There are many reasons why you might pursue an associate’s degree. For one, it can be a great stepping stone to getting your four-year bachelor’s degree and going on to further, more intensive studies in higher education. Others might be motivated by the prospect of finding a great job after just two years of college courses. Many associate’s degree programs offer flexible schedule options that make earning a degree within reach for more non-traditional students.
An associate’s degree is also much more affordable than a four-year college degree in bachelor’s programs. Financial aid opportunities are available to students whether they pursue a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree. Plus, for high school students who know they want a bachelor’s degree but don’t know what they want to major in, an associate degree can provide time to explore potential career paths once they’ve earned their high school diploma. You can usually apply your two-year associate’s degree courses to major universities if you decide you want to go that route later on.
Whether you want to get your bachelor’s degree someday but aren’t yet ready, or your career goals only require an associate’s degree, here’s an overview of the associate degree and how it can help you.
Related Resource: What is a Bachelor’s Degree?
What Is an Associate Degree?
You may be wondering how long does it take to get an associate degree. A typical associate’s degree only takes about two years to obtain if you are a full-time student. For some people already in the workforce, trying to get an associate’s degree might take a little longer as a part-time student. Regardless, you’ll need a high school diploma to apply (or the equivalent).
You might also be wondering how many credits you’ll need to complete an associate’s degree. An associate’s degree usually takes a minimum of 60 college credit hours of coursework to complete. You take all of your core courses in areas like English and math. Then you move on to a more specific list of classes directly related to your associates degree.
If you are the type of student who is easily bored by the core classes that everyone has to take, you’ll get to the more interesting classes related to your career by your second year in your associate degree program.
Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree
Associate’s degrees are a smart choice for someone who is sure they want to complete their bachelor’s degree (eventually) but doesn’t want to commit to a four-year college just yet. Associate’s degrees also make sense for students whose career goals don’t require a four-year degree. Students interested in some technical, medical or trade industries may only need an associate degree to get their dream job.
Two years is pretty quick, and you’ll have a valuable associate degree in your field in no time. You just have to decide what’s right for you.
You can also take into consideration that the average overall cost of an associate degree is much less than for bachelor’s degrees. Tuition rates for associate degrees are often much lower than those for a bachelor’s degree, especially when they’re online. You can still get financial aid for your associate degree. You simply fill out the FAFSA form by the deadline.
The typical cost of getting a bachelor’s degree per year is $10,000 for a state school and $38,000 for a private school. Associate degrees cost a fraction of that to complete, with an average cost of $3,570 per year at a state school and $14,587 at a private school. So not only is it more cost-effective, but it will take less time if you are a full-time student.
Bachelor’s degrees are expensive. Factor in living costs, books each semester, and other incidental expenses while you attend school, and it just keeps adding up. Associate degrees are a money saving option for many students who want to keep costs low during their first two years of study.
Where To Get An Associates Degree
Associate degree programs are usually offered by community colleges, online schools, and technical colleges. Four-year universities will sometimes offer an undergraduate degree at both the associate degree and bachelor’s degree level, but not all of them do.
Most students complete their associate degree at a community college. A community college typically offers a variety of associate degrees that prepare students to begin their career or transfer to a four-year institution to continue their education. There are many benefits to choosing a community college.
Community colleges charge affordable tuition rates for their associate degrees. For students planning to continue their education at a four-year university, getting the first two years of undergraduate study completed at a community college can save them thousands of dollars.
Community colleges may feel less intimidating, since they are usually smaller than four-year universities. They can provide students with a comfortable learning environment as they transition from high school to the workforce or college. Students can get to know their professors while earning their associate degree since class sizes are usually smaller. The smaller, more personalized learning environment can also be beneficial to adult learners coming back to school to complete their associate degree.
The Different Types of Associate Degrees
Associate degree programs are typically offered for these types of careers:
- Business management
- Computer sciences
- Culinary arts
- Paralegal studies
- Trade skills
- Healthcare and health sciences
- Information technology (IT)
There are many more to choose from, so it’s important to explore all coursework and associate degrees available to you. What fields do you find interesting? Asking this question will help you find a career that’s rewarding to work in.
There are three primary types of associate’s degree programs.
Associate of Science (AS)
The Associate of Science (AS) degree can be a great fit for students with their high school diploma who plan to pursue a career in a medical or science related field. Students can use their AS degree to transfer to a four-year university as a Junior. They can also get an associate degree to prepare for entry level employment opportunities in a variety of different industries.
Associate of Science associate degree requires students to complete 60 credit hours of coursework. Most of these credits are from general education courses including math, English, and social sciences. Students select a concentration or major and take elective courses that align with their intended area of study. Students can get an associate degree in a variety of areas including:
- computer science
Associate of Arts (AA)
Like the Associate of Science degree, the Associate of Arts (AA) is a 60-credit hour degree that students can use to transfer to a four-year university. Students take general education coursework along with electives in areas like social sciences and liberal arts. An Associate of Arts degree is a great choice for students planning a career in:
- public administration
- criminal justice
Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
While the AS and AA degrees prepare students for bachelor’s level study, the Associate of Applied Science is a two-year program for students who want to pursue employment opportunities right after graduation. Some of these associate degree programs are technical in nature (think computers or automotive technology). Other degree programs are highly specialized (dental assisting or nursing). While some general education classes would transfer to a bachelor’s program, that really isn’t the focus of an Associate of Applied Science degree program. For many students, the AAS degree is enough to get them started in their career.
