Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degree Programs [2024 Guide]

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What is an undergraduate vs. graduate degree? What is the difference between college vs. graduate school? How many years is an undergraduate degree compared to a graduate degree?

Compare the duration, cost, degrees, and earning potential for undergraduate and graduate programs.

Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degree

Some of the terminology surrounding college life can be confusing. The easiest way to remember the difference between these two terms is whether you’ve graduated yet and have received a conferred degree.

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If you haven’t graduated yet, you’re in an undergraduate program. If you have graduated from college, you’re ready for a graduate degree. Graduate and undergraduate degrees vary in the length of time that is required to complete each program.

Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degree

Graduate vs Undergraduate Programs

Before enrolling in a degree program, you should be able to answer what’s an undergraduate degree and what’s a graduate degree.

Undergraduate programs are typically completed in two years to four years depending on the degree level. An associates degree typically takes two years to complete. A bachelors degree usually takes four years.  To move on to graduate school, you must first complete your bachelor degree.

A graduate student is a student who already has their four year bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a graduate degree. A graduate degree can be a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree.

Most people attend undergraduate school between the ages of 18 and 21 years. The student body tends to be mostly be composed of young adults, and many live on campus the first year or two.

A graduate studies student body tends to be older, and the coursework focuses on your individual field. Many graduate students live off-campus and attend school between jobs or other life obligations. The average graduate student is 33 years old.

Admission Requirements

Graduate students discussing admission requirements

A major difference between graduate and undergraduate programs is the admission process. You will need a high school diploma or GED to attend undergraduate school. You will also likely need to submit your SAT, ACT, and TOEFL scores.

Many colleges ask for letters of recommendation from teachers or other school officials.

Undergraduate school admission usually requires a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Ivy league schools usually require a GPA of 3.75 or more, and occupation or vocational schools usually require a GPA of 2.0 or higher for admission.

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Colleges and universities of all sizes and degree pursuits will require you to complete an application. This will usually involve writing an essay on a subject relevant to the university or your academic pursuit.

The submission of your application will likely require an application fee of between $35 and $60. You will need to have more schooling under your belt to apply for a graduate program. The school to which you’re applying will likely require you to have a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

They may also ask you to submit your GRE test scores, transcripts, financial aid documents (if applicable), and letters of recommendation. Many graduate programs will also require you to have a GPA of 3.0-3.3 or higher to attend graduate school.


undergraduate students carrying textbooks across campus

The coursework required for a graduate degree is much different than that required for an undergraduate degree. Undergraduate programs tend to be more general and include a wide variety of class subjects.

Classes typically include far more students and include little one-on-one time with the professor. Undergraduate programs involve classwork and examinations, similar to high school but at a more challenging level.

This is where graduate vs. undergraduate studies vary greatly. Graduate degrees are much more specialized, and you’ll often work closely with your professor.

Graduate school professors will likely treat you more like a peer than a student. You’ll likely work side-by-side at times.

college professor helping his student in the library

Graduate programs primarily focus on reading, writing, and research preparation. They usually involve less classwork and exams than undergraduate programs. Class time is usually designed to be a more inclusive and collaborative experience.

Showing up to your graduate school classes means you should be fully prepared to contribute to the class. You will be a part of conversations, ideas, and learn from your professors as well as your peers.

Simply put, graduate school cuts out all of the fluff. You’re expected to be focused and driven to advance your skillset in your specific field. Graduate schooling is designed to provide the knowledge you need to pursue work in your field immediately upon graduating.

Difficulty of Undergraduate vs. Graduate Programs

Difficulty of Undergraduate vs Graduate Programs

If you choose to enter a graduate program, you should be ready for a more demanding curriculum than you experienced in undergraduate school.

You should experience more freedom in terms of fewer due dates and daily check-ins. You’ll be expected to know how to manage your time on your own. As a graduate student, you should always be on top of your reading, writing, and research.

Length of Program

Length of undergraduate and graduate college programs

Undergraduate programs are often longer than graduate programs. What that means is you’ll likely be cramming a lot more learning into a shorter amount of time when pursuing your graduate degree.

