You may have heard the term undergraduate degree thrown around from time to time. It’s not meant to be a confusing term but it could be, especially for a high school student. “What degree would I be earning where I am under a graduate?” you may be asking yourself.
The term undergraduate has nothing to do with where your body is physically positioned or your rank in relation to other graduates. But it does have something to do with what you earn. It’s actually better known by a much simpler term — a college degree.
Undergraduate Degree Defined
An undergraduate degree is any academic degree you might get at an institute of higher education, such as a college or university. It’s a program of study traditionally taken after high school that leads to an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.
It’s called an undergraduate degree to differentiate the type of degree. You will seek your Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree first after high school. Then, if you want to continue, you will proceed to graduate level studies. These are known as Master’s and Doctorate degrees.
So the progression of schooling typically looks like this:
1. High school – 4 years
2. Undergraduate Degree:
Associate’s – 2 years
Bachelor’s – 4 years
3. Graduate Degree:
3a. Master’s – 2-3 years
3b. Doctorate – 2-4 years+
So you can see the term undergraduate simply means a program of study taken after high school and before graduate level studies.
Characteristics of Undergraduate Degree Programs
Other than when the degree program happens, there are several characteristics that differentiate undergraduate programs from graduate programs.
First, undergraduate classes are more general in nature. You will have a specific area of study (called a major), but there are a wide variety of classes you must take that have nothing to do with your chosen area of focus. Graduate programs are highly focused and delve into the specific area of study at a much deeper level.
One thing you will also notice is that undergraduate classes are much larger than the graduate level classes (or the ones you experienced in high school either). Some of the general core courses you must take can number into the hundreds of students per class. This makes getting focused one-on-one time with the instructor nearly impossible.
It’s fairly easy to change your undergraduate degree. Students do that all the time. In many cases you can change up until your junior (3rd) year without delaying your program. Graduate programs are highly specialized. Should you choose to change majors, it might require taking some additional courses at the undergraduate level in order to be accepted into another program.
Finally, while they both involve time in the classroom sitting through endless lectures, graduate programs are more research oriented than undergraduate programs. Some also have comprehensive examinations or dissertations (a written research paper) that you must pass in order to earn your degree.
Do I Need an Undergraduate Degree?
This used to be an easier question to answer. You really couldn’t get anywhere in your career without an undergraduate degree of some kind.
Now though it’s not so much of a slam-dunk. Advances in society and in technology have made it easier for kids out of high school to find work that can lead to a profitable career. That coupled with the high cost of a college education have made many reconsider whether to pursue a degree.
In general, an undergraduate degree still makes sense. Employers will look more highly on someone with an undergraduate degree than they will on someone with only a high school diploma. Generally speaking, a college degree leads to better careers and the chance to make more money. And if you plan on going into a field that requires a Master’s or higher level of education, than an undergraduate degree is a must to prepare you for what lies ahead.
In these circumstances though I’d seriously think about whether or not to pursue an undergraduate degree immediately out of high school:
- You have no means to pay for it
- You plan to pursue a career as a general laborer
- You find a position that offers on the job training or an apprenticeship that will lead to career advancement
- You have a specific, highly sought after skill you could put to use right away
- You have already started your own business and it has a realistic chance to turn a significant profit
There may be other scenarios where an undergraduate degree doesn’t make sense. You need to weigh the pros and cons of college to see if going is right for you. The big thing to realize is that there is no rush to make a decision if you are unsure. You may feel pressure from others but the last thing you want is to spend a lot of money and go into debt for a degree that will have no benefit for you.
Questions: Do you think an undergraduate degree is worth it? What other reasons might someone have for not getting an undergraduate degree? What was the biggest challenge you faced with your undergraduate or graduate degree? Would you take the same educational path again if you could go back and change it?