20 May 2013

Is A Bachelor's Degree Worth It? -- Note for International Readers

Note for International Readers

Though Chewie is currently an American expatriate (and I am not), we are both Americans and are specifically referring to the higher education system in the United States of America. For those that may be unfamiliar with how that system is set up, here's a brief primer:

  • Most states have at least one university system and a network of community/technical/vocational colleges that are operated (and usually at least partially funded) as part of the state government; these are referred to as "public institutions" 
  • There are also a lot of private schools, often they are either religious in nature or have been historically connected to a specific religion or Christian denomination, most are non-profit, co-educational, and now non-sectarian
  • There are a few for-profit schools around that have managed to be accredited; two well-known examples are DeVry University and the University of Phoenix
  • Most schools are accredited by either national or regional bodies that have been approved by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation
  • Accreditation is usually necessary for a degree to be recognised as valid and for it to have currency for its holder in terms of professional opportunity
  • Schools that are not accredited or are accredited by an unrecognised accreditor are often colloquially known as "degree mills" 
    • Generally, a degree from a "degree mill" is considered without value, and indeed such degree mills have been involved in numerous scandals 
    • There are a few reputable religious institutions that aren't accredited by a secular body (and aren't degree mills), but these usually are tied to a specific religion or denomination and focus on religious education within the doctrines of that religion or denomination (e.g. Bible colleges and seminaries)
  • Classes are usually measured in "credits" or "credit hours" 
    • The credits awarded for a particular course are typically based on the rigour; for example, a 3-credit course generally implies that to be successful in the course, one should expect to devote 2-3 hours of study time for each hour they are in class
    • The number of accumulated credits is also used to determine progress in the undergraduate system (that is, progress towards a bachelor's degree)
      • Most degree programs specify a minimum number of credits, as well as minimum credits in specific areas, as requirements for the degree 
      • While the precise determinations vary somewhat between universities, the class standing tends to run approximately like so: 
        • Freshman: 0 - 29 credits 
        • Sophomore: 30 - 59 credits
        • Junior: 60 - 89 credits
        • Senior: 90 credits or more
  • Most post-secondary institutions have two semesters (terms) per academic year; some use trimesters or quarters instead
  • Academic status varies, but usually:
    • "Half-time" or "part-time" usually refers to a student taking at least 6 undergraduate or 4-5 graduate credits in an academic term
    • "Full-time" status usually requires at least 12 undergraduate or 8 graduate credits in an academic term

That out of the way, we should note that there are several types of post-secondary institutions in the US such as:

  • Community Colleges: these typically issue diplomas, certificates, and Associate's Degrees; depending on the focus, they may also be known in some states as junior colleges and/or technical colleges
  • Four-Year colleges and universities: most of these schools grant bachelor's degrees and sometimes a limited selection of master's degrees. Many (but not all) will also grant associate's degrees and diplomas as well
  • Graduate Schools: these are usually attached to major four-year colleges and grant masters and doctoral degrees. Included with this category are specialised schools (such as medical, law, and dentistry schools) that grant appropriate professional degrees and may be functionally separate from the "regular" graduate school

Likewise, there's a hierarchy of degrees that exist beyond the completion of the usually mandatory secondary-education (high school diploma or GED), and issued by accredited institutions:

  • Certificates and diplomas: these can vary but are often short and require completion of a small sequence of specific classes and/or a year's worth of study 
  • Associate's Degree: these are the lowest "degree" offered by the US post-secondary system
    • Typically, these correspond to two years of full-time study and thus are often seen as the equivalent of the first two years of a related bachelor's degree. 
    • Often, these degrees equate to approximately 60 credits, many of which can be accepted via transfer by nearby four-year institutions
      • Some two-year institutions partner with nearby four-year institutions and allow for advanced (usu. junior) standing and easy transfer of credits into a related bachelor's programme; this process is often governed by a specific "articulation agreement."  
  • Bachelor's Degree: these are university degrees typically requiring four or five years of full-time studies
    • The number of credits varies by college and program, though from our experience they often require approximately 120 credits covering specific areas including "general education" (which include basic college-level skills in things like maths and English) and study in programme-specific courses.
    • Programmes in a specific field or area of study are referred to as "majors" 
  • Master's Degree: often requires 2-3 years of advanced study in a field beyond the bachelor's degree, completion of seminars, and the writing and defence of a thesis.  
  • First Professional Degree: generally speaking, these are graduate-level programmes that tend to require 3-7 additional years 
    • They're also only available only for various medical disciplines (such as doctorates in medicine, dentistry, podiatry, physical therapy, and optometry), law (JD), and the clergy (such as Master of Divinity, Master of Hebrew Letters, or Rabbinical Ordination)
    • Titles may be conferred to recipients of some of these degrees (e.g. doctor, reverend, Esquire, engineer)
  • Doctorate Degree: these are advanced research degrees (often a Ph.D in a specific discipline) and are often sought if one intends to teach at a university level as a professor or specialise into an expert in their field
    • Typically, they require:
      • 5-7 years in graduate school, 
      • Passing of examinations 
      • Successful writing and defence of a dissertation

A note on the honorific "doctor": Generally, recipients of a doctorate as well as those receiving medical professional degrees (such as a DPM, DDS, or MD) are lawfully allowed to refer to themselves as doctors.


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