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Question: What are the Differences Between a Bachelor's Degree and a Master’s Degree? (Bachelor’s vs. Master's Programs)

Answer: A bachelor’s degree is a postsecondary undergraduate degree that typically requires the completion of the equivalent of eight semester or four years of coursework and that can prepare students for entry- and mid-level work in their field of study, as well as for further studies at the graduate level. A master’s degree is a graduate degree that provides advanced training and instruction in a particular field of study and that can prepare students for more specialized, higher-level positions and/or for doctoral programs in that field. While the upper division coursework offered in bachelor’s programs may overlap with introductory master’s program coursework, bachelor’s program curricula are designed to provide students with a foundation for further academic and professional achievement through a combination of general education coursework and a designated cluster of courses in a particular major. Master’s program curricula do not include general education requirements and may take only three or four semesters or roughly one to two years to complete, depending on the program and the field of study.

The Components of a Bachelor’s Degree Program

While there are different types of bachelor’s programs, including Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) programs, most bachelor’s programs have two primary components: general education course requirements and electives, and core and elective coursework within a chosen major. General education requirements are typically completed during the initial two years or four semesters of a bachelor’s program and commonly include classes in English composition, mathematics, social science, physical science, history, art, and culture. Some bachelor’s programs may also require a certain number of general education credits in other areas, such a foreign language or physical education.

At some point during the first several semesters of a bachelor’s program, students must declare a major, which largely defines the focus of their studies through the remainder of the program. How and when students qualify for and declare their majors depends on the program and its structure. In some fields, particularly those that require professional licensure and/or supervised clinical hours, it may be advantageous for students to declare their major at the beginning or soon after the start of a bachelor’s program. In addition, some programs may require students to apply for and be accepted into certain highly competitive majors. Finally, some schools, including schools that offer online bachelor’s programs, may require students to apply to specific bachelor’s degree programs (e.g., a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Bachelor of Arts in Education) as part of the initial admissions process.

The Structure and Length of Bachelor’s Programs

The way bachelor’s programs are structured varies by school and by program, and there may be structural variations between different majors offered by the same school. Nevertheless, general education requirements and electives outside of a student’s major can comprise up to half or more of the credits required for conferral of a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, coursework and other requirements within a particular major generally add up to between one third and half of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree. For example, a 120-credit bachelor’s program may allot 50 credits for general education requirements and offer a variety of BA and BS majors, some of which may require the completion of as few as 42 credits while others require students to complete up to 50 or more credits. The remaining credits required for a bachelor’s degree are commonly designated for electives that may or may not count toward a secondary major or minor, as some programs allow students to minor in a field other than their major or to double major in two fields of study.

The table below offers a simplified example of how crediting and coursework requirements might be structured for a bachelor’s program that allots an average of three credits per course and that requires students to earn 120 credits, which is a common number of credits for a bachelor’s program.

Type of CoursesNumber of Required CreditsNumber of Required Courses
General Education5117

A student enrolled full-time in a bachelor’s program like the one described above would be eligible to graduate in four years by taking an average of five classes per semester for eight semesters. Students who take classes during summer sessions may be able to graduate in less than four years from a program structured in this way, or to reduce the number of courses they take per semester to three or four over a four-year period.

Bachelor’s Program Majors

There are numerous options for majors at the bachelor’s degree level, some of which are more commonly offered than others. Most colleges and universities offer majors in a range of humanities, social science, and natural science disciplines, such as English, biology, chemistry, communication, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, psychology, and sociology. Majors in more specialized fields like accounting, business administration, cybersecurity, data analytics, engineering, environmental studies, library science, nursing, social work, and teaching are offered by some but not all schools. Potential applicants to bachelor’s programs should research programs carefully to determine which schools offer a major in their field of interest or in a closely related field.

Based on an analysis of recent data collected by the Department of Education for its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the ten most common undergraduate majors or fields of study are:

  1. Business
  2. Health professions
  3. Social sciences and history
  4. Social sciences
  5. Psychology
  6. Biological and biomedical sciences
  7. Engineering
  8. Visual and performing arts
  9. Education
  10. Communication and journalism

As previously noted, different majors have different requirements. Students who major in a humanities discipline may be required to submit a senior paper or thesis in order to graduate, while those who major in a science field may be required to complete a research project. Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) programs commonly require students to compose a portfolio of their work or present a performance of some type prior to receiving their degree. Bachelor’s programs in professional fields, such as nursing, social work, and accounting, may require students to complete a certain number of supervised field education, practicum, or internship hours as part of their major.

