What Is an Associate Degree? Must-Know Facts for the College-Bound
When it comes to college credentials, bachelor's degrees tend to get the lion's share of attention. But associate degrees also lead to rewarding opportunities for a huge number of students. So, what is an associate degree? How does it compare to a bachelor's? And what could getting one mean for your future?
In a nutshell, an associate degree is a post-secondary credential conferred by community colleges, vocational schools, career colleges and universities, and technical institutes. Typically (though not always) requiring two years of study, its purpose is to prepare students to go directly into the workforce or transfer into the latter stages of a four-year program. Thus, it can be either a stand-alone credential or a springboard to a bachelor's degree.
Associate degrees are becoming increasingly popular. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of associate degrees that were awarded grew by 74 percent.1 As of 2018, more than 22 million Americans over the age of 25 held an associate degree.2
The information below will help you understand the different types of associate degrees that exist, the kinds of jobs they can lead to, and the various ways you can go about earning them. You will also learn about the differences between an associate degree and a bachelor's degree and why starting—or ending—with an associate degree may be the best choice.
- Types of associate degrees
- How long does it take to get an associate degree?
- What jobs can you get with an associate degree?
- How to get an associate degree
- Associate degree vs. bachelor's degree: How they compare
- How to turn an associate degree into a bachelor's
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? You're about to find out.
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 program. Thus, 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.
An Associate of Arts program tends to focus on the liberal arts, social sciences, and humanities. The courses are usually very general in nature, and the credits you earn tend to be readily transferable to a Bachelor of Arts program. A.A. degree requirements are more flexible in the sense that students are free to choose courses from a wide range of areas. Programs are offered in subjects like anthropology, early childhood education, criminal justice, psychology, media arts, political science, and communications.
By contrast, an Associate of Science program has a heavier emphasis on math and science. It's designed to enable students to transfer into Bachelor of Science programs that have highly structured requirements. Thus, the difference between an A.A. and A.S. is that an A.S. is more narrowly focused and typically requires fewer general education courses than an A.A. program. Common fields of study include nursing, information technology, engineering, agriculture, business administration, and veterinary science.
In many cases, the distinctions between an A.A. and an A.S. are fairly minor. 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 specific bachelor's 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. 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. As such, it emphasizes occupation-specific knowledge and skills rather than general education courses. This type of degree is not meant for transfer, although some credits may be accepted by other institutions. Some examples of A.A.S. programs 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?
Typically, it takes two years to earn an associate degree, assuming you study full-time. However, some programs take longer. For instance, 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, 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. In fact, one report found that only about 15 percent of associate degree holders finished their programs in two calendar years. On average, students were enrolled for a total of 3.4 years.3
That said, it is possible to complete an associate degree in less time. Indeed, 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 get you 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, the skilled trades, and more.
In fact, 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.4
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 $36,100.4
Here are more than a dozen examples of high-paying jobs you can get with an associate degree, along with their median salaries:5
- Air traffic controller—$125K
- Radiation therapist—$82K
- Funeral service manager—$79K
- Nuclear technician—$79K
- Nuclear medicine technologist—$77K
- Dental hygienist—$75K
- Diagnostic medical sonographer—$73K
- Animator or multimedia artist—$73K
- Registered nurse—$72K
- Web developer—$69K
- Aerospace engineering technician—$67K
- Avionics technician—$64K
- Computer network support specialist—$63K
- Respiratory therapist—$60K
- Occupational therapy assistant—$60K
- Radiologic technologist—$60K
- Physical therapist assistant—$58K
- Mechanical drafter—$55K
How to Get an Associate Degree
Many programs that lead to associate degrees require courses in math, science, communication, and the humanities, although different degrees will emphasize different 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. A study of public two-year institutions found that 85 percent of them required more than 60 credits for an associate degree. The study noted that programs like culinary arts, emergency medical technology, and diagnostic medical sonography frequently require 67 credits or more.6
However, many programs at private vocational schools, technical institutes, and career colleges and universities require less time and/or fewer credits for the same types of associate degrees.
Regardless, here are a few different ways you can get those credits and earn an associate degree:
1. Attend community or career college.
This is the traditional route. You can get an associate degree at a community college, career college, trade school, or technical institute. (Some universities also offer associate degrees.) Programs are generally two years long.
Attending classes on campus, which is the traditional way, 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 some classes in person and complete others online.
2. Study online.
You can get an associate degree online in an enormous variety of areas, from accounting and healthcare management to graphic design and veterinary technology. 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).
