Posted in HS4CC

Degree Standardization: Not a Thing

What does it mean to have a BA?  How does that differ from a BS? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone used the same terminology? They don’t. There is no standard definition of major, concentration, area of study, Bachelor of Arts, or Bachelor of Science.

There is no standard definition of major, concentration, area of study, Bachelor of Arts, or Bachelor of Science. These standards vary by country, by state, and by college. Anyone (or college) suggesting that you need a degree with a certain title may be confused or fibbing just a little to promote their program. While there are some narrow exceptions, degrees in the USA have all sorts of titles! It is always the responsibility of the student to do due diligence before settling on a specific degree for a specific occupation.

Here are a few terms to help you navigate the terminology jungle of higher ed.

Degree Level Average Completion Time (full-time) Common Prerequisite
Associate degree 2 years High school diploma or equivalent
Bachelor’s degree 4 years High school diploma or equivalent
Master’s degree 1-2 years Bachelor’s degree
Doctoral degree 2+ years Master’s degree (sometimes bachelor’s degree is acceptable)


In the USA, an associate’s degree refers to a 2-year degree. There are many types of associate degrees, and while society tends to lump them all into 1 category, the associate degree is the most confusing and misunderstood category of degree you can earn! Under some circumstances, an associate degree can serve as the “first 2 years” of a “4-year degree” but this is generally not the case. If you visit your community college’s website, you’ll typically find 3 types of associate degrees. The first 2 (AA, AS) are generally for transfer, while the AAS is generally for occupational training (ie. not transfer). The overwhelming majority of associate degrees are NOT designed to transfer after graduation.

  • Associate of Arts (A.A.)
  • Associate of Science (A.S.)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

If your teen is considering an Associate’s Degree in high school, this can either be a huge advantage or an expensive distraction.  Learn more about an Associate Degree.


In the USA, a Bachelor’s Degree refers to a 4-year degree. That doesn’t mean it has to take 4 years. It could take anywhere from 1-6 (the national average) years to finish. But the word “bachelor” it a generally accepted term that typically means a degree with roughly 120 college credits and takes roughly 4 years to complete.

Bachelor of Arts vs. Bachelor of Science

In the USA, the difference is defined by the college you attend- there is no national standard.  For instance, let’s say you wanted to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. If you were a student at Penn State, you could choose between the BA in Psychology or the BS in Psychology. The difference between the two amounts to the inclusion or exclusion of a foreign language requirement *at that college. While it is more typical for STEM majors to be awarded a Bachelor of Science, and the Liberal Arts majors to be awarded a Bachelor of Arts, the title is not an indicator of quality or content in the degree. Despite the inconsistent definitions of BA and BS as a whole, you will likely find significant differences within any one university.

Major, Minor, Concentration, Area of Study, Area of Focus, etc.

In the USA, these terms indicate that you’ll take a bundle or cluster of courses in a certain subject. It may be as few as 3 courses, or as many as 10+ but, again, the title of the bundle is not a good indicator of quality or content of the degree. Since this inconsistency confuses even the experts, if you encounter a job posting that asks for a “major” in a certain subject, assume they expect a bundle or cluster of courses in that subject- not that your college used the word “major” to define that bundle.


A term used to mean a degree at or below the bachelor’s degree level.

woman holding medal while standing near wall


A term used to mean a degree after a bachelor’s degree level.

Bottom Line

As a population, most people (and employers) base their understanding of degree standards through their own experience. Just because Sally Sue tells you a major is better than a concentration, or that Jimmy Jon tells you a BS outranks a BA – those are simply opinions.  The bottom line is that a degree’s composition is what makes it the right or wrong degree for the job.

Tips for Prospective Students

(1) Visit the US Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook to find the right degree for your target occupation – don’t use a college website. USDOL reports based on facts, not sales, so they have no financial incentive invested in your choices. Here is the USDOL’s entry for Registered Nurses in the USA. Note the “typical” education link opens to a full explanation and understanding of the educational requirements and licensure requirements required to become a nurse.  There will be no school-specific advice, thus leaving the student to decide where they acquire the proper credentials.

Quick Facts: Registered Nurses
2018 Median Pay $71,730 per year
$34.48 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor’s degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2018 3,059,800
Job Outlook, 2018-28 12% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2018-28 371,500

(2) Find the college’s curriculum (list of classes) for the degree you’re considering. You can usually locate this on the college’s website. If you can’t find it, email them and ask them to send it to you. Below is an example comparing a Culinary Science degree against two Food Science degrees. These names sound similar, but the degrees are VERY different. One of these degrees prepares a student to work as a research chef, another to become a USDA inspector and another as a Registered Dietitian. The “best” degree is the one that aligns with the student’s occupational goals.

The Culinary Institute of America’s Bachelor of Professional Studies in Culinary Science includes:

      • 54 credits in culinary arts requirements
      • 39 credits in liberal arts requirements
      • 6 credits in business management requirements
      • 33 credits in culinary science requirements

Kansas State University’s Bachelor of Science in Food Science includes:

      • 24 credits in liberal arts requirements
      • 40 credits in physical and natural science requirements
      • 56 credits in food and agriculture science requirements

Clemson University’s Bachelor of Science in Food Science and Nutrition includes:

      • 13 credits in humanities and social science
      • 60 credits in science requirements
      • 17 credits in a nutritional area of focus
      • 30 credits in nutritional science

Compare the curriculum of 4-5 colleges that have degrees of the same or similar titles. Your list doesn’t have to be from colleges you’re considering- you can look at the biggest name schools, too. Look for differences and similarities to the curriculum you’ve pulled for your target college. What you’re trying to find out is what most students who graduate from their program end up doing as an occupation. Colleges sometimes like to highlight the single outlier student who landed a very prestigious job, but it’s more useful to know where most students land.

(3) If you know that your occupation requires a graduate degree (higher than a 4-year degree) be sure that your bachelor’s degree will meet all of the prerequisite requirements for admissions.

The University of South Carolina’s MBA program (no prerequisites)

“An earned undergraduate degree from an accredited institution is required to be considered for admission to the MBA programs. A degree in business is not required.”

The University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine (has prerequisites).

“A minimum of 30 credit hours of natural science coursework is required at the time of application.”

Other posts you might like to read:

Hospitality Degree for Under 10k

Question: Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts for a pre-nursing student?

Free Associate Degree for Union Worker Families

Dental School without Debt


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit