Everything you need to know about the Associate's Degree

An associate’s degree is a two-year degree earned from a post-secondary institution like a community college or vocational college. They typically cost half as much (or less) than a bachelor’s degree. An associate degree can be a stand-alone degree or count towards the first two years of a bachelor’s degree if you choose to transfer to a 4-year college.

Associates degrees vary in terms of factors like their type and course of study. Types include Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Science, and more. There are hundreds of academic programs you can choose from depending on your academic interests and future career goals. Whether it’s science, healthcare, literature, or fine arts, you’re sure to find the perfect fit.

Once you earn your Associate’s Degree, you’ll be free to go out into the world and find a job in your field or transfer to a four-year university to work towards your Bachelor’s Degree. Since your Associate’s Degree count towards your first two years of study, you can complete your Bachelor’s Degree in as little as two years.

Abbreviation for Associates degree

The two most common associate’s degrees are the Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS).

Here are a few other common associate’s degrees you can earn:

  • Associate of Applied Business (AAB)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
  • Associate of Business Administration (ABA)
  • Associate of General Studies (AGS)
  • Associate of Science (AS)

Associates of Arts Degree vs Associates of Science Degree

The associate of science degree (A.S) and the associate of arts degree (A.A.) share many similarities but have a few key differences. Each is a two-year degree equivalent of the first four semesters of a bachelor’s degree. You can treat them both as stand-alone degrees or as transfer degrees to a four-year university. Both make excellent transfer degrees their broad, liberal arts curriculums do not include specific technical or vocational training.

Despite their many similarities, there are a few significant differences to keep in mind when deciding which degree to pursue. Associate of Arts (A.A.) Degrees emphasize a liberal arts and science curriculum with a strong emphasis on humanities. Common fields of study include literature, social sciences, fine arts, and the performing arts. Associate of Science (A.S.) Degrees are also liberal arts degrees but focus more on math and science. Typically students who pursue an A.S. are interested in going to a science-related field like computer science or engineering.

How to get an associates degree

Getting an associates degree means studying at a 2-year college or vocational school. While traditionally students have attended classes on campus, online degrees and hybrid degrees that combine in-person learning with virtual studies are becoming increasingly commonplace.

The classes you need to take to earn your degree will vary based on the academic program you choose to enroll in. Regardless of your field of study, you will need to take around 60 credit hours of classes (2 calendar years) to complete your associate’s degree.

Each academic program will have some unique requirements you need to complete in order to graduate. Some programs, especially those in the liberal arts, require only coursework. However, programs that have a vocational focus, like nursing or information technology, will typically require field experiences like an internship or practicum.

To enroll in a program, it’s best to reach out to an Enrollment Advisor at a community college or vocational college. The Enrollment Advisor will be able to fill you in on details related to programs you’re interested in to ensure they fit with your professional goals. Keep in mind that all schools vary; for example, some often more online options than others, and some have a greater variety of academic programs you can choose from in case you’re undecided or considering multiple different options. It’s important to feel confident that the school you choose for your Associate’s Degree is the best possible fit for you and your goals.

How long does it take to get an associates degree?

Associates Degrees are worth roughly 60 credit hours. While the schedule you complete those credits on is flexible, most students choose to complete them in two calendar years. If you need to balance school with other responsibilities like your job or family, you can take a part-time course load of 4 classes or less each semester, although this will result in your program taking longer than two years to complete. Keep in mind that some programs may require additional requirements like internships, practicums, and national board exams to earn licensure, so be sure to factor those into your academic timeline.

How many credits or credit hours for an associates degree?

Typically an associate’s degree is worth around 60 credit hours, which is equivalent to 2 years of full-time academic work minus summer. The schedule you complete your degree on is flexible so you can balance with other aspects of your life like work or family. That means you can opt to take less than a full-time course load (like 2 or 3 classes per semester instead of the standard 5), but keep in mind this will result in your degree taking more than 2 years to complete.

If I have associates degree how long will it take to get my bachelors?

