Student with sweater deciding what college degree to get

College Success

What College Degree Should I Get?

10.26.2022 • 7 min read

Bob Patterson

Former Stanford Director of Admissions

Learn your degree options, what you need to consider when choosing one, and the most valuable degrees in terms of salary, happiness, and the future.

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In This Article

  1. What Types of Degrees Can I Get?

  2. What Do I Need To Consider When Choosing My Degree?

  3. What Are the Most Valuable Degrees?

While a degree can show employers you have transferable skills in time management, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication, opportunities won’t necessarily fall at your feet because you have a degree. Making your degree work for you is just as important as finding the right one, and making the right choice has never been more important with the world’s future changing so rapidly.

What Types of Degrees Can I Get?

Depending on what you envision as part of your future, you may consider several types of degrees:

Certificate

Certificates are flexible, non-college-level educational programs with short time requirements. They are only available for a select number of professions such as web development or cybersecurity. You’ll find that community colleges and vocational colleges offer these types of programs.

Associate Degree

Earned in two years or less, associate degrees are for those planning on entering technical or vocational fields, such as:

  • Business administration

  • Teaching

  • Electronics

  • Forestry

  • Nursing

  • Technology

Students complete coursework in both general and discipline-specific fields and, after graduating, can choose to enter the workforce or transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree.

One excellent online option to consider is the Degrees+ program from Golden Gate University (GGU). Outlier has partnered with GGU to offer students a flexible associate degree program that fits their schedule. With the Degrees+ program, you can earn a 60-credit associate degree at a fraction of the cost of attending college in person.

Bachelor’s Degree or Undergraduate Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year college-level education. Usually, students will spend at least two years completing general education requirements. Then after choosing a major, students spend their final years focusing on their field of study. A bachelor’s degree is the completion of higher education for most students and will satisfy requirements for most careers.

Master’s Degree or Graduate Degree

Once students have completed their bachelor’s degree, many will progress to a master’s or graduate degree program—another step up in higher education. These programs take around two years to complete and demonstrate mastery of a subject, which can help to advance your career.

Doctoral Degree or Postgraduate Degree

Considered one of the most advanced degrees with the highest levels of academic achievement, a doctorate or postgraduate degree program can take anywhere from three to six years to complete. It provides the deepest understanding of a particular field.

What Do I Need To Consider When Choosing My Degree?

1. Career Prospects

With so many degrees being profession-focused, your first consideration should be career-oriented: what are different degrees needed for your potential career? What are your entry-level, mid-level, and advanced-level career options with different degrees?

Understanding the requirements of career fields will help you make the most out of your decision.

2. Finances & Time

You should also consider if you have the time and money for your degree path. Putting yourself in debt or spending years to earn a degree may not be right for you. Or, it could prepare you appropriately for a successful career.

3. Personal Preferences

Ultimately, choosing your degree must be personal: is this something you want to do? Does it fit your vision of your future? This must be your definitive consideration.

Consider the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020) below, which details the average salaries and education necessary for specific career fields. It may surprise you to learn that you can pursue a career in healthcare without a doctorate degree, you can become a teacher without a master’s degree, and you can work in information technology with no degree.

The important considerations are those discussed above:

  • Career prospects

  • Time

  • Finances

  • Personal preferences

Healthcare

OCCUPATIONDEGREE PROGRAM NEEDEDPOTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Dental HygienistAssociate Degree$77,090
Clinical Laboratory TechnicianBachelor’s Degree$54,180
Nurse PractitionerMaster’s Degree$117,670
DentistDoctoral Degree$164,010
Physical TherapistsDoctoral Degree$91,010
Physicians & SurgeonsDoctoral Degree$208,000+
Dental AssistantPostsecondary non-degree award (Certificate)$41,180
EMT/ParamedicPostsecondary non-degree award (Certificate)$36,650

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

Education

OCCUPATIONDEGREE NEEDEDPOTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Teaching AssistantSome college, no degree$28,900
Pre-School TeacherAssociate Degree$31,930
Adult, Secondary Education & ESL TeacherBachelor’s Degree$55,350
High School TeacherBachelor’s Degree$62,870
Kindergarten & Elementary School TeacherBachelor’s Degree$60,660
Middle School TeacherBachelor’s Degree$60,810
Special Education TeacherBachelor’s Degree$61,500
Instructional CoordinatorsMaster’s Degree$66,970
LibrarianMaster’s Degree$60,820

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

Information Technology

OCCUPATIONDEGREE NEEDEDPOTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Computer Support SpecialistNone$55,510
Computer Network ArchitectBachelor’s Degree$116,780
Computer ProgrammerBachelor’s Degree$89,190
Computer Systems AnalystBachelor’s Degree$93,730
Software DeveloperBachelor’s Degree$110,140
Computer & Information Research ScientistMaster’s Degree$126,830

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

Business

OCCUPATIONDEGREE PROGRAM NEEDEDPOTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Administrative AssistantPostsecondary non-degree award (Certificate)$39,680
Office ManagerPostsecondary non-degree award (Certificate)$45,560
Accountant Bachelor’s Degree$77,250
Business AnalystBachelor’s Degree$93,000
Human Resources ManagerBachelor’s Degree$126,230
Financial ManagerBachelor’s Degree$131,710
Marketing OfficerBachelor’s Degree$133,380
Chief Executive OfficerMaster’s Degree$213,020

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

What Are the Most Valuable Degrees?

