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What is an Associate Degree and What is it Good For?

By Publisher
| Last Updated July 15, 2021

What is an associate degree? How does it compare to a bachelor's degree or diploma? And what could earning one mean for your future?

An associate degree is an academic credential awarded by community colleges, vocational schools, career colleges and universities, and technical institutes. Associate degree programs are typically two years of training to prepare students to go directly into the workforce or transfer into the latter stages of a four-year program. So, it can be either a stand-alone credential or a springboard to a bachelor's degree.

This guide will help you understand the different types of associate degrees, how to earn them, and what kinds of jobs they can lead to. We will also break down the differences between an associate degree and a bachelor's degree and when starting—or ending—with an associate degree is the best choice.


Types of Associate Degrees

You may have come across common associate degree abbreviations like A.A., A.S., and A.A.S. But what is an A.A. degree? How is it different from an A.S.? And what is an A.A.S. degree? Let's break it down:

A.A. and A.S.

A.A. stands for Associate of Arts, whereas A.S. stands for Associate of Science. While both credentials can lead to entry-level work in many fields, they are often described as transfer degrees because they are primarily aimed at students who intend to continue their education by completing a bachelor's degree. They are designed to be roughly equivalent to the first half of a bachelor's degree program. They are academically focused and typically include a mix of general education courses, classes specific to a student's major area of study, and elective courses.

What is an Associate of Arts degree program like?

  • Often focuses on the liberal arts, social sciences, and humanities
  • Courses are usually general in nature
  • Credits tend to be readily transferable to a Bachelor of Arts program
  • A.A. degree requirements are more flexible in that students are free to choose courses from a wide range of areas
  • A.A. programs are offered in subjects like anthropology, early childhood education, criminal justice, psychology, media arts, political science, and communications

What is an Associate of Science degree program like?

  • Heavier emphasis on math and science
  • Designed to enable students to transfer into Bachelor of Science programs that have highly structured requirements
  • More narrowly focused and typically requires fewer general education courses than an A.A.
  • Common fields of study include nursing, information technology, engineering, agriculture, business administration, and veterinary science

A.A. and A.S. can often be very similar. In fact, many disciplines, such as accounting, are offered as both an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science degree. Generally speaking, an A.A. track will require more humanities credits, such as a foreign language course, while an A.S. track will require more math and science courses.

If you're hoping to use an associate degree as a stepping-stone to a bachelor's degree program, be sure to research the transfer policies and course requirements of the four-year school you plan to attend. You may discover that transferring into your chosen program will be easier with a particular type of degree.

A.A.S.

A.A.S. stands for Associate of Applied Science. It's awarded for completing a more career-oriented program that focuses on helping students develop job-ready skills so that they can go right into the workforce.

What is an Associate of Applied Science degree program like?

  • Emphasizes occupation-specific knowledge and skills rather than general education courses
  • Not meant for transfer, although some credits may be accepted by other institutions
  • Popular program areas for A.A.S. degrees include web development, computer programming, dental hygiene, engineering technology, culinary arts, respiratory therapy, graphic design, and automotive technology

How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate Degree?

Two years is the most common length for an associate degree program, assuming you study full-time. However, some programs take longer. For example, at community colleges, associate degree programs in dental hygiene often take three years because students must complete some college-level prerequisites before they can be admitted. But at many private career colleges and trade schools, the same type of program can be completed more quickly because there are no prerequisites.

Keep in mind that many students take courses on a part-time basis. So it's common to take more than two years to finish. Additionally, it is possible to complete an associate degree in less time. Some accelerated programs are designed to allow you to finish your training in as little as 12 months.


What Jobs Can You Get With an Associate Degree?

An associate degree can often qualify you for a wide range of jobs. For instance, with an associate degree in business administration, you can get jobs like customer service representative, executive assistant, or office manager. Associate degrees can also lead to abundant opportunities in sectors like health care, technology, design, digital arts, culinary arts, criminal justice, skilled trades, and more.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects occupations requiring an associate degree are projected to grow by 11 percent between 2016 and 2026. That's well above the five-percent growth rate for jobs requiring a high school diploma. Notably, it's also higher than the rate of growth for occupations requiring a bachelor's degree. And an associate degree can lead to higher earnings. According to one report, associate degree holders earned a median annual wage of $52,830, while those with only a high school diploma had a median salary of $36,100.