Admission to Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Eligibility requirements and admissions criteria vary by program. However, most bachelor’s programs, regardless of their admissions standards, require applicants to have a high school diploma or the equivalent. In addition, students may be required to submit scores from a standardized test such as the SAT; two or three letters of recommendation; a written personal goals statement; and/or answers to one or more essay questions. Finally, some bachelor’s programs may request or require interviews with applicants. For specific information regarding a program’s admissions policies, potential applicants should contact an admissions counselor or administrator at that school.

The Components of Master’s Degree Programs

One of the primary differences between bachelor’s and master’s degree programs involves general education coursework, which is not one of the components of a master’s program. Instead, master’s program curricula focus exclusively on various facets of the program’s field of study, which may include core subject area courses and specialized coursework within a field, as well as labs, practicums, internships, and/or field education, depending of the field of study. For example, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program curriculum typically includes required courses in key business functions, such as accounting, finance, logistics, marketing, organizational science, and personnel and project management. In addition, MBA programs commonly give students options for elective coursework in other areas, such as business analytics, cybersecurity, digital marketing, entrepreneurship, health management, hospitality management, and public relations, and many MBA programs have designated tracks in one or more of these and other specializations.

Many master’s programs in other fields are structured similarly, with several required core courses followed by optional specializations or concentrations comprised of a designated cluster of required courses. For example, Master of Social Work (MSW) programs typically provide core training and instruction in the general practice of social work and may then offer students the option of specializing in clinical practice, macro practice, mental health counseling, and/or school social work. Similarly, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs typically cover general areas of advanced nursing practice in several core courses and provide focused training in one or more nursing specializations, including nursing administration, nursing education, and various Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations.

There are two additional components that may be required as part of a master’s degree program. In many fields, master’s degree candidates must complete supervised clinical or work experience hours through internships, practicums, and/or field education placements. For example, MSW programs typically require at least 900 field education hours, and master’s in counseling programs typically require a minimum of 700 supervised clinical hours. In contrast, MBA programs generally do not have internship requirements. Finally, some programs require students to pass a comprehensive exam and/or complete a master’s thesis, capstone project, or some other type of final paper or research project that students may have to defend prior to receiving their degree.

The Structure and Length of Master’s Programs

Master’s programs generally require fewer courses, fewer credits, and less time to complete than bachelor’s programs. While the total number of courses and credits in a master’s program varies by program and by area of study, in most fields students who enroll on a full-time basis can complete a master’s program in one to three years. Master’s programs in clinical fields may take longer on average to complete than non-clinical master’s programs, but this is not universally true.

The time it takes to complete a master’s program may also depend on a student’s level of academic and/or professional preparedness. Students who hold a bachelor’s degree in the same field as a master’s program or who have professional experience in that field may not be required to take one or more of the program’s introductory courses. Conversely, students who majored in a field unrelated to the type of master’s degree they are pursuing and who do not have professional experience in that field may be required to take one or more prerequisites as a condition for admission. For example, students who hold a bachelor’s degree in accounting typically do not have to take introductory managerial and financial accounting courses in order to earn a master’s degree in accounting, while students who did not major in accounting are generally required to complete several introductory accounting courses prior to taking more advanced, master’s-level accounting classes.

Social Work is another example of a field in which a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) may be advantageous for students who intend to pursue a master’s degree. Graduates from BSW programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) may qualify for Advanced Standing MSW programs, which have fewer introductory course and field education requirements than traditional MSW programs and take less time to complete.

The table below compares master’s programs that fall on two ends of the crediting spectrum.

