounds while pursuing your educational goals. 

Graduate degrees, however, allow you to specialize in a field of study that interests you and helps you build expertise in that field. Your work as a graduate student will revolve around specific coursework in a much smaller environment. You’ll be able to pursue a graduate degree after earning an undergraduate degree. Graduate degrees include master's and doctoral degrees. 

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4 benefits of an undergraduate degree

An undergraduate degree is a great way to become more marketable once you enter the workforce. Consider the following potential benefits of pursuing an undergraduate degree:

1. Better job prospects 

It's estimated that nearly two-thirds of jobs require postsecondary education [1]. With an undergraduate degree, you can prepare for a more specialized career in an evolving job market. Having this competitive edge as a job candidate could create opportunities for roles that support greater professional growth. 

2. Financial rewards

Undergraduate degrees often offer graduates access to higher-paying jobs that might have been inaccessible without a degree [2]. While the median annual earnings for high school graduates is $35,630, the median yearly wages rise to $42,860 for associate degree holders and $59,130 for bachelor's degree holders, according to 2019 data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics [3]. 

3. Ability to build on your interests 

Undergraduate degree programs typically allow you to design an education around your interests. While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you have the opportunity to build upon your passions and turn them into a fulfilling career. 

4. Professional network

Whether you decide to complete a two-year or four-year undergraduate program, furthering your education is a way to maximize your potential and find a fulfilling career path. While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you will encounter a network of people—professors and peers alike. These connections can often lead to future career opportunities.

How long does it take to finish an undergraduate degree?

Undergraduate degrees typically span two to four years depending on your field of study. They will also grant you different qualifications. 

  • Two-year programs: A two-year undergraduate program is commonly known as an associate degree. Prepare for an entry-level role or to enter a more specific field of study at a four-year college or university with an Associate of Arts or an Associate of Science, the two most common types of associate degrees. An associate degree typically requires 60 credit hours, which you may be able to transfer to a four-year university. 

  • Four-year programs: A bachelor's degree is typically a four-year program. An estimated 2,278 colleges and universities in the United States allow students to complete a four-year program to earn their bachelor’s degree [4]. Four-year bachelor’s programs center around your major and other curriculum requirements, which will vary from school to school. To receive a bachelor’s degree, you typically must complete 120 to 128 credit hours. 

How much do undergraduate degrees typically cost?

The cost of an undergraduate degree will vary depending on where you receive your education. Community colleges, in-state public schools, out-of-state public schools, and private colleges may all charge different amounts for an undergraduate degree. Here's a look at average annual tuition and fees in the United States for the 2019-2020 school year by type of institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [5]: 

  • Public community college: $3,900

  • Private nonprofit community college: $18,000

  • Private for-profit community college: $15,800

  • Public college or university: $9,400

  • Private nonprofit college or university: $37,600

  • Private for-profit college or university: $18,200

Choosing the correct degree 

A vital step in pursuing an undergraduate degree is choosing the right degree for you. Here are some steps to help you find the best fit: 

Narrow down your career choices. 

The first step in choosing your degree is narrowing down your options. Basing the decision on your skills, interests, and chance of employability is a great place to start. 

Consider the cost. 

Once you have a better idea of which career path you want to take, it is always wise to look into cost-efficient options that are the best fit for you. Be sure to take into consideration your own financial standing as well as the greater economy to make the most financially rewarding decision. 

Ask your peers.

Ask for an outside perspective from those you trust. Going to a peer for insight will help you decide what path might be best for you. Peers are more likely to understand the position you’re in and may be able to offer helpful insight. 

Investigate online. 

When in doubt, look it up. Once you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of your undergraduate degree, you’ll be ready to start looking into programs that might be a good fit. 

Can I do a degree online? 

Online degree programs can be a flexible, efficient, and cost-effective way to pursue an undergraduate degree from the comfort of your home. Online education has grown in popularity because it offers access to higher education to an increasing number of people. If you’re an adult learner or someone already in the workforce looking to further your education, an online degree might be the right choice.

Keep in mind that research is vital when choosing the right online degree. Be sure to look into the post-secondary institution’s accreditation, ratings and reviews, student resources, education costs, and how their students fare after graduation.

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Alternatives to an undergraduate degree 

Many different alternatives exist should you find that an undergraduate degree isn’t for you:

 

  • Get an entry-level job to gain professional work experience in a low-stress environment. 

  • Earn certification or a professional certificate to validate your expertise.

  • Attend a trade or career school to help you hone a new skill. 

  • Apply for an apprenticeship and learn from a successful businessperson. 

  • Apply for an internship in your desired field to learn the trade and make yourself more marketable in future job searches. 

  • Start your own business and learn how to be your own boss. 

  • Advocate for your community by becoming a police officer or firefighter. 

  • Join the armed forces. 

Next steps

Learn more about what it's like to earn an online undergraduate degree from a top global university on Coursera. Should you need more information to decide which direction to go, consider taking online courses on topics you're interested in until you find the right fit. 

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Article sources

1. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/recovery-job-growth-and-education-requirements-through-2020/." Accessed June 16, 2022.

2. BLS. “Learn more, earn more: Education leads to higher wages, lower unemployment : Career Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2020/data-on-display/education-pays.htm.” Accessed June 29, 2022.

3. National Center for Education Statistics. "Digest of Education Statistics: Table 502.40.Annual earnings of persons 25 years old and over, by highest level of educational attainment and sex: 2019, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_502.40.asp." Accessed June 16, 2022.

4. National Center for Education Statistics. "Characteristics of Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/csa."  Accessed June 16, 2022.

5. National Center for Education Statistics. "Tuition costs of colleges and universities, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76." Accessed July 1, 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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