Diploma vs. degree?

Secondary schools award diplomas. Colleges and universities award degrees.

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What is the difference between a diploma and a degree?

Let’s be honest: The terminology around higher education can be very confusing. This is especially true for words like “diploma” and “degree,” which technically mean different things. The main difference between these nouns goes like this: 

  • Secondary schools (aka high schools) award diplomas.
  • Colleges and universities award degrees with a certificate called a “diploma.”

More tips to keep in mind:

  • Community colleges allow high school students to earn college credits while completing advanced placement courses.
  • Community colleges can help students earn their GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma).

Does the distinction between diploma and degree matter?

Grammar experts often argue how the traditional distinction between diploma and degree is worth preserving, and we have to agree. As noted by Garner’s Modern English Usage, using phrases like “high school degree” is a “common hyperbole” that overstates “the achievement of high-school grads” (Garner 283). 

What does diploma mean?

The noun diploma mainly references a document or certificate given by a school, college, or university as proof that someone has passed an exam or finished a particular course of study. 

Sentence examples:

  • “CVS Health dropped its requirement that entry-level job candidates have a high school diploma.” — CNBC
  • “Now the holder of two undergraduate degrees and three graduate diplomas, his research turns eastward to China, and to Egypt and Tunisia in Africa…” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • “A student’s name was called, the student received a diploma holder, handshakes were exchanged and people clapped.” — The New York Times


Certificate, certification, credentials, degree, document, record, voucher.

Etymology of diploma

In historical usage, the noun diploma meant “an official document,” “charter,” or “state paper.” The noun arrived in English during the mid 17th century from Latin, after originating with Greek diplōma (meaning ‘folded paper’) via diploun (‘to fold’) and diplous (‘double’). 

What does degree mean?

In contrast to “diploma,” the noun degree either references: 

  1. A course of study at a college or university, such as liberal arts, engineering, or psychology, or;
  2. The qualification achieved by a student for completing their studies, such as a diploma certificate or professional title (e.g., MBA, PhD, MD, etc.).  

Sentence examples:

  • “Even in low-skill sectors, such as manufacturing and construction, those without bachelor’s degrees were hit hardest by unemployment.” — Los Angeles Times
  • “Students enrolled in fully online degree programs — which means these students aren’t physically on-campus for the duration of the degree — don’t need proof of vaccination.” — Staten Island Advance
  • “You get the sense that he wasn’t just admired by other musicians, he was studied, like an unofficial degree course.” — The Guardian


Associate’s, bachelor’s, education, graduate degree, level, master’s, PhD, place, rank, ranking, standing, status, undergraduate degree.

Etymology of degree

The word degree derives from Middle English, where it meant “step,” “tier,” “rank,” or “relative state.” According to Lexico, the noun entered English from Old French and is based on Latin de- (‘down’) + gradus (‘step or grade’).

How to distinguish various degrees and diplomas

To understand various degree programs and diploma titles, it’s vital to understand the difference between educational institutions or schools in the United States. 

Secondary schools vs. community colleges

The first matter at hand is understanding that a “secondary school” is not college; it’s a high school (typical US high schools comprise grades 9–12). However, a secondary school can be a “community college” if someone attends a community college to take a General Educational Development (GED) exam (the equivalent of a high school diploma). 

High school students can also attend a community college for advanced placement courses depending on the school district. In this case, students concurrently satisfy their high school diploma requirements while earning college credits toward a professional certificate or associate’s degree.

Community colleges vs. colleges vs. universities

American students attend “colleges” to earn an undergraduate degree or certification. The term “undergraduate” references any course of study that results in a non-degree certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree

In this sense, the word “college” is confusing because students receive bachelor’s degrees at state schools like Arizona State University or private Ivy leagues like Harvard University. However, “university” is an umbrella term for any educational institution that houses colleges and graduate schools. 

Again, colleges provide undergraduate degrees or certificates. Graduate schools offer postgraduate degree programs that result in professional certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees

We don’t equate community colleges to universities because community colleges don’t facilitate postgraduate research degrees. In fact, a community college is not necessarily a traditional “college” because they only award diplomas, certificates, and associate degrees

With that said, all community colleges, colleges, and universities fall under the category of “post-secondary education” because they typically come after “secondary school.”

Types of diplomas

As we now know, a diploma can reference any certificate of completion from one’s high school, higher studies, exams, professional certifications, degrees, and more. 

Community colleges, colleges, and vocational schools offer various “certificate” or “diploma programs” (sometimes in conjunction with an associate’s degree), which provide courses of study focused on practical skills for a particular industry and emphasize technical expertise over theoretical knowledge. 

Many certificate programs are intended for non-degree holders interested in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree and wish to enter the workforce in less time. Common certifications involve cosmetology, dental assisting, medical coding, massage therapy, bricklaying, plumbing, or electrical maintenance. 

There are also diploma programs for the professional degree holder who wants to advance a specific skill in their field or learn about new technologies. We often see these certifications geared toward professions in healthcare, law, business administration, marketing, and tech. 

Types of degrees

Associate degrees

Associate degrees are two-year degrees and, oftentimes, transitional pathways that allow students to earn equivalent college credits that will transfer to a four-year degree program. 

The Associate of Arts Transfer Degree (AAOT) is one example that allows Oregon community college students to transfer course prerequisite credits to public universities.