Associate’s degrees are designed to be “stacked” with a bachelor’s degree, meaning you upon completing your A.A. or A.S. you can transfer directly into a bachelor’s degree program. Instead of taking the standard four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, your associate’s degree will count towards the first two years of study so you only need to complete two years at your transfer college to finish your B.A. or B.S. Of course, this is contingent upon your transfer school accepting all of your course credits for your two-year college. Before you decide which university to transfer to, you should work with your two-year college’s transfer counselor to make sure your top transfer schools will accept all of your credits.

Popular Associates Degrees (online and traditional)

Associates Degree in Nursing (online and traditional)

The associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) teaches students the foundational knowledge they need to pursue entry-level nursing positions or other careers in the healthcare field. Programs can be completed in 2 or 3 years and are structured as a combination of classroom learning and hands-on rotations at local hospitals and clinics. Once you earn your ADN, you’ll have to pass the NCLEX-RN, the national nursing licensing examination, before you begin working as a nurse.

Associates Degree in Business (online and traditional)

An associate’s degree in business prepares you to pursue a career in business or further studies in the business field. Business programs teach students a solid understanding of management skills, business technology, and key soft skills like communication, critical thinking, and project planning. Many associate’s degree programs let you choose a focus in a certain area of business, like human resources, business information systems, and health care administration.

Associates Degree in Accounting (online and traditional)

Students interested in pursuing a career in accounting can study towards either an Associate of Science (A.S.) in Accounting or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) in Accounting. Classes are typically in areas like math, finance, business law, and taxation. An A.S. or A.A.S. in Accounting is not enough to pass the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, which is an industry-standard credential for accountants but is a building block for further study.

Associates degree in psychology (online and traditional)

Associates degrees in Psychology can be earned as either an Associate of Arts (A.A.) Associate of Science (A.S.). Programs are a combination of general studies courses and psychology-specific classes. Popular entry-level career options are Youth Counselor, Case Technician, Addiction Rehabilitation Assistant, and Preschool Teacher. Graduates often pursue higher education in the form of a bachelor’s degree or even PhD-level education in Psychology.

Associates degree in computer science (online and traditional)

An Associates degree in Computer Science offers an excellent return on investment in terms of high-paying career opportunities. Even without additional education at the bachelor’s degree level, you’ll be prepared for entry-level employment in information technology, programming and development, and cybersecurity. Coursework includes computer languages, programming, and troubleshooting, and often includes hands-on internship opportunities.

Associates degree in Spanish (online and traditional)

An associate’s degree in Spanish will teach you conversational, reading, and writing skills in Spanish beginning with basic Spanish and ending in advanced-level coursework. Many programs also include classes in Spanish culture and literature. Your associate’s degree will prepare you for a job in translation or give you a competitive edge in business careers. If you want to teach Spanish, you’ll have to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program.

Associates degree in science (online and traditional)

An Associates degree in science offers you multiple options to concentrate your studies in: computer science, biology, chemistry, engineering, health science and physics are all popular options. Students in these fields often go on to pursue bachelor’s degrees, but some programs may offer more vocationally-geared options like dental hygiene or emergency medical services.

Associates degree in social worker (online and traditional)

Social Work Associate’s Degree programs introduce students to psychology, sociology, and human welfare. Graduates typically transfer to a four-year program to earn licensure as a Social Worker. However, graduates can pursue a limited variety of entry-level jobs in the human services field like Residential Counselor, Preschool Teacher, Social Services Assistant, and Case Manager Assistant.

IT associates degree (online and traditional)

The Associates of Science in Information Technology will teach students career-oriented skills like software development, website design, data management, and troubleshooting. Popular entry-level jobs include IT Specialist, Systems Administrator, Technical Support Specialist, and Security Engineer.

