Undergraduate Education System
There are over 1,000 two-year colleges in the United States. These schools are also known as junior or community colleges. In most states, community colleges are operated either by a division of the state university or by local special districts subject to guidance from a state agency. Students who choose a two-year program route in higher education study to earn an associate (also known as intermediate) degree. Associate degrees are awarded by a community, junior or technical college indicating that you have completed a program of study with a broad base in general education and a concentration in a specific area.
In order to obtain an associate degree, you must earn 60 semester credit hours, which typically takes about two years. Programs generally consist of three parts: general education requirements, requirements within your major (or concentrated area of study) and electives (courses of your own choosing based on your interests).
There are different types of associate degrees. Both the A.A. degree (or Associate of Arts degree) and A.S. degree (Associate of Science degree) are designed to prepare students to transfer into a 4-year college or university. For example, you may earn an A.A. in Early Childhood Education, then transfer to a 4-year university. At the university, you can study further to earn a degree that will enable you to become a teacher at a preschool or elementary school.
Some community colleges are automatic enrollment agreements with a local college, meaning that the community college will provide the student with their first two years of study and the university provides the remaining years of study, occasionally all on one campus.
Other associate degrees, such as an A.A.S. degree (Associate of Applied Science degree), are designed to prepare students to join the workforce immediately following their two years of study. These degrees, also called occupational or vocational, are sometimes preferred by employers in science and technology-related industries for mid-level jobs.
Over 2,000 colleges and universities offer four-year programs in which students earn a bachelor’s degree. Last year, over 1.3 million people in the United States earned this degree. Commonly called a “college degree,” the undergraduate bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete and is comprised of 120-128 semester credit hours (60 of which may be transferred from an associate degree at a community college - see 2 year programs above).
The four years spent as an undergraduate at a university are typically known as the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. The curriculum of many undergraduate programs is based on a “liberal arts” philosophy in which students are required to study courses from a range of subjects to form a broad educational foundation. These general education courses include study in English composition, social sciences, humanities, history, mathematics and natural or physical sciences.
Once they have met the core curriculum requirements, students at most institutions are asked to choose a specific field of study, also know as the major. Your major should be in an academic area that is of great interest to you, and one in which you will likely seek a career in the future. The final two years are spent taking more courses that are more directly related to your major. Other four-year colleges and universities emphasize preparation for special professional areas—fine arts, pharmacy, engineering, business, agriculture, and other specialized fields.
Unlike other undergraduate models, degrees in law and medicine are not offered at the undergraduate level in the US. Instead, they are completed as professional study after receiving a bachelor’s degree. Neither law nor medical schools require or prefer a specific undergraduate major, although medical schools do have set prerequisite courses that must be taken before enrollment. Undergraduate students who are preparing to attend medical school following their undergraduate careers are known as pre-med.
The two types of bachelor’s degrees typically offered are B.A. degrees (Bachelor of Arts degrees) and B.S. degrees (Bachelor of Science degrees). If you choose to earn a B.A., the majority of your coursework will typically be in the arts, such as social sciences, humanities or fine arts. Students who earn a B.S. degree take the majority of their courses in life, physical or mathematical sciences.
Other, more specialized bachelor’s degrees include:
- Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.)
- Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.)
- Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.)
- Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs (B.S.P.A)
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.)
- Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.)
- Bachelor of Architecture Degree (B.Arch.)
Students who major in certain fields such as business, engineering or science find that the curriculum is often more tightly structured than it is in the humanities or socials sciences. Business, science and engineering majors may have to take more courses related to their major field of study and have fewer electives, or optional courses.
Following graduation from undergraduate studies, many students choose to go on to earn a graduate degree.