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What Level of Education Do I Need?

Shelbie Williams
Shelbie Williams

June 23, 2018

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In 1940, less than 6% of America’s adult population held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Today, college is a card-carrying member in the rites-of-passage club for the average American young adult.

Sure, we’ve all heard the stories of high school dropouts running multi-million dollar startups or non-degreed entrepreneurs passing up the Ivy Leaguers in the climb to the top. But college degrees are the norm, and the level of educational attainment in the U.S. is only climbing.

So, how are you to know what level of education you need? Is a high school diploma enough? Is the master’s degree really the new bachelor’s? Do you need a Ph.D. in order to be taken seriously in your field?

Let’s figure it out.

No Degree

“Should I even go to college?” This is a topic we’ve discussed before on the blog, and the answer remains the same.

It depends.

In the typical to-degree-or-not-to-degree soliloquy, proponents of skipping college eventually bring up the Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. “If it’s good enough for Bill, it’s good enough for me.” The reasoning sounds convincing. After all, who are we to argue with billions of well-earned dollars?

But insanely-rich non-degreed entrepreneurs aside, what about all the business giants who succeeded with a college degree?

The fact is, most people need a degree. Not because it is impossible to succeed without one, but because landing a high-end job without college is a flashy news piece, not a social norm.

The American job market continues to rely heavily on college credentials. For the past decade and a half, those with some level of higher education have earned approximately 66% more than people with only high school diplomas.

Said another way, landing a satisfying career without a degree is still more of the exception than the rule.

It is possible to be wildly successful without earning a college degree, just like it is possible to give birth to triplets, become President, or qualify for the Olympics. But being possible does not make something common, statistically-likely, or the path of least resistance. If anything, by forgoing college, you have to be more clever and determined than rival job applicants because you’re rowing against the current.

Do you have what it takes to conquer the norm?

Associate Degree

The associate degree is a 2-year degree composed of 60 college credits, ranking between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree in education level. An associate is often used to satisfy a degree requirement in a healthcare, business, or education field without investing the time or money required by a 4-year degree.

Many people choose this option as a stepping stone to a later bachelor’s degree, since the 60-credit associate roughly parallels the studies in the first 2-years of a bachelor’s degree. (But beware. With any transition between levels of education, requirements are not identical and require advance research and planning to ensure successful credit transfer. Especially if you plan to earn your associate and bachelor’s from different institutions, you may wind up with earned credits that won’t apply to your degree.)

Associate degrees can be good options for students who:

  1. Need to enter the job market as soon as possible
  2. Have limited money to spend on higher education
  3. Are unsure whether they want to get a bachelor’s degree
  4. Are interested in field that only requires an associate level degree

Unfortunately, the associate degree is impacted by credential inflation—when so many people have a degree that it becomes the new normal. As the job market becomes more saturated with minimally-degreed applicants, more and more students feel the pressure to earn higher levels of degrees just to stand out from the crowd.

Bachelor’s Degree

The bachelor’s degree is the landmark college degree for most Americans. As of 2015, approximately one-third of adults in the United States held a bachelor’s degree or higher. By comparison, less than 10% of American adults held a master’s degree and only 2% had a doctorate.

A bachelor’s degree is an ideal launching point for either a career or further education, carrying enough street cred to be respectable on its own while leaving open the possibility of additional education down the road.

Business, finance, K-12 education, computer science, engineering, and the humanities are all ideal careers for bachelor’s degrees. Although master’s degrees can sometimes provide higher wages and wider career opportunities, a determined employee with a bachelor’s degree can often make up for the education gap by gaining hands-on experience. As an additional perk, bachelor’s programs are often eligible for scholarships, grants, and a multitude of economical online course opportunities.

If there is a con to the bachelor’s degree, it’s the unfortunate fact of credential inflation. Like the associate degree, the bachelor’s has to compete in a labor pool that increasingly includes graduates with even higher credentials.

Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees are 2-year graduate programs pursued post-bachelor’s. A master’s provides the credential leap that propels a student into the specialized knowledge required by some fields. Even in careers friendly to bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree can help you bypass entry-level positions.

Since the 1980s, the popularity of the master’s degree has more than doubled, making it the go-to degree for career climbers. Higher education, business management, computer science, engineering, and mathematics are all good career options for a person considering a master’s degree.

However, a master’s degree is not always better than a bachelor’s. A master’s could be the career launch you need, or it could be an educational delay leaving you years behind your colleagues in experience and saddled by graduate-school debt. Pursuing a bachelor’s instead of a master’s program, especially with a flexible study format like Unbound, may add 2-6 years of valuable employment experience to your portfolio.

If you think a master’s will offer you a greater earning potential, consider taking a few years between your bachelor’s and master’s. Enter the job market and gain some hands-on skills. This way, when you return to pursue graduate education, you’ll have experience under your belt and a better understanding of what credentials your field actually requires.

Doctorate Degree

In the United States, doctorates are terminal-level degrees—that is, they are the highest education credential available in a particular field. The most widely-known doctorate is the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), but other familiar doctorates include M.D. (Medical Doctor), Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), Th.D (Doctor of Theology), and J.D. (Juris Doctor).

Ph.D.’s and other doctorates are the go-to degrees for academia: scientific and humanities researchers, medicine, and law. Doctorates are not required for many jobs, but when they are, the requirement is largely non-negotiable. While some research and academia can be entered into from a master’s degree level, a Ph.D. is by and large a prerequisite for serious work in these fields.

Since a Ph.D. places such a demand on the student’s time and intellectual ability, the light at the end of the tunnel has to be particularly bright. Unlike master’s degrees, doctorates are often fully funded and even pay small stipends in exchange for the student researching or teaching for the university. In addition to a high earnings potential, a Ph.D. or other doctorate represents a phenomenal personal educational achievement and offers an inroad into the groundbreaking conversations happening in your field of study. A Ph.D. represents the opportunity to be on the front lines of a discipline, establishing the academic or scientific cutting edge of tomorrow.

However, a Ph.D. isn’t all pomp and prestige. Doctoral students pay the opportunity cost of further delaying entry into the workforce. And unless they pursued a bachelor’s degree program that allowed then to graduate with their bachelor’s debt free, many Ph.D. students are also still paying off prior education, which can be a challenge on a small stipend.

Given all that, the most daunting feature of the Ph.D. is undoubtedly its length. It can take 5 to 7 years to complete a doctoral program, on top of the typical 4-6 years needed to earn the prerequisite bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

With so many years of commitment and demanding studies behind it, the doctorate commands respect. While this level of education is not rare, it is rigorous and thorough, and serves as a badge of honor and credibility in the world of research, academics, and elite services.


Entrepreneur Thomas Smale got it right when he explained the most important aspect of degree planning: “But those with drive knew what they were after and didn’t delay in taking steps to achieve in their career or business, regardless of education. They found their footing by design.”

While which education level you choose is important, what matters more is your determination in pursuing your future. Find your footing by design, by making a thoughtful choice and running after it with everything you’ve got.

At the end of the day—past all the pros and cons, promotion options, and earnings potential—a degree is a tool, a helpful set of letters behind your name.

What really makes those letters mean something is you.


If you need more help to pinpoint the best educational decision for you, we’ve got you covered! Check out our free PDF downloadable resource with questions you need to ask.

Shelbie Williams
Shelbie Williams

If Shelbie has a cup of tea, a good book, or a deep conversation, she is a happy camper. With a background in accounting, classical music, and blogging, she believes learning is one of life’s greatest adventures.

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