A bachelor's degree is an all-purpose degree. Another name for a bachelor's degree is undergraduate degree, because it's the degree that comes before graduate school. Employers view this credential as proof that you can handle a little bit of everything. They also view it as evidence that you're a reliable person, with enough drive and determination to complete a long-term project. And since statistics show that most people try between 5 and 7 different careers in their lifetime, an all-purpose degree is an especially helpful tool.
Again, employers use bachelor's degrees like a screening tool. Many employers will only hire people who have earned a bachelor's degree. This practice might seem unfair, but it's a modern reality. Over 33 percent of Americans (age 23 or older) hold at least a bachelor's degree. That's a lot of people. If you're not among that 33 percent, you probably won't be considered for most of today's high-paying jobs.
From one school to the next, bachelor's degree requirements vary greatly. Overall, bachelor's degrees are designed to balance the specialized knowledge of a major with a sampling of general studies. (General studies classes are sometimes called general education classes, gen ed. classes, or distribution requirements.) The general studies portion of your curriculum prepares you for a wide range of life and career opportunities.
A portion of the classes you'll take are called electives, because you elect, or choose, to take them. Electives can help you shape your degree into a more personal experience. Of course, your chosen major should be the subject that interests you the most.
Some bachelor's degrees involve courses that must be completed before you can start taking more complicated courses. These are called prerequisites. Basic college math courses and basic college composition courses (writing courses) are common prerequisites. If you're confident in your existing skills, you can often "test out" of your prerequisites. For example, there's a CLEP test (College Level Examination Program) available on College Mathematics. If you pass it, your college might grant you credits, and allow you to skip the required course.
Traditionally, bachelor's degrees are designed to span 4 years, but it's possible to acquire all the necessary credits in a shorter timeframe — especially if you attend an online school that offers flexible enrollment periods. It's also possible to extend the timeframe, and study for 5 or 6 years, on a part-time basis.
If you've already completed an associate's degree, you may be half way home! You can usually transfer your associate's degree credits towards your bachelor's degree program. However, when it comes to accepting outside credits, some schools have strict rules. So if you haven't already started an associate's degree, read our section "Associate's Degree First, or Bachelor's Degree?" It will help you decide whether you should earn an associate's, or dive straight into a bachelor's program.
Another way to expedite your bachelor's degree is through test-out options. Standardized exams, like the CLEP (College Level Examination Program), can be used to bypass some college credits, and shorten your overall degree time. Many colleges will also give credit for certain types of military experience. If you're interested in test-out credits, request information from several different colleges, and ask the enrollment advisors to explain your options.
The Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree is the broadest bachelor's degree you can earn. BA students declare a major, but they take enough gen ed. classes to keep their transcripts very well-rounded. This means, if you want to study sociology, you'll take a lot of sociology classes. But you'll also complete course work in subjects like philosophy, literature, science, and math. Eventually, if you decide not to pursue social work, you can still apply for other types of jobs. You can also apply for master's degree programs, using your BA as a stepping stone.
The Bachelor of Science (BS) degree is a more focused program. BS students usually pursue majors like engineering, physics, business, or accounting. BS degrees require fewer general studies courses, if any at all. BS degrees are often recommended for students who directly "apply" the lessons they have learned — including scientific formulas, computer codes, tax laws, or business equations. BS degrees are also a good choice for students who are more certain they will seek employment in their chosen major. Like the BA, the BS can be used to apply to a graduate program. And in fact, it may be easier to get accepted into a graduate program in the applied sciences (like engineering or electronics) if you have a BS, as opposed to a BA.
The Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) is often known as the "professional" undergraduate degree, because BFA graduates go on to become professionals in various creative fields. Professional dancers, singers, actors, painters, and sculptors are good candidates for the BFA. Increasingly, BFAs are also being offered in fields like web design and digital media. This focused approach is great for students who are sure they want a career in the art world. However, if a graduate decides to change careers later on, he or she will have less of a general study background. Another important note: If you want to teach one of these arts, you're better off pursuing a BA. Your enrollment advisor and state department of education can help explain why.
The Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) is very similar to the BS, except that it refers exclusively to business programs (whereas "BS" may also be used to describe a science degree.) If you want a career in business, both the BS and the BBA are good options. In general, BS degrees tend to involve more math, accounting, and economics courses. BBA degrees, by contrast, usually offer more courses in decision making, management strategy — even organizational psychology. These are good areas to study if you want to become a general manager, as opposed to a dedicated accountant or financial advisor.
A better question might be: what can't you do with a bachelor's degree? You can break into almost any career field with a BA or BS! Most entry-level positions are designed for bachelor's degree holders. And if you want to advance, you have to get your bachelor's degree first anyway.
But keep in mind, some careers are very competitive. If you want to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a psychologist, you'll eventually have to compete for a spot in a graduate program. Even though this may seem like a faraway next step, it's important to map out your entire plan now — before you invest in a bachelor's degree program.
Not all undergraduate programs are designed to prepare students for graduate school, law school, business school, or medical school. If you think that you'd like explore one of these options in the future, talk to an enrollment advisor. Ask him or her how other alumni have succeeded on that path.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, bachelor's degree holders earn over $52,000 per year. High school graduates earn about $30,000, on average. Over the course of his or her career, a person with a bachelor's degree will earn nearly twice as much money as a person with a high school diploma ($2.1 million compared to $1.2 million.) The reasons for this are threefold:
More importantly, your income potential could be even higher than these figures indicate. A bachelor's degree is the ticket to professional employment options. Once you have access to these options, your trajectory is unlimited.