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What is an Associate’s Degree?

Graduates with Associate's Degrees

An 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.


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Quick Facts About Associate Degrees

Why earn an associate degree?

Employers often prefer to hire people with some college. Many associate degrees qualify students to work in high-income professions. An associate degree is a good stepping stone to earning a bachelor’s degree later.

How long does it take?

Fulltime: 2 years

Part time: about 2.5 to 6 years

How much does it cost?

Less expensive program tuition can cost as little as $2,500, while more expensive programs can cost over $60,000 in tuition alone.

Is it worth it?

The median weekly wages for those with an associate degree is about 18% higher than that of high school graduates. Over the length of a career, that can really add up.

What types of associate degrees are there?

All associate degrees include some general education. There are associate degrees for many special professions, such as dental hygienists, computer programmers, police officers, paralegals, HVAC installers, and numerous other fields.

How do I choose the right associate degree program?

Whether you choose to study online, at a local community college or technical school, or at a 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?

Associate degrees are 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. An associate degree is a perfect fit. Other employers simply require an associate degree, and have it listed as an essential job qualification.

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 can be 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.

However, having the right degree for a specific job can also get you a leg up. For instance, a job applicant with an AS degree in Nursing will be qualified for a nursing position, while someone with a bachelor’s degree in history would not make the cut. Depending on your career goals, an Associate may be the very best qualification for a specific occupation.

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.

Trends in Associate Degree Education

More of the well-paying jobs in today’s economy require associate degrees, meaning that a person will have more opportunity to attain a good standard of living with an associate degree. The lower unemployment rate for those with an associate degree—at just 2.8%–is  much better than the rate for those with just a high school diploma (4.1%.) The median weekly earnings for those with an associate degree in 2018 was $862, about 18% higher than for those with just a diploma. When you add that up over the course of a lifetime of earnings, that can easily total $300,000, and by some estimates, it can reach up to almost half a million dollars in increased lifetime earnings, on average.

Many fields are increasing the educational requirements or recommendations for entering the profession. Some careers where you only needed a high school diploma now prefer an associate degree, and others are even increasing their requirements to higher levels of education.

Nursing is one field where the associate degree has been the main requirement for decades. Though there are still numerous jobs for nurses with an associate degree, there is a push in the nursing fields for more nurses to get bachelor’s degrees or higher. However, the option is there to add on training later to get the higher salaried nursing jobs, and the demand for all nurses is high.

There are many fields where the entry level positions require only the associate degree, and it can be great get experience before committing to more years of education in an industry that you may find you do not like. These entry level positions are often at the assistant level, like physical therapy assistants, working under professionals with higher educational credentials.

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.

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.

What is an Articulation Agreement?

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.

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.

How Much Does it Cost?

The cost of tuition and fees for an associate program can range from just a couple of thousand dollars to over $60,000 for the complete 2-year degree. Community colleges and public universities tend to be less expensive than private colleges. Online learners often pay comparable rates to students attending in person, though they may be able to continue working more easily while studying for their degree.

On top of tuition, students will need to pay for their living expenses while studying. Living expenses would include rent, food, utilities (including high-speed internet), parking and commuting expenses for those not living on campus. Students attending an online program save time and money by not commuting to class.

Student 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, so will only need to pay for their living expenses. Financial aid can be in the form of grants and scholarships, federal student loans, tax credits for students, and work study positions. In many cases, students may use student loans to cover not just tuition expenses, but also some of their living expenses too.

TIP: Costs at a public college are generally more affordable, according to statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. Looking at tuition alone, private for-profit and nonprofit colleges charge about four times the tuition rates of their public rivals. Financial aid may make up some of the difference in tuition prices. 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, in the past, good jobs—ones paying a median annual salary of $56,000–were available to high school graduates. However, the current economy favors workers with some training beyond high school, including associate degrees. The share of good jobs, for people with associate degrees has been steadily rising over the past 25 years.

According to the 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 degree salary can mean more earning and savings potential than a bachelor’s degree. For example, an associate in nursing can mean a comparable salary to a bachelor’s in nursing.

Highest Paying Jobs with an Associate Degree

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

Associate degree jobs that pay well include:

  • Air Traffic Controller: $124,540
  • Dental hygienist: $74,820
  • Registered nurse: $71,730
  • Radiological therapist: $80,570
  • Occupational therapy assistant: $57,620
  • Computer network support specialist: $68,050
  • Web developer: $69,430
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer: $71,430

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

When to Seek an Associate Degree

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 degrees. Because there is so much demand for associate degrees, 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: for-profit online associate degrees can cost, on average, two to four times more than their public school counterparts.

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

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What to Expect in an Associate Degree Program

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.

Many associate degrees 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.

Most associate degree programs will allow you to focus on a major subject, such as computer science, health sciences, arts, technology or industry, and many other very specific career-focused majors. You will then take a cluster of classes in your major subject.

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. Pursuing an associate degree may mean that your entry into the workforce is quicker and more cost effective.

An easy way to figure out if an associate 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.

Steps to Choosing an Associate Degree Program

  • Consider your strengths and interests.

    What subjects do you excel at in school? Do you enjoy working with people or spending more time alone? Do you have good hand-eye coordination or a friendly speaking voice? What hobbies do you enjoy and why?

    When you look towards your future, you want to plan for a job that you will enjoy and that you will give you a sense of accomplishment. This requires some introspection because jobs that sound great to your best friend may not be the best choice for you. Take the time to explore your own preferences and consider possible careers that will not only make you happy, but that will allow you to make a good living.

  • Research career options.

    Once you have some good ideas about your own likes and skills, research careers that will allow you to be involved in work that will interest you and will use your strong points well. Consider all the factors in a particular job category. Perhaps you can about health, but you don’t like touching people. Being a dental hygienist or a physical therapy assistant might not be good choices for you, while becoming a medical secretary or a medical laboratory technician could work out well. Consider all aspects of a job. A great resource for information about different careers is the Bureau of Labor Statistics website’s Occupation Finder.

  • Decide if traditional (in-person) or online education is best for you.

    If you attend school in person, whether full time, part time, or on an evening/weekend schedule, you will have the opportunity to engage in person with your teachers and fellow students, access libraries and other resources, and participate in labs or other hands-on activities. On the flip side, your costs for transportation, parking, food, or living on campus will likely be higher and it may be harder to schedule work while you attend school.

    Online programs don’t require you to commute to school, and indeed, you can often choose a program from a school far away from your home, increasing your choices. Perhaps the biggest benefit for many students is the ability to study on your own time for asynchronous classes, allowing you to keep working and taking care of family. For some people, the lack of face-to-face contact may be a problem, and it may be harder to connect to help for online students, although most programs have tutoring and other services to help both online and on-campus learners.

  • Consider hybrid programs.

    Hybrid programs can be an excellent way to study technical fields. While most “classroom” time can be provided asynchronously online, the hands-on technical training can be accomplished on campus or at an approved job site.

  • Narrow down your school choices.

    Once you have decided on a career path and chosen the right format for your school, it is time to see what options are available to you. For online programs, you may have a wider choice of programs than if you want to go to a school in your area.

  • Compare costs, convenience, and program courses.

    Make sure you consider your options carefully and don’t make a snap decision. Take your time to really consider all aspects of a program and don’t be swayed by advertising from one or another program. Check out the accreditation of the program to make sure it is a recognized school and program, and compare the total costs for the program. 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 will likely save some money by choosing the community college. But sometimes, the convenience of a flexible online program from a large national school may make going to school easier.

  • Contact the school(s) you choose and apply! (Don’t forget to apply for financial aid by filling out the FAFSA application!)


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

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