Here are more than a dozen examples of high-paying jobs you can get with an associate degree, along with their median salaries, as reported by the BLS Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS) guide from May 2020:

  • Air traffic controller: $130K
  • Radiation therapist: $87K
  • Funeral home manager: $74K
  • Nuclear technician: $84K
  • Nuclear medicine technologist: $80K
  • Dental hygienist: $77K
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer: $76K
  • Animator or multimedia artist: $78K
  • Registered nurse: $75K
  • Web developer: $77K
  • Aerospace engineering technician: $69K
  • Avionics technician: $68K
  • Computer support specialist: $53K
  • Respiratory therapist: $63K
  • Occupational therapy assistant: $63K
  • Radiologic technologist: $62K
  • Physical therapist assistant: $60K
  • Mechanical drafter: $58K

How to Get an Associate Degree

Many programs that lead to associate degrees require math, science, communication, and the humanities, although different degrees will emphasize other areas. For instance, an Associate of Arts program will generally require more general education courses than an Associate of Science program. And an Associate of Applied Science program will typically require very few general education courses but plenty of career-focused technical education courses.

So how many credits do you need for an associate degree? The generally accepted guideline is 60 semester credits, but that can vary depending on the school and program. Many programs at trade schools and career colleges require less time and fewer credits for the same types of associate degrees.

Here are a few different ways you can get those credits and earn an associate degree:

1. Attend community or career college.

Attending classes on campus gives you a structured, consistent schedule. It allows you to watch and listen to your instructors' presentations, discuss concepts with your classmates, and get answers to your questions immediately. Many students also enjoy the social aspect of in-person classes.

However, not everyone lives within easy reach of campus. And if you're trying to juggle a job and family responsibilities, the on-campus route might not be feasible for you. Fortunately, many colleges offer convenient online programs (see below) or hybrid options that allow you to attend classes in person and complete others online.

2. Study online.

Online associate degrees exist in an enormous variety of areas, including healthcare, skilled trades, and other program areas that haven't traditionally been taught from a distance. Even programs that require supervised clinical rotations, such as nursing, can be done from the comfort of your own home (though you will need to complete the in-person component at a hospital or clinic in your local area).

It's also worth considering that the COVID-19 pandemic has massively impacted college-level education, and many more institutions have had to find ways of offering in-person training programs online or through a hybrid of online and on-campus classes. So the variety is likely to increase even more.

The recent report Online College Students 2020: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences shows that 52% of students surveyed would prefer to switch schools if their program wasn't offered online by their first-choice school. 28% of undergraduates reported that their primary motivation for seeking an online degree was to "start a new career and earn more money;" 24% said their main objective was starting a new career more in line with their interests. This data aligns especially well with the career focus of an A.A.S. degree.

Studying online can be both convenient and cost-effective. That's because you have the flexibility to arrange your study schedule around your other commitments and don't have the costs associated with commuting to and from campus.

To succeed at an online program, you'll need to be comfortable learning via pre-recorded videos, live video conferencing, and studying independently. If you prefer having face-to-face contact with your instructors or other students, an online format may not work for you.

3. Enroll in an accelerated program.

If one of your main goals is to complete your associate degree as quickly as possible, consider an accelerated program.

Traditional college programs consist of 16-week courses offered twice a year, with an extended break during the summer. Following such a schedule generally means taking two years to complete an associate degree.

Accelerated programs speed things up by offering shorter courses year-round. For instance, classes might be eight weeks long instead of 16. And semesters might run back-to-back, with no summer break. Programs that are structured this way allow students to finish their associate degrees in less than the standard two years. In some cases, programs can be completed in just 12 months.

Getting your degree this way requires less time and often less money. If you're eager to start your career or move on to a bachelor's degree program as soon as possible, an accelerated program could be a good option.

Compressing a two-year program into a shorter schedule does not work for everyone, though. Some people need more time to absorb all the material and find accelerated programs too fast-paced. You should also be aware that some programs require students to have previous college credit or even a full degree before enrolling.

4. Ask about a reverse transfer.

Did you start your degree but never finish? Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans who began their post-secondary studies at a two-year college transfer to a four-year institution before completing a formal credential. Many of those students do not complete their bachelor's degree and end up with plenty of credits but no actual degree. If you're in that situation, the good news is that you may be eligible for an associate degree through a reverse transfer.

With a reverse transfer, credits earned at the four-year institution are transferred back to the original two-year college. If the two-year college determines that the student has met all the requirements for an associate degree, it can retroactively award one. According to a 2019 Forbes article, over 15,000 students have received associate degrees through reverse transfer.