Once you have begun to consider your career prospects, time, finances, and personal preferences, how you define value will also influence your decision about a college degree. Is a valuable degree one that gives you transferable skills? makes you happy? results in a high-paid career? It’s important for you to define your own concept of value so that you can make the right decision.

  • Value can mean the highest paying career. With money comes opportunity for advancement.

  • Value can mean happiness. Having a fulfilling job can make it easier to show up to work in the morning! That happiness can flow into other areas of your life as well so that your work-life balance is on track.

  • Value can mean looking ahead to the future. With the job market changing rapidly, knowing your job is future-proof can be valuable. This can mean looking into specific majors, like engineering, information technology, healthcare or business and finance, or it can mean looking to specific degrees that give you transferable skills that allow you to navigate the job market with ease.

Highest Paying Careers

CAREER FIELDDEGREE NEEDEDPOTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Applied Economics & ManagementBachelor’s Degree$139,600
Electrical Engineering & Computer ScienceBachelor’s Degree$152,000
Public AccountingBachelor’s Degree$138,800
Chemical Engineering/Materials ScienceBachelor’s Degree$137,800
Quantitative Business AnalysisBachelor’s Degree$136,200
Aeronautics & AstronauticsBachelor’s Degree$133,100
Systems EngineeringBachelor’s Degree$132,900
Operations ResearchMaster’s Degree$139,500
Petroleum EngineeringMaster’s / Doctorate Degree$182,000
PharmacyDoctorate Degree$133,200

Source: College Values Online

Happiest Careers

OCCUPATIONDEGREE NEEDEDPOTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Information Security AnalystBachelor’s Degree$103,590
AccountantBachelor’s Degree$73,560
Human Resources ManagerBachelor’s Degree$121,220
Software EngineerBachelor’s Degree$110,140
Marketing ManagerBachelor’s Degree$141,490
Financial AdvisorBachelor’s Degree$83,660
Technical WriterBachelor’s Degree$74,650
High School TeacherBachelor’s Degree$62,870
Nurse PractitionerMaster’s Degree$117,670
LawyerDoctorate Degree$126,930

Source: Career Karma

Future-Proof Careers

OCCUPATIONGROWTH RATE 2020-2030POTENTIAL MEDIAN SALARY
Wind Turbine Service Technicians68%$56,230
Nurse Practitioners52%$111,680
Solar Panel Installers52%$46,470
Chefs49%$28,800
Creative Industry Business Managers46%$75,420
Fitness Instructors39%$40,510

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Choosing the right degree (in combination with the best college and right college major) is a significant decision—and one that continues to affect your career path even after you’ve graduated. None of us can predict what the future will be, but we can decide what we want to achieve within it. That choice is yours; your degree choice is simply part of that. Make it for you.

A Quick Note on the Humanities From a Liberal Arts Grad

It’s clear that STEM degrees are now considered the most useful, valuable, and well paid. Scientific researchers, environmental engineers, and artificial intelligence specialists are changing the world as we know it. Indeed, the foundations of STEM are all about making a positive impact on the world through science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and more women, in particular, need to realize this fact.

However, as a liberal arts graduate, I’m left asking about the value and significance of humanities. Do history, political science, philosophy, literature, and the creative arts have a place in society anymore? Should their usefulness wane because we are so heavily focused on STEM? John Hogan, the Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, wrote about his time teaching a required humanities course in Scientific American (2018), perfectly capturing my thoughts:

“It is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In science, mathematics, and engineering classes, you're given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. [These] professors say, 'This is how things are.' They give you certainty. The humanities give you uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. [But] that is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.”

STEM is a wonderful opportunity for those who are inclined to study it, however, I say to those who want to study the humanities and the arts, please do it. Your soul will thank you and society will too—eventually.

About the Author

Bob Patterson is a former Director of Admissions at Stanford University, UNC Chapel Hill, and UC Berkeley; Daisy Hill is the co-author of Uni in the USA…and beyond published by the Good Schools Guide 2019. Together, they have established MyGuidED, a new educational tool for students looking to apply to university (launching 2022).

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