What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

Once upon a time earning a high school diploma meant you had plenty of job options. If you wanted to be a professional or work in certain fields you attended college but most people could get by (and make a good living) with just four years of high school. Heck, some people worked their way up the career ladder with just a high school equivalency degree, GED, or night school courses after dropping out of high school.

This is just not true anymore. These days the difference between earning a high school diploma and earning a bachelor’s degree is about $20,000 a year for the rest of your life. That means a four-year bachelor’s degree is now as valuable as a high school diploma once was. Average salaries for people who earned a high school diploma only is barely above the poverty line — in fact, it is only $9,000 a year over the line that our government draws to distinguish a person as “poor”.

Bachelor’s Degree Basics

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree granted by an institution of higher learning. It is also called a “four year degree” because it usually takes four academic years of “full-time study” (more on the difference between full and part time later) to earn a bachelor’s degree. All bachelor’s degrees are composed of 120 semester credits or “hours” of study. This averages out to about 40 college courses, more or less depending on the specific area of study you choose.

What’s a Semester Credit?

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When people talk about college courses, they describe how many “hours” or “credits” they’re currently taking. Generally speaking, a credit refers to one hour of lecture or lab work per week of study. Most bachelor’s degree courses are worth three credits because they meet for three hours during a week of study. Let’s say you’re enrolled in an English course earning your bachelor’s degree — that course (worth three credits) will meet either three times a week for one hour or twice a week for an hour and a half, totalling three “hours” or semester credits. To earn those credits you have to meet certain academic requirements like attendance, grade, etc.

Upon completion of a certain number of credits, the institution you’re attending will declare that you’ve fulfilled the requirements of study and reward you with a bachelor’s degree.

Alternatives to Semester Credit Systems

Some colleges use different systems for credits, the most common being a quarterly system rather than a semester system. When an academic year is split into quarters instead of halves you’ll usually see a requirement of 180 quarter credits earned for a bachelor’s degree. Most institutions that use academic quarters are private universities or highly academic campuses that want their students to be exposed to a wider variety of study.

What Makes Up a Bachelor’s Degree?

For the most part, about half of the credits toward a bachelor’s degree are in areas of general education. This means foreign language study, physical education like diet classes or exercise studies, liberal arts courses like theater or creative writing, critical thinking courses, psychology, history, mathematics, or any area of study that a student’s main degree is not focused on. The idea is to give you a balanced education — in fact, a bachelor’s degree is really an opportunity to show the world that you’ve “learned how to learn”.

All colleges have specific course requirements. For instance, most colleges these days require all students to take at least one class in public speaking, the idea being that most jobs will require some kind of public interaction and students should be trained in how to do that effectively.

People are often surprised to find that only about 30 to 36 credits — maybe a dozen courses — will be in a student’s “major area of study”. My major was English with an emphasis in creative writing and I had to work my butt of to take just one extra writing workshop at the graduate level just to get more exposure to my craft. A bachelor’s degree in a given subject does not mean you will be immersed in that subject, unless of course you’re taking courses at a conservatory for the arts, which exist to do just that.

Why Get a Bachelor’s Degree

We’ve already discussed the financial incentive for getting a four year degree, but there are other reasons.

For the most part if you want to go to medical school, law school, or get your teaching certificate, you must hold a bachelor’s degree, though the specific subject of your bachelor’s degree may not have to be in the medical, legal, or teaching field.

If you know that a bachelor’s degree is required for your chosen career, you’d be foolish to put off earning this degree.

Another reason many people earn a four year degree is that they hold an associate degree (usually about 60 hours of study) and feel they may as well amp up their education and potential earnings.

Some Specific Four Year Degrees

Some careers do in fact require a person to earn a very specific kind of bachelor’s degree. One example is teaching — if you know a subject that you want to teach in public school, your state Board of Education will require a bachelor’s degree in education or a bachelor’s degree in the field you want to teach as well as a “teaching course”. These degrees for teachers are very specific, including precise course schedules and areas of study, such as Pedagogy and Diversity. Before you decide to become a professional of any variety, you should check with your state’s licensing board for that occupation before you enroll in any bachelor’s degree program in education, nursing, accounting, counseling, engineering, or medical schools in particular. These programs tend to have very precise requirements.

Earning a bachelor’s degree can mean the difference between scraping by and really succeeding in life. But going to college isn’t all about education. A four year degree offers a variety of life experiences you just can’t get anywhere else. Camaraderie with your peers, cheering for your school’s sporting events, trying to drink two year’s worth of British Lit out of your head in one night . . . these are all upsides of the four year degree experience that just can’t be quantified.