What Is a Bachelor’s Degree? A Guide to Requirements, Types, and More

A bachelor’s degree can set you on a path to break into a field you’ve always been interested in, or enhance a career you’re already in. Learning about it is the first step in getting one.
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What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree in which students study a subject of their choice at an academic institution, and is commonly known as a college degree. 

Getting a bachelor’s degree can open access to job opportunities, expose you to new ideas, and boost your earning potential.

Here are some key things to know about bachelor’s degrees in the US, including how much they cost, what’s needed in an application, and whether an online or in-person experience is better for you.

Here are the basics:

  • Bachelor’s degrees typically take around four years to complete. 

  • Subjects of study can include business, psychology, engineering, nursing, or English, but vary widely and can be selected by the student based on their interests.

  • Traditionally obtained in-person at a college campus, bachelor’s degrees have become increasingly easier to obtain online as well.

  • Though many students choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree immediately after high school, it is not uncommon to pursue one later in life. 

Is a bachelor’s degree worth it?

There are several benefits to getting a bachelor’s degree. These include a higher potential income, increased job prospects, and new and enriching life experiences. If you’ve been working for a while, a bachelor’s degree may also help you launch a new career or advance in your current one. Obtaining a bachelor’s can be the first step to getting a higher academic degree, like a master’s or a doctorate.

The monetary benefit

A bachelor’s degree can be friendlier to your wallet in the long run. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2020, a college graduate working full-time made a median of $1,416 a week, while high school graduates with no college experience earned a median of $789 a week [1]. That gap stretches into a significant difference over a year—a 2019 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that a college graduate earned an average of $33,000 more than a high school graduate in one year [2].

Here are some jobs that typically require a bachelor’s degree and are expected to grow rapidly in the next ten years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [3]:

  • Software developers

  • Registered nurses

  • Financial managers

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors

  • Project management specialists

  • Market research analysts and marketing specialists

  • Medical and health service managers

Cost of a bachelor’s degree program

The cost of a bachelor’s degree depends on several factors, like whether the program is part of a public or private institution, in-state or out-of-state, online or in-person, and whether or not you get financial aid. Keep in mind tuition is separate from other living expenses, like housing and transportation.

  • Private vs public: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that a year of college on average cost $17,797 at public institutions and $46,014 at private nonprofit institutions for the 2017-18 school year [4]. Private colleges, though, might have more institutional resources to give out as financial aid.

  • In-state vs out-of-state tuition: Public schools may have lower tuition if you're an in-state resident. In the US, average annual in-state tuition amounted to $9,037 and out-of-state tuition was $25,657 in the 2017-18 school year, says the NCES [5]. 

  • Online vs in-person: The average public online bachelor's program tuition costs $38,496 for in-state students, and $60,593 at private ones, according to U.S. News—that’s total, not per year [6]. Online degrees eliminate relocation and transportation costs, and can offer enough flexibility for people who want to work full- or part-time.

  • Scholarships or financial aid: Financial aid and scholarships are available for many types of schools. See if you’re eligible for federal financial aid and contact your school for opportunities to start.

Bachelor’s degree requirements

Enrollment requirements for bachelor’s degrees

To enroll, a bachelor’s degree program will generally require:

  • Past grades or GPA: Some programs might require you to have gotten a certain GPA in high school—like 2.5 or 3.0—though not all do. A program’s application should state what kind of grade requirements they have.

  • A GED or high school diploma: Most bachelor’s degree programs will require you to have completed a high school level of education. If you haven’t, you can consider other programs, like associate’s degrees or certificates that may not require them. Professional certificates on Coursera don’t require GEDs.

  • Standardized test scores, like the SAT or ACT: Though some schools are dropping this requirement, many still ask for test scores. High school students typically take standardized tests in their junior or senior year before they start applying to colleges. 

  • Letters of recommendation: These can come from high school teachers who can speak to your good qualities and know you well. If you’ve been out of school for a while, a manager from a past or current job, a leader at your place of worship, a sports coach, or a volunteer coordinator can all provide letters of recommendation.

  • Personal essays: Colleges could request personal essays to get a better sense of your personal story, and why you’re interested in a particular program. A course on essay writing on Coursera or elsewhere can help build your writing skills. 

Can’t meet all of the requirements? Associate’s degree programs may have laxer requirements and can still provide you with a valuable education.

Requirements for finishing a bachelor’s degree

Students typically need 120 semester credits to graduate from a bachelor’s program in the US (roughly 180 credits at a school under a quarter system). Credits are acquired by passing classes for your major and other classes a school might require.

College degrees generally take four years to complete, but can take longer or shorter depending on the program you enroll in and the amount of classes you take each year.

Types of bachelor’s degrees

Three of the most common types of bachelor’s degrees are:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA): A bachelor of arts is a type of bachelor’s that typically emphasizes critical thinking, communication skills, and the humanities. Majoring in subjects like history or English will generally earn you a BA. A Bachelor of Arts may clear a path to careers that draw on attributes such as human connection and critical thinking—like teaching, human resources, advertising, or government work.

