Degree Vs. Major: What's the Difference? - University of the People (2023)

When you start thinking about attending university, words like “degree” and “major” are very common to hear, and may also often be used interchangeably. But there’s a bit of a difference between these words, and as a college student, it’s good to know these differences so that you can understand them correctly and use them appropriately. So, what is the actual difference between a degree vs. major? Let’s find out!

What is a Major in College?

A “major” in college is the specific area of study you’re focusing on while you’re on your path to earn your degree. This speciality is ideally in line with the career you’ll want to go into after graduating, so some students may like to choose a very specific major while others may prefer something more broad.

Once you declare your major — which should ideally happen when you start school or by the end of sophomore year — your coursework (outside of your general education courses) will focus on relevant topics.

Examples of College Majors

  • Anthropology
  • Biology
  • Business Administration
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Communications
  • Computer Science
  • Economics
  • English Language and Literature
  • Government/Political Science
  • Nursing
  • Psychology

What is a “Degree” in College?

Oftentimes, you’ll hear people say, “I’m getting a degree in _____.” Then, you’ll hear them fill the end of the sentence with the name of their major. This can be confusing. Which one is the degree and which one is a major?

Well, now that you know what a major is, a degree is what you earn at the end of completing your major and other college coursework requirements. You can earn your degree in whatever major you choose as long as you complete the course work. There are several kinds of academic degrees you can pursue. Not all degrees have majors; that typically refers to a bachelor’s degree.

Types of Degrees

There are four types of academic degrees, and each one has a different length of study, different course/major options, and level.

Associate Degree

A two-year degree which is a good introduction to college and a specific major. You can choose a major for an associate’s, but it may be a bit broader. An associate’s, therefore, may be a good opportunity to focus on your general education courses.

Bachelor’s Degree

A four-year degree in which you choose a major and graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in that major. The two most common are Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts.

Master’s Degree

This is typically a two-year program in which you can further your education after earning your bachelor’s degree. Most people choose a master’s degree program that’s an extension of their bachelor’s in order to further their expertise, but others may get a master’s in another subject area completely.

Doctoral Degree

This is the highest level of standing a student can pursue. There are different types of doctoral degrees depending on your field, but a common one is Ph.D.

What is a Degree Program?

Your degree program can be thought of as a combination of your major and degree. While there may be cases in which a school does not require their students to declare a specialization (i.e., major, minor, certificate program, etc.), most will by a certain deadline of your academic career.

Once you enter your degree program, you’re required to complete the amount of credits within your program in order to matriculate and earn your degree in your major. In some cases, you may also be required to complete an internship, field work, student teaching, and/or a thesis.

Choosing a Degree Level

Perhaps you know what major you want to declare or what you’re interested in studying while in school. But, maybe you’re not too sure about the particular degree level. A lot of this depends on how much education you’ve already had, what your goals are, your budget, and your current schedule.

However, the good news is no matter what type of degree you pick, there’s usually some flexibility in terms of when you can take your classes, for instance, if you work or raise a family full-time.

A bachelor’s degree is a good place to start if you’re looking to specialize by choosing a major to study, and then if you want to further your education thereafter, you can. While an associate’s is also a good starting point, it may be worth it for you to get the bachelor’s, as you’ll have more job opportunities for just two more years of school.

Popular Undergraduate Degrees

  • Bachelor’s in Biology
  • Bachelor’s in Business
  • Bachelor’s in Communication
  • Bachelor’s in Computer Science
  • Bachelor’s in Education
  • Bachelor’s in Engineering
  • Bachelor’s in Nursing

Degree Specializations

A degree specialization is an opportunity to take your major to the next level by taking on what’s known as a minor or a concentration. This can be a great way to supplement your major with a more specific course of study that will either make you more specialized in your field (for instance, a major in education with a minor in a foreign language so that you can work in ESL communities), or to broaden your candidacy in general, (for example, majoring in engineering but minoring in English literature).

Degree Vs. Major: What's the Difference? - University of the People (2)

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Major vs. Degree: What’s the Difference Between a Major and Degree?

Though you now understand the main differences between a degree and a major and also how the two overlap, there are a few more factors that set the two apart. By being able to make these distinctions, you can be sure that you fully understand how a major and degree are different and how they are similar, and use the proper terminology when referring to either one.

College Credits Required

This is a good first example of how a degree and major overlap. In order to earn your bachelor’s degree, you would need to take 120 credits altogether. In order to earn your bachelor’s degree in a specific major, 36 of those 120 credits need to be in your major.

A Major is Required for a College Degree

If you’re excited about going to college to learn and not necessarily focused on majoring in one particular field, know that in order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, you’ll really need those 36 credits in your major, along with the remaining credits in electives and general education courses. This makes it very difficult to get a bachelor’s degree without declaring a major. Therefore, if you’re unsure about what you want to major in, consider getting a bachelor’s in liberal arts, or putting off college until you’re more certain.

How Does a Major Play an Important Role in a College Degree?

A major plays an important role in a college degree because it ensures that you are taking the amount of coursework required to earn your bachelor’s in a specialized field of study.

Otherwise, your college degree would just be made up of random classes without focusing in one area. This can make it difficult to enter the job market, as employers want someone who has the knowledge and experience in one specific subject.

College Major vs. Minor Degree: What’s the Difference Between a College Major and a College Minor?

There are many differences between a major and a minor, but the biggest distinction is the amount of credits required. While a major requires 36 credits in your chosen field, a minor typically requires 15 credits.

Double Major vs. Dual Degree

With college tuition being a time and financial commitment, it’s no wonder that some students would want to get the most out of their education as possible. That’s why you might consider doing either a dual degree or double major.

The difference between a dual degree vs double major is:

Double Major

A double major is when you graduate with one degree, but with two specializations. You complete two sets of degree requirements for one degree. For example, this could be a Bachelor of Science in elementary education and special education.

Dual Degree

A dual degree is when you get two degrees at the same time, for instance, a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science. It’s a much faster way of getting two degrees at once, because otherwise, you’d have to go to school consecutively for eight years, whereas doing it this way could get you two degrees in half the time!

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of terms to get familiar with when thinking about attending college, and knowing the difference between a degree and a major is just the start of it. However, if you’re stuck on what degree you should get or what major you should declare, and you want to make a good choice because of the cost of tuition, know there are alternatives.

At University of the People (UoPeople), you can earn your degree with a choice of different majors/degree programs, and your entire program will be tuition-free and online. The university also offers potential undergraduate certificate programs that can give one a start in their chosen field of study. It allows one time to explore the field before enrolling in a full-time major or degree and also works well as an additional qualification if one already has a major.

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