What is an undergraduate degree?

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This article will explore various topics associated with the undergraduate degree, like its history, some statistics, importance, popular majors, salary potential, and more.

Before the degree, there must be learning institutions, and these predate diplomas and degrees by several centuries. Different sources cite inconsistent details regarding the world’s first university.

The Guinness Book of World Records, TRT World, Wikipedia, and other internet sites state that the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, established in 859 AD, was first. Under the Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1258), the Middle East and North Africa were a Mecca for learning. Surprisingly, for that era, a female Muslim woman of wealthy means, Fatima Al-Fahri, created this learning center to attract philosophical and scientific minds. The university still exists.

Some scholars argue that Nalanda University, located in the city of Rajgir in Bihar, India preceded the one mentioned above. Established in the 5th century A.D. during the Gupta Dynasty – at its peak, there were 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers on the 15,000,000 square meter campus. Sadly, in 1193 (or 1197), the Muslim ruler, Bakhtiyar Khilji, attacked and destroyed the university. Allegedly, the extensive library of books and manuscripts burned for three months. In 2010, the Government of India passed a bill to resurrect the historic institution.

Some contend that the university of ancient Taxila (modern Pakistan) was the first known for teaching medicine, the arts, astrology, and archery. The school flourished during the Maurya Empire in the third and second centuries B.C.E. It also met a fateful demise when the Huns destroyed it in the fifth century C.E.

China may have been the birthplace of formal education during the Yu Period (2257 – 2208 BCE), founding the Imperial Central Academy named Shangyang. Shang means higher, and yang means school or “higher education or schooling.”

While scholars and bloggers continue to debate the university’s origin, we’ll move on to the undergraduate degree and its genesis.

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The Undergraduate Degree

An undergraduate degree is a degree received after two to four years of college; therefore, it refers to an associate or bachelor’s degree. The original name for a bachelor’s degree was baccalaureus – from Middle Latin of the Middle Ages. Hence, the word most are familiar with now – baccalaureate or in Modern Latin: baccalaureatus.

The consensus is that the term bachelor originated in the 12th century to refer to knights who were too young or poor to have vassals (subordinates) under their banner. Whereas the word baccalaureus became associated with bacca lauri meaning Laurel Berry; consequently, the laurel became a symbol and award for academic success.

The first African-American to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States was Alexander Lucius Twilight, born in 1795, graduated from Middlebury College in 1823. Seventeen years later, in July 1840, Catherine Brewer became the first female to earn a bachelor’s degree when she graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.

As mentioned above, the associate degree is an undergraduate degree requiring a high school diploma or G.E.D. before applying. This degree began in the United Kingdom, with the first one awarded in 1873. Twenty-five years later, in 1898, the United States started associate programs. Globally, some countries adopted this level of education, and others offered alternative two-year programs or none at all. In Canada, for example, British Columbia is the only province to have American-style associate degrees.

The two-year undergraduate degree is currently available at community and technical colleges and vocational schools. These degrees come in various flavors, including applied technology, engineering, nursing, electronics, computers, forestry, and many more. Compared to a bachelor’s degree, they are a less expensive option to advance your education, learn practical skills, and elevate job opportunities and income.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (N.C.E.S.), undergraduate degrees dominate post-secondary education in the 2018-19 academic year, with about one million associate and two million bachelor degrees conferred in the United States. In the former, 68% were in either liberal arts and sciences, general studies, or humanities. The seven-figure total for associates represents a 22% increase over ten years. Females chose health professions by a wide margin over male students: 84% versus 16%. In contrast, males preferred computer and information sciences: 80% versus 20% females.

Of the two million bachelor’s degrees awarded (2018-19), 19% were in business, followed by health professions with 12%. The total was also a 22% increase from the degrees conferred ten years prior. Computer and information sciences received the most significant increase from 2009 to 2018, from 39,600 to 88,600 degrees awarded (124%).

Similarly, female students overwhelmed men in health professions (84% vs. 16%) and psychology (79% vs. 21%). Men returned the favor in engineering with 77% males and 23% females.

Overall, female students edged the opposite sex in both undergraduate degrees: 61% earned an associate degree (39% for males), and 57% of female students earned a bachelor’s degree in 2018-19.

Undergraduate – Associate

On the associate degree menus, you’ll find the Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), Associate of General Studies (A.G.S.), Associate of Applied Arts and Science (A.A.A.S.), the Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.), and the infrequent Associate of Applied Arts (A.A.A). Typically, the latter is an A.A.

For some individuals, the associate degree is terminal; in other words, that’s as far as they want to go. Others might use this degree as a stepping stone into an undergraduate degree at the next level. The associate is a possibility for those whose high school grades were insufficient to qualify for a four-year school. Or perhaps, they were uncertain of their career direction. Whatever the reason, an associate degree, particularly in the popular health professions, can lead to gainful employment. Okay…then what are some high-paying jobs with this undergraduate degree?

Air Traffic Controller:  For those with nerves of steel and can withstand extreme stress, the median wage of $130,420 with a projected 4% job growth over ten years (through 2030-per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Radiation Therapist:  A more relaxed work environment paying an average of $86,850 with 9% (1,600) job growth/change.

Nuclear Medicine Technologist:  $79,590 average with 8% growth through 2030.

Radiologic and M.R.I. Technologist:  $63,710 with 9% job outlook.

Physical Therapist Assistants:  $49,970 with 32% job changes or 44,900 over ten years through 2030.

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers:  $70,380 with a ten-year job outlook of 14% or a change in 19,100 positions.

Cardiovascular Technologists:  Same as sonographers.

These examples illustrate the salary potential based on government statistics that vary across the nation depending on the city.