If you think you might qualify, talk to the registrar at your four-year college to discuss your options.


Associate Degree vs. Bachelor's Degree: How They Compare

An associate degree and a bachelor's degree are both undergraduate degrees, so you can begin studying for them immediately after high school. (By contrast, a master's degree or doctorate is a graduate program that requires students to have a bachelor's or master's degree prior to entry.) Both can qualify you for many satisfying and rewarding occupations.

Here are some differences between an associate degree and a bachelor's degree:

  • Length of program: This is the most obvious distinction. An associate degree typically requires 60 credit hours, whereas a bachelor's degree requires 120. That translates into roughly two years of study for an associate degree versus four years for a bachelor's degree. Since an associate degree can be completed in less time, you can finish your training and begin your career much sooner.
  • Cost: It often costs thousands of dollars less to get an associate degree than a bachelor's degree. That's because an associate degree requires half as much time, and many colleges that offer associate degrees are significantly cheaper than traditional four-year schools. According to the College Board, an in-district student at a two-year public college pays an average of $3,730 per year, whereas an in-state student at a four-year public institution pays $10,440.
  • Admission standards: Many community and career colleges have open admission, meaning that you only need a high school diploma or GED to enroll. Four-year institutions generally have more stringent requirements, such as a certain grade point average (GPA) or a minimum score on admission tests like the SAT or ACT.
  • Career opportunities: As noted above, an associate degree can lead to a wide array of highly skilled jobs. Plus, the BLS projects that occupations requiring that level of education will grow by 11 percent in the years ahead, outpacing the rate of growth for jobs that require a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree can open more doors, particularly if you're aiming for leadership or management roles.
  • Earning potential: The median annual salary for someone with a bachelor's degree is $72,830, while the median salary for someone with an associate degree is $52,830. But some jobs that are open to associate degree holders, such as dental hygienist, nuclear technician, and radiation therapist, have median earnings above $72,830. Plus, keep in mind that you need to spend more time and money to get a bachelor's degree than to earn an associate degree.

So which is better: an associate degree or a bachelor's degree? That depends on your goals.

An associate degree generally:

  • costs less
  • has less competitive entry requirements
  • takes less time to complete so that you can get into the workforce sooner
  • can allow you to try out an occupation without investing the additional time and money required for a bachelor's degree

A bachelor's degree generally:

  • leads to a greater number of career and advancement opportunities
  • allows for higher earning potential
  • can qualify you for graduate programs

If you think you'd like to earn a bachelor's degree at some point, you may want to start by getting an A.A. or an A.S. You don't need an associate degree to get a bachelor's degree, but going this route does offer some significant advantages.


How to Turn an Associate Degree Into a Bachelor's Degree

Do you already have an associate degree? Are you thinking about taking your education to the next level? Here's how to put the credits from your associate degree toward a bachelor's degree:

1. Check into your school's articulation agreements.

Articulation agreements spell out how courses or even entire degrees from two-year schools can fulfill some of the requirements for bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges or universities. You might find that your associate degree allows you to forego the general education courses required for a bachelor's degree at certain colleges or that your GPA qualifies you for guaranteed admission to a partner institution. Every agreement is different, so be sure to look into the details.

Note that such agreements are typically between schools located in the same geographic area. If you're hoping to attend a four-year college in a different region, an articulation agreement may not help you. Talk to an advisor at your target school to discuss your options.

2. Research credit-transfer policies.

Associate of Arts and Associate of Science programs are specifically designed to help students transfer into bachelor's degree programs. But that doesn't necessarily mean the process will be seamless. For instance, if you received an associate degree in one subject but decide to pursue a bachelor's degree in something else, your credits might still transfer as electives, but they won't count toward the required courses for the bachelor's degree. And if you received an Associate of Applied Science degree, it's less likely that your credits will transfer because many of the courses are highly specific to a particular occupation.

It's important to contact the school you're interested in to find out how they handle credit transfers and which of your courses can be applied toward your bachelor's degree.

3. Complete the remaining requirements.

If you have already fulfilled the general education requirements, you will only need to focus on the courses that are directly related to your major. That should allow you to complete your bachelor's degree in about two years.

If only a portion of your credits transfer, you will have to take additional courses at the four-year institution. That requires more time. However, you may be able to complete your bachelor's degree more quickly by taking online courses, enrolling in summer school, or choosing an accelerated program.