Student-centric advice and objective recommendations
Higher education has never been more confusing or expensive. Our goal is to help you navigate the very big decisions related to higher ed with objective information and expert advice. Each piece of content on the site is original, based on extensive research, and reviewed by multiple editors, including a subject matter expert. This ensures that all of our content is up-to-date, useful, accurate, and thorough.
Our reviews and recommendations are based on extensive research, testing, and feedback. We may receive commission from links on our website, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted. You can find a complete list of our partners here.
What Is an Associate Degree?
When it comes to obtaining a college education, a lot of people think that earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university is the only way to go. However, some may not find this the best option given their career goals. Many people save time and money by earning an associate degree at a two-year program, which can be used in a variety of ways to set students up for academic and professional success.
Definition of associate degree
An associate degree is an undergraduate degree typically awarded after two years of post-secondary study in a particular area. Some students use their associate degree as a building block to pursue their bachelor’s degree by using transfer credits from their two-year program to count toward general education, core, and elective classes for a four-year degree.
Meanwhile, other associate degree earners choose to immediately enter the workforce in their chosen field. For instance, some associate programs qualify students for entry-level careers in fields such as healthcare, education, and public service. The bottom line is that associate programs are an excellent choice for students either looking to save on tuition costs, obtain a degree in a shorter amount of time, or launch their career as quickly as possible.
Related: Top community college scholarships
Types of associate degrees
Associate degrees generally are categorized as either occupational or academic. Occupational associate degrees prepare students for the workforce immediately after completion of the two-year program. Academic associate degrees prepare students to transfer to a four-year university or bachelor’s program to continue their education. Here’s a breakdown of the three main types of associate degrees, both academic and occupational:
Associate of Arts (AA)
Students pursuing AA degrees study liberal arts subjects including humanities, sociology, communications, and English. AA programs are generally considered academic because they prepare students to transition into liberal arts bachelor’s programs. However, AA programs also offer concentration courses in areas like early childhood education, social work, or digital photography that prepare students for entry-level careers immediately following graduation.
Associate of Science (AS)
Students pursuing AS degrees engage in scientific and technical coursework such as biology and physics, while also touching on liberal arts subjects. Like AA degrees, AS programs are generally considered academic because they help students transition into bachelor’s programs. However, concentration courses such as accounting, paralegal studies, business administration, and information technology prepare students to join the workforce immediately following graduation.
Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
Although AAS coursework are usually transferable to a four-year program, AAS programs are generally considered occupational. This is because they prepare students to enter the workforce after graduation without having to earn a bachelor’s degree. AAS programs offer career-focused coursework that prepares students for jobs in fields such as healthcare, engineering, construction, and home repair.
What are the highest paying associate degree jobs?
There are numerous high-paying jobs that require only a two-year associate degree. Here are the median salaries of the highest-paying associate degree jobs in 2021 according to University of the Potomac:
- Air traffic controller: $124,540
- Computer programmer: $82,240
- Radiation therapist: $80,570
- Nuclear technician: $80,370
- Dental hygienist: $74,070
- Registered nurse: $70,000
- Web developer: $67,990
- Aerospace engineering technician: $67,240
- Medical sonographer: $65,620
- Electronic engineering technician: $63,660
What are the benefits of an associate degree?
As you can see, there are a variety of high-paying jobs that require only an associate degree. But that’s not the only reason to obtain an associate degree. Earning an associate degree can be an excellent way to build your career regardless of whether you want to enter the workforce as soon as possible or if you would eventually like to transfer into a four-year program.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of earning an associate degree is that they are much less expensive than bachelor’s degree programs. According to Education Data, the average annual cost of tuition at public in-state two-year programs is $3,372, with the average total cost of attendance at $16,037.
Earning an associate degree at a community college is a fantastic way to save money while obtaining your education. For students who would like to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, they can reduce the overall cost of tuition by completing transferable credits at a community college while working towards their associate degree.
The great thing about associate degrees is that they can be stepping stones for bachelor’s degrees. General education coursework completed through an AA, AS, or AAS degree usually count towards a bachelor’s degree at four-year colleges and universities.
Students who wish to continue their education after earning their associate degree can transfer into bachelor’s programs with two years of general education courses already completed. As such, they are free to take courses directly related to their bachelor’s degree and generally only have to spend an additional two years earning their bachelor’s degree.
One of the biggest advantages of associate degrees is that they take half the amount of time to earn bachelor’s degrees. Because associate degree programs typically take two years to complete, they are excellent options for students looking to save time and enter the job market as soon as possible. Associate programs are also appealing for students who may find the idea of committing to a four-year program daunting.
What are the requirements for an associate degree?
Associate degrees require around 60 credits, which full-time students typically complete in two years. These credits usually include general education coursework in English, math, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Beyond general education requirements, the coursework varies depending on the type of associate degree you’re pursuing. For instance, accounting students may study federal taxation and business law while electrical engineering students may take circuits and electronics classes. Departments often require students to meet a minimum GPA to qualify for graduation.
Aside from the typical papers, exams, and projects, some degree programs may require field experiences, clinicals, labs, practicums, or internships. These hands-on experiences are common in programs such as healthcare, early childhood education, and paralegal studies. For example, early childhood education programs may require practicums in preschools or childcares, while paralegal students may need to complete an internship.
How to get admitted to an associate degree program
Admission into associate degree programs requires a high school diploma or equivalent. Some programs may also require students to have a specific minimum GPA. Students may also have to complete their state’s pre-college curriculum, which often includes English, math, and science courses.
Applicants with no college credit may need ACT or SAT scores. Other admission materials can include personal statements, writing samples, and recommendation letters. Candidates may also need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
How do you fund an associate’s degree?
Funding your associate’s degree is not unlike any other college funding. First, make sure that you fill out the FAFSA by the due date for your state. Many states offer community college at little to no cost to students with financial need. Sometimes, financial need is not a consideration; for example, the NJ STARS Program offers high achieving NJ students opportunities to attend tuition free college in their home county college.
Is an associate’s degree worth it?
Taking the associate degree route is a great option to launch a career while also saving time and money. Plus, you can always pursue your bachelor’s degree after completing your associate program. The point is that associate degrees can be valuable in many ways. Students weighing their options for the future should look into what earning an associate degree can do for them.