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What is an Associate’s Degree?

Graduates with Associate's DegreesAn associate’s degree is a two-year post-secondary degree. Students who pursue this kind of degree full-time can complete a program in as little as two years— though many choose to go at their own pace. An associate degree translates into the first two years of a bachelor’s degree (freshman and sophomore years).

Associate’s degrees have been popular for the last twenty years. Increasingly, people are turning to associate’s as a quicker, less expensive route to career change than the traditional bachelor’s or four-year degree.

Some occupations require workers to have a least “some college” in their educational background, in which case, an associate degree is a perfect fit. Other employers simply require employees to have an associate degree and have it listed as an essential job qualification.

While there are far more options for online bachelor degree programs, there are still plenty of online associate degrees to choose from. Here are just a few from the database:

    • Affordable, transfer-friendly associate programs are designed especially for busy adult learners at Southern New Hampshire University

    • Perhaps our largest provider of associate degrees, Purdue University Global has a wide variety of programs across business, criminal justice, technology and legal studies.
    • Strayer University provides learning options designed to give you full control over your schedule that are flexible, affordable and collaborative.

What Is an Associate’s Degree?

An associate degree takes half as long, and therefore generally costs half as much, as a traditional four-year bachelor degree. Many community colleges offer low-cost associate degree programs. Community college can be a cheaper, more flexible and less time-consuming way to pursue this kind of program. Other institutions that offer associate programs include: junior colleges, technical and vocational schools, affiliated colleges of universities and universities.

However, it is important to note that there is a stigma attached to community college degrees. Many employers and hiring managers have earned bachelor-level degrees from traditional four-year colleges and, therefore, look for potential employees with similar educational backgrounds.

With that said, earning an associate’s can also convey that an individual can pursue continuing education while maintaining other responsibilities. This is important in the modern workforce considering the rapid evolution associated with technology and the changing ebb and flow of the work day.

Of course, when considering a potential employee with a high school diploma vs. college degree, the individual with the most education is generally shown preference. Similarly, when comparing a potential employee with an associate vs. bachelor, the latter generally is preferred.

Keeping up with trends and developments in your field via continuing education is a sure way to catch the attention of current and potential employers.

Many people decide to earn an associate degree while maintaining a career and later choose to continue their education in a bachelor-level program. This level of degree is dedicated to vocationally-specific skills and knowledge. An associate’s is considered the first stage of post-secondary education.

An articulation agreement is the bridge between an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree. Many four-year institutions offer articulation agreements to community college and online college students.

The articulation agreement is a guarantee that a student will be able to complete their bachelor’s degree (at a later time) at a larger college or university, if they meet the stipulations and rules of the agreement. These stipulations generally concern course requirements.

Articulation agreements are a great way for a person to earn their associate degree and start their career before committing to a bachelor’s program. Many online universities offer accredited online associate degree options that seamlessly transfer into their bachelor’s programs.


When deciding what kind of degree you may need, there are many factors to consider. What kind of job are you looking for? What kind of degree requirements are needed for entry-level jobs in that field? Is it a job that requires more science and math-based skills and knowledge or more humanities-related qualifications?

There are three types of associate degrees:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS).

What’s the difference between an AA vs. AS vs. AAS? 

The main differences between these different kinds of associate’s degrees are the course requirements. An AS and AA degree prepare graduates for further educational pursuits at the bachelor’s level by focusing more on academic requirements and general education courses. An AAS has more “applied” course requirements, which means they are more practical in nature and are generally more focused on a specific career or vocational field.

What is an AAS degree?

Associate of Applied Science degrees are career-targeted vocational degrees, and do not necessarily provide students with the required coursework to earn a bachelor’s degree. Students who want higher education, but are not interested in a four-year program may want to research the value of an AAS Degree in their chosen career path.

Some popular Associate of Applied Science degree majors include:

  • Customer relationship management
  • Web design
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Human services
  • Paralegal studies

What is an AA degree?

An Associate of Arts or AA degree covers general subjects concerning the performing arts, literature, languages or even the fine arts such as music or art. This kind of degree is appropriate for people who plan on pursuing a bachelor’s degree in any of those specialties. Jobs with associate degree in arts include sales, management positions and education positions at the non-teacher level.

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What is an AS degree?

An Associate of Science degree, on the other hand, has a wide range of career options available. These programs focus more on math and science subjects, which can translate directly into entry-level work in their specific field. AS degree subjects include nursing, business administration and criminal justice.

Nursing and healthcare associate of science degree jobs include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Cardiovascular technologists and technicians
  • Registered nurses
  • Medical transcriptionists.

Business administration associate degree jobs include:

  • Administrative assistants
  • Sales managers
  • Accounting and auditing clerks
  • Realtors.