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of students at public two-year colleges in the fall of 2017 were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. At private nonprofit two-year institutions, more than 40 percent of students were distance-only.7
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.
However, in order to be successful, you need to be comfortable with learning via watching videos 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.
Are you aiming to complete your associate degree as quickly as possible? Consider an accelerated program.
Traditional college programs are comprised 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 program as soon as possible, an accelerated program could be a good option.
However, compressing a two-year program into a shorter schedule does not work for everyone. 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 and end up with a smattering 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. Over 15,000 students have received associate degrees this way.8
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 and a bachelor's are both undergraduate degrees, so you can begin studying for them immediately after high school. (By contrast, a master's degree is a graduate program that requires students to have a bachelor's prior to entry.) Both can qualify you for many satisfying and rewarding occupations. But there are important distinctions between them that you need to understand.
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 requires 120. That translates into roughly two years of study for an associate degree versus four years for a bachelor's. Since an associate degree can be completed in a shorter timeframe, 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 to go for a bachelor's. That's partly because an associate degree only requires half as much time. Another factor is that 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 $3,660 per year, whereas an in-state student at a four-year public institution pays $10,230.9
- Admission standards—Many community and career colleges have open admission, meaning that you only need a high school diploma or GED in order to enroll. Four-year institutions generally have more stringent requirements, such as a certain grade point average (GPA) or minimum score on admission tests like the SAT or ACT. Thus, an associate degree program is a more accessible route to higher education.
- Career opportunities—As noted above, an associate degree can lead to a wide array of highly skilled jobs. Plus, occupations that require that level of education are expected to grow by 11 percent in the years ahead, outpacing the rate of growth for jobs that require a bachelor's.4 So if you're interested in a specific career, be sure to research the educational requirements. A bachelor's degree can open more doors, particularly if you're aiming for leadership or management roles. In fact, roughly one in five jobs call for a minimum of a bachelor's degree for entry-level work.10 (And if your chosen field requires a master's or PhD, you will need to get a bachelor's.) But in many cases, an associate degree is enough.
- 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 $52,830.4 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 as opposed to an associate degree.
So which is better: associate or bachelor's? That depends on your goals. An associate degree generally costs less, has less competitive entry requirements, and takes less time to complete, so you can get into the workforce sooner. And if you aren't totally sure what career path you'd like to follow, earning an associate degree can allow you to try out an occupation without investing the additional time and money required for a bachelor's.
On the other hand, a bachelor's degree can lead to a greater number of career and advancement opportunities as well as higher earning potential. It can also qualify you for graduate programs. You should also be aware that in some people's minds, you are not considered a college graduate when you get an associate degree. That's because, in some circles, the term "college graduate" is linked with the notion of a four-year education. But not everyone thinks this way. In fact, many great employers are happy to think of associate degree holders as college graduates, especially those who have completed career-oriented A.A.S. programs that are only designed to last two years.
If you think you'd like to earn a bachelor's 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, but going this route does offer some significant advantages.
How to Turn an Associate Degree Into a Bachelor's
Do you already have an associate degree? Are you thinking about taking your education to the next level? Here's how to convert your associate degree to a bachelor's:
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 that are 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 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 attending 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.
Take Aim at Your Higher Education
So, what is an associate degree? In short, it's a valuable credential that can help you achieve a specific occupational goal or prepare for further study at the bachelor's level. Associate degree programs are widely available at career colleges and technical schools. And finding such schools is simple. Just put your zip code into the search tool below to generate a list of convenient options!
1 National Center for Education Statistics, "Undergraduate Degree Fields," website last visited on July 18, 2019.
2 U.S. Census Bureau, "Educational Attainment in the United States: 2018," website last visited on July 18, 2019.
3 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Time to Degree: A National View of the Time Enrolled and Elapsed for Associate and Bachelor's Degree Earners (Signature Report No. 11), website last visited on July 18, 2019.
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, "Occupational employment projections through the perspective of education and training," website last visited on July 18, 2019.
5 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on July 18, 2019.
6 Complete College America, Program Requirements for Associate's and Bachelor's Degrees: A National Survey, website last visited on July 18, 2019.
7 National Center for Education Statistics, "Undergraduate Enrollment," website last visited on July 18, 2019.
8 Forbes, "Reverse Transfer: A Second Chance At A First Degree," website last visited on July 18, 2019.
9 The College Board, Trends in Higher Education, "Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector and by Carnegie Classification, 2018-19," website last visited on July 18, 2019.
10 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Publications & Special Studies, website last visited on July 18, 2019.