  • Bachelor of Science (BS): A Bachelor of Science degree typically emphasizes quantitative skills in coursework. This means science and math degrees are generally categorized as BS degrees, making them good ways to launch a career in science or math-based fields.

Some subjects that have elements of both science and liberal arts, like psychology, economics, or political science, can be either a BA or a BS, depending on the types of courses you emphasize in your studies.

  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA): A Bachelor of Fine Arts is a bachelor’s degree awarded to those who graduate with majors in fine, visual, or performing arts. Specializing in creative writing, theater, drawing, or graphic design can each lead to a BFA. If you’re interested in careers that involve the arts, like theater production or museum curator, a BFA could be a good option for you.

Online bachelor’s degrees vs. On-campus bachelor’s degrees

Both online degrees and on-campus degrees offer compelling reasons for students to enroll. Here are a few factors to consider when deciding which might be better for you.

Flexibility: Here's a fast fact—in 2017, the average graduate of an online degree program is thirty-two years old, according to U.S. News, and 84 percent of them are employed as they attend school [7]. That’s likely because online degrees are more flexible. Being able to access classes from home, with a wider range of time to take them, can allow students to continue working full-time, or take care of a family. Many on-campus programs also have flexible or part-time options.

In-person interaction: Face-to-face interaction is important to some people, but may be less of a priority to others. How important it is might depend on certain factors like your major, and what sort of experience you want out of a bachelor’s degree program. While certain majors, like computer science, may be more conducive to taking online, others like theater, might be more suitable for in-person learning. Being on a campus can give you many extracurricular options, but online schools can also expose you to a community of people across the country and around the globe.

Here’s some good news

Online programs are constantly evolving, and many have adjusted to create opportunities to interact with other students, professors, and alumni. Online degrees can now give students the chance to work in group projects, join study groups, or network with alumni, all from behind the computer screen.

Affordability: Because of lower overhead costs, online bachelor’s degrees tend to be more affordable than those on traditional campuses. Of course, factors like whether or not the college is public or private, in-state or out-of-state, and how much financial aid you receive will all affect the price of a school, whether it’s online or in-person. The good news is that you may qualify for federal aid in either case. Filling out your FAFSA can be a good place to start.

Other types of college degrees

Bachelor’s degrees aren’t the only type of degree you can get. Here are others:

Associate degrees: Students typically acquire associate degrees at community colleges, and take two years to complete. The costs are usually lower than a bachelor’s, and requirements are generally less competitive. An associate’s degree can lead to opportunities like web development or mechanical engineering, among many others.

Professional certificates: Professional certificates can help you advance your career or start a new one in far less time and cost than a traditional degree program. Certificates can be a good option for those who want to acquire new skills quickly while committing less time and money than would be spent on a degree. 

Master’s degree: A master’s degree is a postgraduate degree, meaning it’s a degree acquired after completing an undergraduate degree. Those who have completed their bachelor’s and want to advance in their current field, or want to pivot to a new one, might consider getting a master’s. Master’s degrees generally take anywhere from one year to two years for full-time students, depending on the program and field. They can open up paths to careers like clinical social work or psychiatry.

Doctorate: Also known as a PhD, a doctorate is a postgraduate degree that you can get to become a recognized expert in a field. A doctorate will be useful for a profession that involves intense research, like a scientist, college professor, or researcher at a think tank. PhDs can take as short as four years to obtain, but generally take around eight.

Ready to start exploring? Take a look at some degree options on Coursera.

Related articles

Online degrees on Coursera

Find a path forward to accelerate your career with online degrees. On Coursera, you can find online master’s degrees and bachelor's degrees from world-class universities in topics like data science, computer science and engineering, business, and public health. With live instruction, peer feedback, and high-quality learning you can access anytime, anywhere, it's possible to move your career forward on your terms.

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "TED: The Economics Daily, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2020/median-weekly-earnings-by-education-second-quarter-2020.htm." Accessed March 25, 2021.

2. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "Liberty Street Economics, https://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2019/06/despite-rising-costs-college-is-still-a-good-investment.html." Accessed March 25, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupation Finder, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/occupation-finder.htm." Accessed March 25, 2021.

4. NCES. "Tuition costs of colleges and universities, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76." Accessed March 25, 2021.

5. NCES. "Average undergraduate tuition and fees, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_330.20.asp." Accessed March 25, 2021.

6. U.S. News. "What You'll Pay for an Online Bachelor's Degree, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/what-youll-pay-for-an-online-bachelors-degree." Accessed March 25, 2021.

7. U.S. News. "U.S. News Data: The Average Online Bachelor's Student, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/2017-04-04/us-news-data-the-average-online-bachelors-student." Accessed March 25, 2021.

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