What Are Undergraduate and Postgraduate Programs at US Universities?

advice for students
liberal arts
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By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on August 10, 2023

If you are thinking about pursuing a university degree in the US, you need to understand the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

Two female international students stand side by side in their cap and gown at their university graduation and smile for a selfie while holding diplomas

To study in the US, you must first know whether you plan to pursue an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate degree. Both degrees have their respective differences and requirements, and your own academic background will determine which program you are eligible to apply for.

In the US, undergraduate refers to students enrolled in university who are currently working toward a bachelor’s degree or similar certification. While these are usually students who have recently completed high school, it is also common for adults to begin an undergraduate degree at a later stage of life. 

What is postgraduate? Postgraduates are students who have completed a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) and are currently pursuing a master’s, doctoral, or similar degree. They are usually professionals with working experience who want to take the next step in their career, though many programs allow students with a recent bachelor’s degree to enroll as well.

Besides the degrees themselves, their key differences include specific entry and completion requirements, program duration, and costs. Read on to learn about these factors and why you should consider one or both degrees!

What Is an Undergraduate Degree?

There are many different types of undergraduate degrees in the US, each with their own focus, duration, cost, and curriculum. Grouping these degrees into the two most common categories can help differentiate them.

Associate’s Degree: A Two-Year Undergraduate Degree

An associate’s degree can be completed in two years, enabling graduates to enter the workforce as soon as possible. As a result, these types of degrees often focus on developing job-specific skills and knowledge. Many are offered through community or technical colleges and students have the option to transfer to a four-year undergraduate program after completing the associate’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree: A Four-Year Undergraduate Degree

A bachelor’s degree (sometimes just called a college degree) at US universities and colleges typically takes four years to complete and is a popular choice for international students. While the undergraduate meaning can be different at each institution, bachelor’s degrees usually have an overall area of focus, such as business or science, with various subjects covering different fields related to the degree. Additionally, the undergraduate learning experience encourages you to explore subjects from other disciplines through a wide variety of elective classes. Many institutions also give you the option to begin your degree with an undeclared major if you have not chosen a specific field of study. 

Undergraduate class sizes differ between each institution and even by department. Some large first-year seminar classes, for example, could have several hundred students in a lecture hall; specialized topics and labs could have 10 students or fewer. Typically, your classes at liberal arts institutions will be larger and more general during your first two years of study, then grow smaller and more specialized as you progress toward graduation. 

What Are the Entry Requirements for an Undergraduate Degree?

To enroll in an undergraduate program, you are required to have a high school diploma or an equivalent certification. Many institutions also require you to achieve a certain score on an English proficiency test, such as the International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). 

Additionally, you are required to achieve a minimum score on standardized tests, such as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT), though the exact score you must achieve will depend on the institution. Some universities and colleges may also require you to have a minimum high school (or equivalent) grade point average (also known as a GPA).

What Are the Different Types of Undergraduate Degrees?

There are many different types of undergraduate degrees, and each university or college offers its own selection of programs. 

Different types of associate degrees include:

  • Associate of Arts

  • Associate of Business Administration

  • Associate of Science

Different types of bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Bachelor of Arts

  • Bachelor of Business Administration

  • Bachelor of Science

What Are the Costs of an Undergraduate Degree?

The tuition fees for an undergraduate degree at a public college can cost approximately $35,000 (USD) per year; the same degree at a private college can cost as much as $45,000 (USD) on average. 

Remember that the cost of an undergraduate degree will be different at each US university or college and largely depends on the curriculum of the program and the activities involved. 

Why Should You Apply for an Undergraduate Degree?

Undergraduate degrees help you develop a foundation for the skills, knowledge, and experiences that employers around the world require. Having an undergraduate degree will help you qualify for higher paying jobs, and students with a bachelor’s degree can earn $23,868 USD more compared to students with only a high school diploma. 

Additionally, undergraduate programs give you the chance to explore multiple fields and disciplines to find the industry that suits you best. This can help you learn more about a field you are already interested in, or discover a new career path that aligns with your passion!

What Is a Postgraduate Degree?

