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    What Is an Associate Degree?

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: June 17th, 2024
    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 those listed below.

    Potential job opportunities

    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. 

    Potential job opportunities 

    Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

    Although AAS coursework is 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. 

    Potential job opportunities

    What are the highest paying associate degree jobs?

    There are numerous high-paying jobs that require only a two-year associate degree. The top salary ranges vary as shown by these examples from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

    • Air traffic controllers: $133,250
    • Nuclear technicians: $100,420
    • Radiation therapist: $89,530
    • Nuclear medicine technologist: $85,300
    • Dental hygienists: $81,400

    Check out our list of highest paying associate degree jobs and see if something is a fit for you!

    Also see: What is the average starting salary out of college?

    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. 

    Reduced cost

    Perhaps the biggest appeal of earning an associate degree is that they can be much less expensive than bachelor’s degree programs. The average annual cost of tuition at public in-state two-year programs is $3,970, with the average total cost of attendance at $7,940.

    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. 

    Transferable credits

    The great thing about associate degrees is that they can be stepping stones for bachelor’s degrees. 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. It’s important to note that not all credits are universally transferable. Make sure you connect with your college’s academic advisor early to ensure that your credits are transferable to your desired bachelor’s program. 

    Time efficient

    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. If you’re taking college-level courses in high school, you may have an even greater head start. Check with your school counselor to see if those credits count toward an associates degree.

    What are the requirements for an associate degree?

    Associate degrees require around 60 credits, which full-time students typically complete in two years. The coursework can be broken down into two general categories. 

    General education requirements

    These credits usually include general education coursework in English, math, social sciences, and natural sciences. Both bachelor and associate degree programs require students to start with a broad range of courses in order to create a solid foundation. 

    Degree specific requirements

    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. 

    Where to earn an associate degree

    The great thing about associate degrees is that you can generally find them offered by a wide range of institutions. Community colleges, traditional four year universities, and technical schools may all offer them in a variety of subject areas. There’s no one place that is right or wrong to earn an associate degree. Each student has different goals and plans. It’s best to assess those goals and then choose where might be most advantageous for you to attend based on that information. 

    How to get admitted to an associate degree program

    Where you choose to pursue your degree will affect what the admissions process looks like. Most associate programs require a high school diploma or equivalent. Some programs may also require students to have a minimum GPA, complete their state’s pre-college curriculum, or take a series of placement tests to assess where they are at academically. 

    Don’t let any of that scare you though. Remember that the things above don’t serve as barriers to keep you from your degree. They are simply in place to assure that you are placed in the proper courses and will eventually succeed at your goal of obtaining a degree. Speak with the school you plan to attend to find out what specific things should be on your to do list. 

    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. The majority of states offer tuition-free college opportunities, so check out whether your state does! 

    See also: How to pay for college (A step-by-step guide)

    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.

    Also see: College Alternatives: Bootcamps, apprenticeships, online learning, and more!

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Pursuing an associate’s degree is a great first step in your higher education journey that can help move you toward a higher degree or immediate entrance into a desired career
    • Associate’s degrees can be very affordable and generally offer a lot of flexibility in regard to classes and schedules
    • While working toward an associate’s degree, students will start with a wide range of course work and slowly move into classes that are tailored specifically to their degree
    • Associate’s degrees are offered at a variety of institutions, which all may have different admissions criteria

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    Frequently asked questions about associate degrees

    Is an associate degree better than a bachelor's degree?

    While bachelor’s degrees do take more time, that doesn’t mean they are automatically better than associate degrees. The value of a degree really depends on what your goals are and what you want to do with that degree. If your goal is to try and enter a specific field as soon as you can then an associate may be the best way to do just that. If your goal is to attend medical school, or any kind of graduate school, then a higher degree, like a bachelors, is likely a much better option.

    Are associate degrees easier than bachelor degrees?

    There is a misconception that associate degrees are “easier” degrees to obtain. The reality is that the rigor of the classes are often the same that you would encounter at a four-year university, but the material is taught in a different setting.

    What is a one year degree called?

    The level of degrees you can achieve are not about how many years you spend earning them, but are rather about the amount of material and credits that you cover. While an associate degree is about sixty credit hours, which generally takes two years to complete, some people may be able to finish it in a lesser amount of time. Similarly, earning a bachelor’s degree may take some people three years and others six. That being said, there is no recognized one year degree, but there are a number of certificates that are designed to take a year or less.

    What is the quickest degree?

    Theoretically, the quickest degree you can earn is an associates degree. However, how quickly you complete a degree depends on a lot of factors. Some people may take longer to complete an associates degree than someone earning a bachelor’s because they are also balancing a full time job and a family. Remember, speediness shouldn’t be your motivation for pursuing a degree. You should want to pursue your degree because it’s something you’re passionate about or that is necessary to pursue your goals.

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