The technology and information technology-related jobs that require associate’s degrees include:

  • Computer network support specialists
  • IT systems administrators
  • Database coordinators
  • Web developer


The good news is that many of today’s highest paying jobs require only an associate’s degree.

  • Associate degree jobs that pay well include:
  • Dental hygienist: $70,210
  • Registered nurse: $65,470
  • Radiological technologists: $54,620
  • Occupational therapy assistants: $53,240
  • Computer network support specialists: $59,090
  • Web developer: $62,500.

View the full list of the 19 highest paying associate degree jobs.

According to a Georgetown University study, 28 percent of associate degree earners made more than the median earnings of their bachelor’s degree holding counterparts. This means that in many cases an associate’s degree salary can mean more earning and savings potential than a bachelor’s degree. For example, an associate’s in nursing can mean a comparable salary to a bachelor’s in nursing.

According to the same study, having at least some postsecondary education, if not a full associate’s, adds almost one-quarter of a million dollars to a worker’s total lifetime earnings. Completing an associate degree means an additional $200,000 to that total.

How Many Credits is an Associate’s Degree?

Generally, an associate’s level program is 60 semester credits of study (or 90 quarter credits). This equals about twenty college courses. Most are awarded by private career colleges or by public community colleges.

The number of years it takes to complete an associate’s program depends on the person pursuing the degree, but generally takes two years to complete.

Many associate degree programs in both online and traditional settings allow for flexible plans of study. Some people choose accelerated courses of study, while others with more responsibilities and schedule constraints may take one or two classes a semester.

The curriculum of an associate’s degree generally focuses on the foundational academic and technical knowledge needed to acquire entry-level work in a particular field. Transferable skills are emphasized for the purposes of vocational advancement.

Associate programs are often considered to be an academic stepping stone toward a bachelor's degree. Others consider an associate’s degree to be a foundational qualification for improving employment prospects.

An increasing number of four-year colleges are giving students the option of earning an associate en route to a bachelor degree. This is particularly helpful to those students who are working or maintaining careers while pursuing their education.

Programs that offer a bachelor’s degree as an extension to the associate’s are often called 2+2 programs. After a student completes the first two years of their four-year bachelor’s degree, they have earned their associate’s degree. Always research how many credits for an associate degree compared with a bachelor’s degree. This can affect the transferability of an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s level program. Different schools have different degree requirements, so it’s important to make sure the program of study fits your education and career goals.

TIP: Many well-paying technical and trade careers, such as electronics, surveying, associate in nursing , logistics, computer science, technical writing, medical records and healthcare technology accept associate degrees for career entry and advancement. Because there are so many associate degree jobs in demand, you may never need a bachelor’s degree for today’s hottest careers.

When to Seek an Associate’s

When You ….

  • Already have some college, but less than 60 semester credits or 90 quarter credits, and would like to add to your old credits quickly to earn a formal degree
  • Already have about 60 semester credits or 90 quarter credits of previous college and would like to find a college to quickly consolidate these credits into an associate degree
  • Know you are seeking jobs with associate degree requirements
  • Have no college experience but are certain you want to earn a full-fledged degree as quickly and cost effectively as possible

TIP: You’ll find no shortage of colleges offering online associate’s degrees. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of associate’s degrees are outpacing that of bachelor’s degrees, up 59 percent compared to the 36 percent increase in bachelor’s. Because there is so much demand for associate’s, for-profit colleges compete with public community colleges for students. For-profit colleges advertise online much more heavily than their non-profit, public college peers. Compare costs carefully:’s surveys reveal that for-profit online associate’s degrees can cost, on average, two to three times more than their public school counterparts.

Online Associate Degree Tips

Every college will have its own degree plan that includes both required courses—courses that you must take—and elective courses, which are courses that you can elect or choose to take. Many colleges offer at least one associate degree online, which can be very helpful for those students who are maintaining careers while seeking educational advancement.

If you decide to major in a specific area, such as management or psychology, then you will be required take a certain cluster of courses in your major area.

Many associate’s also include required courses in general critical thinking or what is called the liberal arts. The liberal arts include courses like English, humanities and arts, the social sciences, and science and math.

Compare degree requirements at different schools carefully when selecting the best online associate degree for your situation. Pursuing an associate’s degree may mean that your entry into the workforce is quicker and more cost effective.

An easy way to figure out if an associate’s education is right for you is to consider what kind of career you want to go into. Apply for the degree level that will best fit the educational requirements of an entry-level position in that field.

Additional and continuing education is always an option after professional and field experience have been acquired. Research the specific positions that you are interested in and take note of the specific requirements in job listings.

For a list of online schools offering associate degrees, visit the database:

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Related Resources
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