A postgraduate degree, sometimes known as a graduate degree, is an advanced higher education program that explores complex topics in a specific specialization. Most postgraduate programs take two years, though some universities may offer accelerated programs to complete your degree sooner.

Many professionals apply for a postgraduate degree to take the next step in their careers. While many postgraduate programs cater to professionals, some are structured to allow students to transition to a postgraduate program right after completing their undergraduate degree.

Postgraduate programs usually fall into one of two categories: taught or research-based. Taught programs are similar to an undergraduate degree, with a specific set of modules every semester that cover core and optional subjects. These are known as Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc) at most institutions. For research-based programs, your learning experience is much more independent. These programs usually have one or more large research projects that you work on over the course of the program. 

If you are interested in conducting deep academic research, a Master of Research (MRes) can help you focus on your independent research while also helping you prepare for a PhD in the long term. If you are interested in an academic career such as a professor or researcher, a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) may be the ideal choice for you. An MPhil is usually part of a PhD program that enables you to progress toward a full PhD (depending on the institution where you are enrolled). Some MPhil programs may even require you to already have a master’s degree — make sure to check the requirements of these programs carefully.

As postgraduate programs have an overall bigger focus on research projects, they provide many opportunities for students to conduct specialized research in their field with support from expert faculty and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment.

Are Postgraduate Degrees Different from Graduate Degrees?

Postgraduate meaning may be slightly different from graduate in specific countries, but in the US they are basically the same. These terms are interchangeable, and some universities may use one or the other. Both refer to advanced degrees, such as a master’s or doctorate, which you can work toward after achieving an undergraduate degree.

What Are the Entry Requirements for a Postgraduate Degree?

Many postgraduate degrees require you to have a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) in a related field, though some may allow you to apply without one, depending on the institution. Certain institutions may also require work experience in order to apply for specific postgraduate programs (e.g., two to three years in the workforce), depending on the program. 

You are also required to complete the IELTS or TOEFL as proof of your English proficiency. Additionally, you will need to achieve specified scores on a standardized test (which will depend on the program you are applying for). For example, business-related programs require you to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and law-related programs require the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Some institutions may also require you to have a certain minimum GPA, which can vary between universities and colleges.

What Are the Different Types of Postgraduate Degrees?

As postgraduate degrees are focused and specialized towards specific fields, there are fewer varieties compared to undergraduate degrees. The names of these degree types can also be different at each university and college, though the qualifications are usually the same.

The different types of postgraduate degrees include:

  • Master of Arts and Humanities

  • Master of Business Administration

  • Master of Science and Technology

  • Doctorate (also known as a doctoral degree)

  • Juris Doctor Degree

What Are the Costs of a Postgraduate Degree?

For international students, the tuition fee for a postgraduate degree at a public university or college can be $35,000 (USD), and this can increase to $50,000 (USD) at private colleges. 

Tuition fees for postgraduate degrees depend on the type of degree, academic program, and the university where you want to enroll. For example, a master’s in business administration may have very different costs, depending on ranking, applicant demand, university endowments, and more. Remember, you can always speak to a Shorelight advisor for guidance on evaluating the cost of each of your options for a postgraduate degree.

Why Should You Apply for a Postgraduate Degree?

Postgraduate programs place a large emphasis on professional development, and many give you the chance to develop advanced skills and specialized knowledge. Some advanced roles may require a postgraduate qualification to apply. Your postgraduate degree can allow you to access these types of jobs and work toward high paying roles — on average, professionals with a postgraduate degree can earn $10,608 (USD) more than undergraduate degree holders. 

Postgraduate programs also allow you to connect with industry professionals through career fairs or speaking sessions, which are great opportunities for building your professional network and accessing unique jobs in the future.

As postgraduate programs are more specialized and smaller than undergraduate programs, the admissions process for students can be rigorous. Whether you want to begin your journey with an undergraduate degree or work toward lucrative job opportunities with a graduate degree, a Shorelight advisor is ready to help you. We can work with you to evaluate your program choices, assist with your student visa, improve your English skills, and support you every step of the way. 

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