You can think of an undergraduate program as an extended amount of training leading up to a 10K. While graduate school is the equivalent of running a marathon.

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Undergraduate school typically requires taking five or six courses per semester or trimester for a total of 15 to 18 credits. An associate’s degree usually takes 2 years to complete. While a bachelor’s degree is typically completed over 4 years.

Graduate school generally involves taking four courses or 12 credits per semester or trimester.

graduate students attending class in university

Graduate programs vary significantly in length depending on what you’re studying. A typical master’s degree takes 2 years to complete. A doctoral degree usually takes four or more. In general, graduate programs may take between 1 and 6 years to complete.


Tuition fees vary greatly from school to school. The following are some general ideas of the cost of associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. It’s important to note that these numbers can be higher, depending on the university you choose to attend.

Tuition is also generally much more expensive if you attend a school in a different state than the one in which you’re registered.

undergraduate students in university classroom

Associate’s Degree – According to a recent College Board survey, an associate’s degree typically costs around $3,770 for a 2-year degree.

Bachelor’s Degree – A bachelor’s degree usually costs around $10,560 for in-state schooling and $27,020 for out-of-state tuition. This number can be higher depending on the college or university you choose.

Graduate Degree – Graduate degrees at public colleges typically cost around $8,950. The same degree at a private university may be $29,670.

It’s important to remember that you’ll need to complete your bachelor’s degree before beginning a graduate program. This means you’ll need to pay for both programs.

Earning Potential

Bachelor vs Master Degree Average Salaries

A graduate degree will likely be more financially rewarding than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with a bachelor’s degree earned a median salary of $77,920 per year.

Those with a graduate degree earned a median salary of $78,210 per year. Typically, a person earns more with a master’s degree than a peer with an undergraduate degree in a comparable position. Pursue a doctoral or professional degree, and you might earn $110,200 or around $30,000 more annually.

Of course, these salaries can vary significantly based on the subject you studied, the occupation you have, and any experience.

Advanced degrees, such as master’s, professional, or doctoral degrees, will generally provide more earnings throughout your lifetimes. Of course, these earnings can vary greatly depending on the program and occupation you choose.

Is a Bachelor’s Degree a Graduate Degree?

students studying together in library

No, a bachelor’s degree is not a graduate degree. Studying for a bachelor’s degree will classify you as an undergraduate student.

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Studying for a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree will classify you as a graduate student pursuing a graduate degree.

Do You Have to Take an Undergraduate Program Before a Graduate Program?

Yes, you’ll need to complete your undergraduate studies before applying for a graduate program.

The graduate school will probably expect you to have at least a 3.0 or 3.3 minimum GPA in your undergraduate studies before applying.

Am I an Undergraduate or a Graduate?

You’re an undergraduate student if you’re currently studying for your associate’s or bachelor’s degree. You are a graduate student if you’re studying for a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree.

undergraduate students studying together

Graduate students already have a bachelor’s degree in their field and are typically more than 21 years old. The average age of a graduate student is 33, so it’s not uncommon to already be working in your field while pursuing this degree.

It’s common for these terms to be confused, especially among international students. That’s because the terminology used in the United States is different from nearly every other country. International students will often refer to undergraduate studies in the United States as graduate studies.

An international student in a graduate program in the United States would be in a post-graduate program in most other parts of the world.

While it can be confusing, it’s important to note that within the United States, students are either in undergraduate or graduate programs. The former being in pursuit of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and the latter in pursuit of a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree.

What Is the Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate Education?

Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate Education

What’s the difference between undergraduate and graduate? The difference between graduate and undergraduate education is what level of degree you are earning. Undergraduate degrees include associate and bachelor degrees. Graduate degrees include master, professional, and doctorate degrees.

The programs are drastically different in terms of length, cost, difficulty, and coursework.

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Jordan Meeks
Jordan is pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and earned her Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management and her Bachelor's in Business Administration. Jordan's research focuses on adults returning to college and online degree programs.