Undergraduate degree programs vary from school to school, and most colleges will require you to complete a certain number of credits to obtain your degree. For many students, gaining their undergrad degree is the next step after graduating from high school. However, students of all ages can enroll in school and work toward their degree spurred by the proliferation of distance learning.

Tuition Assistance

Some employers may a tuition reimbursement benefit as an incentive for employees to further their education, provided you have passing grades. A company may pay a percentage or set amount if not the entire cost. Regardless, it is a means to boost your earnings and stature within an organization or transfer to another more desirable department.

The tuition benefits vary significantly from one corporation to the next, with the higher revenue ones generally having the best plans. Amazon, for example, pays a maximum of 95% of the tuition and fees, even if the program prepares you for work outside Amazon.

Bank of America reimburses employees up to $7,500 per year for eligible tuition and expenses for work-related courses and certifications.

Chipotle’s tuition reimbursement covers 100% for select degrees, high school diplomas, and college prep courses. In addition, they offer up to $5,250 per year for a wide choice of undergraduate programs and courses.

Disney might have the best plan as they pay full-time and part-time employees 100% of tuition upfront at Disney Aspire network schools for undergraduate and graduate-level degrees!

Imagine landing a job out of high school and then having all or most of your tuition reimbursed after earning an undergraduate degree online?

You could start as a bistro at Starbucks, and as time permits, take advantage of their bachelor’s degree 100% tuition when enrolled in one of Arizona State University’s online programs. Eligible employees have the choice of over 100 undergraduate degrees.

While a graduate student will take classes specific to their study area, an undergrad will take a broad range of courses called General Requirements. These courses usually consist of English Composition, Mathematics, natural science, social science, and communication. There could be from 20 to 25 General Requirement credit hours at the associate level, and a bachelor’s degree might have 34 to 40 hours on average. The purpose is to supply the student with a broad education – beyond the core courses that comprise one’s major.

Undergraduate – Bachelor

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes over eighty different bachelor’s degrees from Architecture to Technology. Leading the field are business majors with 390,564 degrees awarded for 2018-19 (N.C.E.S. most recent data). The second slot is health professions and related disciplines with 251,355; engineering is third at 125,687. Library science was near the bottom, with 99 degrees conferred.

The stats above indicate what students majored in; however, are these the best undergraduate degrees to earn a six-figure salary? According to U.S. News in a June 2021 article, here are some of the highest income jobs with a bachelor’s degree:

  1. Human Resources Manager: This position is at the top of their list, which according to the BLS, has an average income of $121,220 (May 2020). The greatest number work in California (22,420), followed by Illinois (11,200).
  2. Compensation and Benefits Manager: Some of their duties are rolled into the HR Manager’s job description. You may see this specialist primarily in larger corporations. The median salary is $125,130, with a low job growth rate of only 4% or a change in 700 jobs over ten years.
  3. Computer and Information Systems Manager: A median wage of $151,150 with 11% growth could create 52,700 jobs through 2030.
  4. Advertising and Marketing Manager: Attain this position with experience and a bachelor’s degree, and you could earn $141,490 per year on average or as high as $185,490 in the New York-Newark-Jersey City area.
  5. Petroleum Engineer: The BLS states the average pay at $137,330; the majority (15,090) work in Texas, where the median income is $169,760.

Before reaching salaries close to these national averages, you’ll need years of experience, especially to become a manager.

What Does An Undergraduate Degree Do For Your Career?

Individuals enrolled in an associate degree are, in many instances, developing the knowledge and skills to apply directly to their future employment. Examples are MRI and radiology technicians, dental hygienists, therapy assistants, and computer technicians. In contrast, a bachelor’s degree is more about indirectly applying what you’ve learned.

A bachelor’s degree in psychology, for example, won’t qualify you to be a therapist or counsel patients, but it may help you understand people better. You can use this in sales, marketing, advertising, or any job dealing with people.

More importantly, a bachelor’s degree will make you more money. In The Online College Labor Market, Georgetown University reported that more than 80% of bachelor’s degrees and higher are posted online. In contrast, only 50% of jobs for those with a high school diploma exist online.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2020 the following average earnings per week and the unemployment rate by degree:

  • Doctoral: $1,885 – 2.5%
  • Professional Degree: $1,893 – 3.1%
  • Master’s Degree: $1,545 – 4.1%
  • Bachelor’s: $1,305 – 5.5%
  • Associate: $938 – 7.1%
  • High School Diploma: $781 – 9.0%

There are circumstances where the high school graduate’s income far exceeds someone with a master’s or bachelor’s degree. One person may enter a lucrative family business or become a highly successful entrepreneur. However, an undergraduate degree will increase most people’s job opportunities, advancement, and take-home pay.

A job applicant with a college degree is more likely to get a job in various fields. A college degree may be required to obtain an entry-level position in a tough labor market. If you hope to be a manager or assume greater responsibility, you will undoubtedly need a college degree. Regardless of what you major in, your degree will give you flexibility in your career as you can use your degree to apply for a variety of jobs. Also, you could use the knowledge you gained in college to start your own business.

Earning an undergraduate degree can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, leaving many graduates with debt from student loans. Furthermore, college isn’t for everyone; therefore, it’s a decision you should consider seriously before committing.

Additional Resources:

Highest Paying Bachelor’s Degrees — Majors & Careers

Top 50 Degrees for the Future

Top 50 Degrees For Changing The World

50 Best Online Degrees for 2019

50 Highest Paying Bachelor’s Degrees

15 Top Degrees for the Highest-Paying Business Careers

Top 20 Highest Paying Online Degrees

How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate Degree?