According to payscale.com, some of the highest paying two-year associate degrees are in the medical and technology fields. These include:
- Computer Science and Mathematics: Mid-career pay- $106,000
- Radiation Therapy: Mid-career pay- $95,700
- Software Engineering: Mid-career pay- $94,000
- Cardiovascular Ultrasound: Mid-career pay- $79,900
- Diagnostic Medical Ultrasound: Mid-career pay- $81,100
- Information Technology Management: Mid-career pay-$80,900
Other Types of Associate Degrees
While the AS, AA, and AAS degrees are arguably the most popular associates degrees, there are other specialized associate degree programs that are appropriate for certain fields. Some of those include:
Associate of Applied Arts
The AAA is an occupational degree focused on artistic or design fields. Students interested in areas like graphic design, animator, or interior design may find that an AAA meets their needs. Job prospects may be more favorable for students who have taken formal courses in subjects like computer-aided design or studio art.
Associate of Engineering
The Associate of Engineering Sciences (AES) is a two-year program for pre-engineering students. AES students study areas like engineering technology, computer science, and mathematics. These programs provide future engineers with a strong foundation needed to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering or an entry level opportunity as an engineering technician.
Choosing the right associate degree program is largely dependent on your future career interests. Are you planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree now or in the future? An AA or AS is probably the best choice. For students who want to focus their studies on career preparation to get a job right after graduation may find that the AAS is a better fit.
Online Associate Degrees
Did you know you can earn your associate’s degree online? An online associate’s degree is a great option for students who are unable to meet the scheduling or logistical demands of a traditional brick and mortar program. Online associates degrees are offered by community colleges and many four-year institutions and online colleges. Today, many associate programs are offered online, making it easy to get your two-year degree from the comfort of your own space and at the convenience of your own schedule.
For parents of small children, online associate degree programs might be a good option because it allows you to do some work at home. Online students may have more flexibility around when they take courses for their two-year program, whether that’s in the evening or on the weekends. It’s always a bit of a juggling act trying to raise a family and get your degree at the same time, but there are ways to do it. Online programs are realizing this, and taking the steps to help students complete their degrees part-time when they can. For example, many online programs have expanded options for how students can engage with material, when they take courses, and how long they can continue studying.
How Long Does it Take to Earn an Online Associate Degree?
While an associate degree is typically considered a two-year degree, the amount of time to complete an associate degree can vary more for online students. Online students may take fewer classes at once, balancing their education with work and family commitments. Some students may have credits earned from previous college enrollment that could shorten the amount of time they need to complete their degree. High school graduates who pursue associate degrees may have earned dual credit for some of their high school courses, reducing the amount of credits they need to earn their degree. It’s always a good idea to check with the school to determine how many credits you’ll actually needed to earn your degree.
Other online associates degree students may have received credit from military experience or certification exams that need to be factored in when determining just how long they’ll need to complete their degree.
How Do Online Courses Work?
Online associate degree courses will be offered 100% online or in a hybrid format. Online courses allow students to complete their coursework without the need to come to campus. Hybrid courses may have the majority of their content online but require students to come in face-to-face to meet specific requirements. Each course will be different and usually any face-to-face requirements are made clear in the course catalog.
Online colleges typically offer their courses in two formats: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous courses are those that allow students to complete their assignments at their own pace within a structured timeframe. Asynchronous courses don’t have set log in times making them a great choice for adult learners who want the flexibility to study on their own schedule.
Synchronous courses provide students with more structure. Students will need to log-in at specific times to participate in lectures and engage with their instructor and peers. Synchronous courses are a great choice for students who want the interaction a face-to-face course offers but with the ability to participate in online programs from the comfort of their home or workplace.
Associate Degree Career Paths
It’s a myth that you can’t make a great living just having an associate degree. There are many lucrative careers that you can choose from with your two-year degree. And while a potential salary shouldn’t be the only thing you consider when choosing a career, it’s still important to consider future earnings when picking a major. Bachelor’s degrees can even add up to over $100,000 of debt! That’s pretty scary, so not only is it more financially feasible to get a two-year degree, but you might make more money after.
What’s an Associate Degree Worth?
For example, if you want to be in the healthcare field, two of your many choices are to be a nurse or dental hygienist.
An Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in nursing can make you upwards of $62,000 on average each year. A dental hygienist with an Associate of Science degree makes a similar salary.
What about some of the trade jobs like construction management? You make $75,000 a year on average. Computer engineers are also high on the list with earnings around $78,000.
If you’re interested in an Associate of Arts degree, you can earn a decent living in science, business, and humanities. For example, someone with an AA degree can become a wind turbine technician and make a median salary of $48,000 per year. An Associate of Arts degree can also help you pursue a career as a preschool teacher, graphic designer, executive assistant, or criminal justice expert.
Whether you pursue social sciences or the arts, it’s possible to make a substantial living with an associate degree.
Here’s a list of other possible careers that you can pursue with an associate degree from a community college:
- Massage therapist
- Business administration specialist
- Human resource manager
- Court reporter
- Computer programmer
- Early childhood educator
- Web developer
- Air traffic controller
- Emergency medical technician
- Landscape designer
- Medical assistant
- Veterinary technician
That’s just a small sampling of possible jobs to obtain with an associates degree. If you’re not sure exactly what you want to pursue, you can always take general education classes at first. Then, you can apply these general studies classes to transfer credits at a bachelor’s degree program later on.
Get Your College Degree in Two Years
Associate degrees can afford you the opportunity to get a well-paying job in a shorter amount of time. Associate degree holders have the opportunity to pursue a range of higher education opportunities after graduation, including a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
If an associate degree feels right for you, call your local community college, state university, or vocational school to find out how you can get started on your road to job success. Complete the FAFSA to discover what financial aid opportunities are available. Check out this list of some of the highest paying college majors to help you decide what to major in.