36-Credit Master’s Program60-Credit Master’s Program
Number of Required Classes1220
Average Number of Semesters3-44-6
Average Number of Classes Per Semester3-43-4
Average Time to Completion12-16 months2-3 years

Note: Many master’s programs are designed to accommodate students who intend to continue working professionally while earning their degree. These programs offer part-time or flexible enrollment, allowing students to take fewer courses per semester provided that they complete the program within a certain number of years, typically five to eight years. It is also common at the master’s level to find programs that do not adhere to the traditional 15-week academic semester system and that offer courses five or six times a year during terms that last five, eight, or ten weeks. This may allow students to take one or two courses per term without extending the time to completion beyond two years.

Types of Master’s Degree Programs

The two most common designations for master’s programs are Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS). However, there are many formal designations for master’s programs, including Master of Professional Studies (MPS), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), and Master of Applied Science (MAS), and an even larger number of designations for specialized types of master’s program. The list below provides an overview of some of the more common specialized master’s degree designations and their abbreviations.

  • Master of Accounting (MAcc)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Computer Science (MCS)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Health Administration (MHA)
  • Master of Laws (LLM)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)

Common Areas for Master’s-Level Study

An analysis of recent IPEDS data on the number of graduates from master’s programs in the US indicates that the 15 most common general fields of study pursued at the master’s level are as follows:

  1. Business
  2. Education
  3. Health Professions
  4. Engineering
  5. Public Administration and Social Services
  6. Psychology
  7. Social Sciences and History
  8. Visual and Performing Arts
  9. Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  10. Theology and Religious Vocations
  11. Computer and Information Sciences
  12. Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, and Firefighting
  13. Communication and Journalism
  14. Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies
  15. Mathematics and Statistics

Admission to Master’s Degree Programs

Master’s program admissions policies vary by school and by program. In order to be eligible for admission to a master’s program, students typically must hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Some programs are designed for students who earned their bachelor’s degree in a particular field or fields, or who earned passing grades in several college-level courses in one or more subject areas. For example, a master’s in computer science program may require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science or to have taken college-level computer programming, mathematics, and/or statistics courses.

In addition, master’s programs may request that applicants submit standardized test scores (GRE or GMAT), letters of recommendation, a personal goals statement, and/or answers to one or more essay questions. Some master’s programs have minimum undergraduate grade point average (GPA) requirements, while others are designed for students who have one or more years of qualifying professional experience in their field. Finally, admissions to some types of master’s programs may require professional licensure. For example, MSN programs commonly require applicants to hold a valid and unencumbered state-issued Registered Nurse (RN) licensure prior to admission.

Bachelor’s Degrees vs. Master’s Degrees: A Side-By-Side Comparison

The table below offers a general side-by-side comparison of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, highlighting many of the key differences between the two types of degrees.

Degree TypeBachelor’s DegreeMaster’s Degree
Academic LevelUndergraduateGraduate
Minimum Eligibility For AdmissionsHigh school diploma or equivalencyBachelor’s degree
Average Number of Credits120-15030-60
Average Number of Semesters6-83-4
Average Years to Completion3-41-2
General Education CourseworkYesNo
General Degree DesignationsBachelor of Arts (BA)
Bachelor of Science (BS)
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
Master of Arts (MA)
Master of Science (MS)
Master of Professional Studies (MPS)

Accreditation for Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree Programs

One area in which bachelor’s and master’s degree programs do not significantly differ regards institutional accreditation. There are currently six regional bodies that provide accreditation to schools offering bachelor’s and graduate degree programs:

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and University (NWCCU)
  • The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

Accreditation from one of these six groups indicates that a college or university has undergone an assessment designed to ensure the functional viability of the institution and its educational and financial resources.

In addition to institutional accreditation, specific types of academic undergraduate and graduate programs may receive programmatic accreditation from accrediting bodies in certain fields, such as business, counseling, nursing, and social work. The importance of programmatic accreditation varies by field but is typically more crucial in fields that require professional licensure, like counseling, nursing, and social work, than in fields that do not have licensure requirements. However, in a field such as business, which generally does not require professional licensure, it may still be advantageous to graduate from a program that is accredited by one of the three bodies that accredit business schools and programs.

For more information on programmatic accreditation for online programs, refer to the following FAQs:

Business Programs:

Counseling Programs:

Healthcare Programs:

Social Work Programs:

Additional FAQs about Degree Programs and Online Education: