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What is an Associate’s Degree?

man with associate degree

Higher education may begin with a four-year bachelor’s degree for some, but what about for those who are not ready to commit to that sort of time and cost before starting a career?  An associate’s degree, a two-year post secondary degree, is a perfect option to pursue college, university studies, or a premiere career path.

An associate’s degree is a quicker, less expensive route to a degree and has become a popular option for adult students throughout the last twenty years.  The associate credential is a good fit for occupations requiring workers to have some college in their educational background, and has grown in today’s marketplace as an essential job qualification.  

While there are usually 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 GetEducated’s 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.

As this article continues, you will learn the what, why, and how of earning your associate degree and pursuing the next chapter in your academic and professional career.

Quick Facts About Associate Degrees

Why earn an associate degree?

Associate degrees may be a requirement for an entry-level career, or qualify students to work in higher-income professions. An associate degree can also serve as a stepping stone to earning a bachelor’s degree.

How long does it take?

Full-time, 2 years.  Part-time, anywhere from 2.5 to 6 years.

How much does it cost?

Cost varies based on school, in-state or out of state, traditional or online, etc.

Is it worth it?

The median weekly wages for those with an associate degree is about 18% higher than that of high school graduates. This makes a great difference in how long it could take to pay off student loans or reach higher salaried positions.

What types of associate degrees are there?

All associate degrees include some general education combined with studies in a core subject.  In total there are three types of associate degrees: Associate of Science, Arts, and Applied Science.

How do I choose the right associate degree program?

Whether you choose to study online, at a local community college, technical school, or university, you should take into account cost, expected salary benefit for your chosen career, schedule, financial aid, and your life goals.

What is an Associate’s Degree?

An associate’s degree is a typically two-year program designed to introduce students to the most rudimentary aspects of a subject.  A combination of general education with fundamental coursework helps to build the academic groundwork to a bachelor’s degree, or get a foot in the door of a chosen profession.

Community colleges can be a cheaper, more flexible 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.

Having the right degree for a specific job can get you a leg up. For instance, a job applicant with an associate of science degree in nursing administration will be qualified for that position, while someone with a bachelor’s degree in history would not make the cut. Depending on your career goals, an associate degree may be the very best qualification for a specific occupation.

Earning an associate’s degree can 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, innovation, and fast-paced organizational change.  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 students earn an associate degree while maintaining a career and later choose to continue their education in a bachelor-level program. An associate is considered the first stage of post-secondary education.

How Many Credits are in 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.

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.

Types of Associate Degrees

When deciding what kind of degree you may need, here are the 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. Associate of Science or Arts degrees 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, meaning the coursework is more practical in nature and 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.

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What is an AA degree?

Associate of Arts degrees cover general subjects concerning humanities, literature, languages, fine arts, and more. This kind of degree is appropriate for people who plan on pursuing a bachelor’s degree in any of those specialties. Jobs with associate degrees in arts include sales, management positions and education positions at the non-teacher level.

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What is an AS degree?

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

How Do I Choose the Right Associate Degree Program?

Compare degree requirements at different schools carefully when selecting the best associate degree for your situation.  An easy way to figure out if an associate education is right for you is to consider what kind of career you want. Apply for the degree that fits 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.

When to Seek an Associate Degree

When you …

  • Already have some college, but less than 60 semester credits, and would like to add to your old credits quickly to earn a formal 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

PRO-TIP:  Because there is so much demand for associate degrees, private for-profit institutions compete with public community colleges for students. For-profit colleges advertise online much more heavily than their public college counterparts, so research carefully to save thousands.

How Much Does It Cost?

While earning an associate degree is more affordable upfront than a bachelor’s degree, tuition can still range from a few thousand a year to varying astronomical prices.  It is important to consider the same factors as you would with other degree levels:

  • Public vs. Private schools
  • In-state vs. Out of state
  • Online vs. In-person
  • Your personal budget reports that the average cost of public in-state community college tuition in 2021 sits at $4,444, while the out of state tuition averages at $8,516.  The average cost of attending a private two year institution can range between $15,800 for a for-profit school to over $17,000 for a non-profit college.  It will, forever and always, serve your best interest to research before you purchase.

Financial aid is available for associate degrees, and on average students attending a public two year college receive enough financial aid to cover their tuition and fees.  Financial aid can be in the form of grants and scholarships, federal student loans, tax credits for students, and work study positions.

PRO-TIP:  Taking on student debt can put a strain on your budget for years to come, so you may want to see if there are any public institutions or online programs that offer the degree you want for a lower price.

Is an Associate Degree Worth It?

According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, past jobs paying a median annual salary of over $50,000 were available to high school graduates. However, the current economy favors workers with some training beyond high school, what the study refers to as “Middle Skills,” including associate degrees. The share of well-paying jobs for people with associate degrees has been steadily rising above high school graduates over the past 25 years.

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

In any case, the cost and time of an associate’s degree can be worth it for the skills and knowledge gained and applied to your future as a professional or scholar.

Highest Paying Jobs with an Associate Degree

Many of today’s highest paying jobs require only an associate degree.  Associate degree jobs and their average salaries reported in 2019 include:

  • Heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver: $45,260
  • Nursing assistant: $29,660
  • Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerk: $41,230
  • Teaching assistant: $27,920
  • Medical assistant: $34,800
  • Computer network support specialist: $52,270
  • Licensed practical and Licensed vocational nurse: $47,480
  • Automotive service technician and mechanic: $42,090

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

On average, you have better opportunities to attain a good standard of living with an associate degree than no degree at all. The lower unemployment rate for those with an associate degree—at just 2.7%–is greater than the rate for those with just a high school diploma. The median weekly earnings for those with an associate degree in 2019 was $887, about 18% higher than for those with only their GED.

Many fields are increasing educational requirements for entering a profession. Some careers that once required only a high school diploma now prefer an associate degree. This trend extends to higher levels of education as well, for example, nursing is one field where an associate degree has been the main requirement for decades. Currently there is a push in nursing fields for bachelor’s degrees or higher. However, the option is there to earn an AS, then pursue more training later to obtain higher salaried nursing jobs.

An increasing number of four-year colleges offer 2+2 programs or articulation agreements, making it easier to earn an associate on route to a bachelor degree. This is particularly helpful to those students who are working or maintaining careers while pursuing their education.

What is an Articulation Agreement?

The articulation agreement is a guarantee that a student will be able to complete their bachelor’s degree at a later time through a larger college or university if they meet the stipulations and rules of the agreement, generally concerning course requirements.  Articulation agreements are a great way to earn an associate degree and start a career before committing to a bachelor’s program. Many online universities offer accredited online associate degree options that seamlessly transfer into bachelor’s programs.

PRO-TIP: Always research credit requirements 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.

What to Expect in an Associate Degree Program

Every college has its own degree plan of required and elective courses. Colleges now offer associate degrees online for students who are maintaining careers while seeking educational advancement.  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.

You can expect general courses in critical thinking or liberal arts. Liberal arts include courses such as English, humanities and arts, the social sciences, science, and math.  Most associate degree programs will allow you to focus on a major subject, such as computer science, health sciences, arts, technology or industry, and other career-focused majors.

Steps to Choosing an Associate Degree Program

  1. Consider your strengths and interests
    Take the time to explore your preferences, interests, and skills, then consider possible careers that will not only make you happy, but that will allow you to make a good living.
  2. Research career options
    Consider all the factors in a particular job category where your interest, knowledge and skills could be utilized. A great resource for information about different careers is the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Finder.
  3. Decide between a traditional in-person or online associate degree
    Whether you are attending school full- or part-time, online and on-campus degrees are available to you.  The options for online associate degrees have expanded immensely, allowing more adult students the opportunity to balance work, education, and a personal life.  Online education tends to be more accessible and affordable than on-campus programs, and are designed for self-starting, highly motivated individuals who can manage studies on their own time.
  4. Consider hybrid or blended programs
    Hybrid and blended college programs are excellent ways to study technical fields. While most coursework is provided asynchronously online, the hands-on technical training can be accomplished on campus or at an approved job site.
  5. Narrow down your school choices
    Once you have decided on a career path and chosen the right format, it is time to see what school fits the bill. For online programs, you may have a wider choice of programs than schools in your area offer.
  6. Compare costs, convenience, and program courses
    Take your time to consider all aspects of a program.  Check out the accreditation of the program to make sure it comes from a recognized school, and compare the total costs for the degree. If two programs are similar in many ways, but one is from a for-profit school and the other is from a community college, you may save some money by choosing community college. However, the convenience of a flexible online program from a large national school may make going to school easier and pay off in the long run.
  7. Contact the school(s) you choose and apply
    Don’t forget to apply for financial aid by filling out the FAFSA application.

Take this information and pursue your associate’s degree today!  For a list of accredited online schools offering associate degrees, visit the database.