Completing the first two years of general education through an associate degree is typically more cost-effective than enrolling as a freshman at university. To illustrate, let’s compare annual tuition projections for two colleges in Eugene, Oregon: Lane Community College (LCC) and the University of Oregon (UO).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: 

  • Students of LCC paid $5,153 to $10,931 in 2020-2021 for tuition and fees and $1,461 for books and supplies. 
  • During the same academic year, undergraduate students at UO paid $13,857 to $39,309 for tuition and fees and $1,140 for books and supplies. 

Assuming annual rates are stagnant and that LCC’s AAOT fulfilled prerequisite coursework at UO, students can expect to pay between $43,222 and $105,682 for a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, students who complete their four-year degrees at UO can expect to pay between $59,988 and $161,706.

The difference in affordability lands between $16,766 and $56,114 –– and these numbers don’t account for housing, utilities, transportation, food, or medical expenses either. 

Bachelor’s degrees

Students earn their “baccalaureate” or bachelor’s degree from a college and/or university. Again, not all colleges exist at a university, but all university students earn their bachelor’s degree from a college. For instance, an undergraduate student at Berklee University can earn a Bachelor of Art from Berklee School of Music. 

The two main types of bachelor’s degrees are:

  1. Bachelor of Art (BA)
  2. Bachelor of Science (BS or BSc)

A plethora of other undergraduate degrees exists, as well, including:

  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Music (BMus)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Liberal Studies (BAS)
  • Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)

The focus or “major” of one’s BA/BS depends on the type of accredited programs offered by a college. Going back to our last example, the Berklee College of Music offers a “Bachelors of Arts in Music Industry Leadership and Innovation” or a “Bachelor of Music” in 12 areas, including Jazz Composition, Film Scoring, Music Education, and more.

Post-baccalaureate degrees

Post-baccalaureate degrees are designed for students who want to earn a second bachelor’s degree or seek admission to a graduate school. Oftentimes, these degrees are sought by professionals interested in a new career but lack the prerequisites to apply for a specific graduate program. 

Master’s degrees

A master’s degree (from Latin magister) is a graduate degree that allows students to “master” a specific field of study or professional practice after their bachelor’s degree

In the United States, master’s degrees are either “research-focused” or “professional,” meaning some degrees require thesis work, while others prepare a student for a highly specialized field.

Like the bachelor’s degree, graduate students can earn a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS or MSc) in various academic fields. MS and MA degrees are often research-heavy and imply that a student will eventually earn a doctoral degree and/or teach at a university.

MA examples: 

  • MA in Professional Counseling (MAPC)
  • MA in Teaching (MAT) 
  • MA in Library Science (AMLS)

MS examples:

  • MS in Taxation (MST) or Finance (MSF)
  • MS in Instruction (MSI) or Education (MSEd or MSE)
  • MS in Nursing (MSN) 

Master’s-level degrees outside of “Science” and “Arts” often imply that they are professional and highly-specialized. Common examples include:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Pharmacy (MPharm)

Some master’s degrees are “postgraduate,” meaning they’re available to students with a different graduate degree. Examples include:

  • Master of Dentistry (MDent)
  • Master of Laws (LLM)

Doctoral degrees

A doctorate (from Latin doctor for “teacher”) is often the highest degree offered in many academic fields, and they typically come in two forms: the “professional doctorate” and the “research doctorate.”

Professional doctorates prepare students for a specific professional trade through rigorous training and rotations. Research doctorates require an original research thesis and prepare students for a career in research (often at a university). 

Professional doctorates examples:

  • Doctor of Professional Counseling (DPC)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)

Research doctorates examples:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc)

Additional reading

If you enjoyed learning about degree vs diploma, be sure to check out other lessons by The Word Counter, such as:

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between a diploma and degree with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false?: Any diploma course will result in earning a degree?
    a. True
    b. False
  2. True or false?: A graduate certificate is the equivalent of a graduate degree?
    a. True
    b. False
  3. Based on the grammar of this article, which degree title contains a spelling error?
    a. Bachelor’s degree
    b. Associate degree program
    c. Master of Arts in Professional Counseling
    d. Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice
  4. Which type of degree pathway offers financial flexibility while earning a bachelor’s degree?
    a. Associate’s degree
    b. Bachelor’s degree
    c. Master’s degree
    d. All of the above
  5. Which offers more practical knowledge and vocational training for future hairdressers, electricians, or plumbers?
    a. Certificate/diploma programs
    b. Bachelor’s degree
    c. Master’s degree
    d. Doctorate

Quiz Answers

  1. B
  2. 0
  3. B
  4. A
  5. A


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  2. Bachelor’s degree.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
  3. Degree.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  4. Diploma.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
  5. Diploma.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  6. Doctorate.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2021.
  7. Ellen, B. “Charlie Watts showed us how a man could be – cool, modest and always classy.” The Guardian, theguardian.com, 29 Aug 2021. 
  8. Garner, B. “Diploma; degree.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 283.
  9. Hill, R. “Daniel Armanios made young Black history.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, post-gazette.com, 15 Feb 2021.
  10. Hsu, T. “Disadvantages and options for job hunters without college degrees.” Los Angeles Times, latimes.com, 17 Sept 2012.
  11. Jiménez, J. “Student Is Denied High School Diploma for Wearing Mexican Flag.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 6 June 2021.
  12. Knudson, A. “CUNY students now required to get coronavirus vaccine after Pfizer gets full FDA approval.” Staten Island Advance, silive.com, 24 Aug 2021.
  13. Lucas, A. “Labor shortage gives retail and restaurant workers the upper hand—for now.” CNBC, cnbc.com, 11 Aug 2021.
  14. Master’s degree.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Photo contributors: Clay Banks (@claybanks) and Susan Weber (@havasuartists) on Unsplash.