Criminal justice associates degree (online and traditional)

An Associate of Science in Criminal Justice teaches students the in’s and out’s of the criminal justice system such as police strategy, types of crimes, criminal law, and criminal psychology. Certain programs may also offer concentrations in areas including law enforcement, security, and corrections. With just an Associate’s Degree, graduates can work within law enforcement organizations at the local, state, and federal levels. Other career options include Correction Officers, Probation Officers, Security Personnel, and Criminal Investigator.

Associates degree in health science (online and traditional)

An Associates degree in Health Science is designed for students looking to break into the healthcare field and for professionals already working in the field looking to advance their careers. The program is a combination of general education courses and healthcare-specific training. Common careers include nurses, dental assistants, medical assistants, and laboratory technicians.

Physical therapy associates degree (online and traditional)

With an Associates Degree in Physical Therapy, graduates prepare for a career as a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA). The two-year program is a combination of classroom learning and clinical experience. Academic subjects covered include human anatomy, healthcare science, and medical terminology. The clinical experience teaches you important skills like patient communication, therapeutic exercises, and how to handle real-life scenarios in a clinical environment.

Respiratory therapy associates degree (online and traditional)

A Respiratory Therapy Associates Degree prepares graduates to take the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) exam and the two additional tests required to become a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). All states with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska require you to pass the licensure exams in order to work as a Respiratory Therapist.

Cheapest Online Associate’s Degree Programs

The cheapest online associate’s degree rankings below are based on NCES College Navigator data for 2017-2018 out-of-state annual tuition data.

Each school in the list below offers at least five, 100% online degrees (not certificates), regional accreditation and has earned at least one national award or ranking recognition recently.

  1. Clovis Community College – $2,904
  2. Barton Community College – $3,456
  3. Lone Star College – $3,760
  4. Arkansas Northeastern College – $3,970
  5.  San Juan College – $4,114
  6. Southeast Community College – $4,182
  7. Western Iowa Tech Community College – $4,224
  8. Lake Region State College – $4,336
  9. Hutchinson Community College – $4,384
  10. North Hennepin Community College – $4,420

Best Online Colleges for Associate’s Degree

All annual tuition rates for this ranking were collected from official school websites in July 2018, reflecting the 2018-2019 school year. All tuition amounts are for out-of-state students unless online students are offered in-state tuitions. The tuition figures below are accurate at the time of publication. For current tuition rates, contact the institution in question.

Top 10 Online Colleges for Associate’s Degrees

  1. Clovis Community College – $2,664
  2. Kansas City Kansas Community College – $2,728
  3. Western Nebraska Community College – $3,239
  4. Albany State University – $3,540
  5. Georgia State University – $3,630
  6. Southeast Community College – $3,667
  7. Arkansas Northeastern College – $3,870
  8. Northeast Community College – $4,035
  9. Lone Star College System – $4,040
  10. Cochise College – $4,256

Highest Paying Jobs with an Associates Degree

The list below consists of the highest paying careers per the Bureau of Labor Statistics and each career’s typical entry-level education required. The salaries are average salaries according to Payscale.com.

  1. Aeronautics-$70,000-$100,000
    1. Airline Pilot, Copilot, Or Flight Engineer – $100,722
    2. Commercial Pilot – $70,718
  2. Aviation Management
    1. Air traffic controllers – $84,396
  3. Logistics-$64,000-$80,000
    1. Supply Chain Manager – $81,380
    2. Transportation Manager – $64,486
    3. Logistics Manager – $64,015
  4. Electrical Powerline Technology – $75,000-$80,000
    1. Electric Lineman – $80,000
    2. Journeyman Lineman – $75,000
  5. Process Technology – $54,000-$75,000
    1. Refinery Operator – $75,000
    2. Power Plant Operator – $66,000
    3. Chemical Plant Operator – $54,000

For an in-depth analysis of the highest paying trade school careers, read here.

Common Questions about the Associate’s Degree

Is an associates degree worth it?

The answer depends on your specific situation and your professional goals. One major benefit of an associates degree is that the cost of attending a community college is typically significantly lower than a four-year college or university. Even if your long-term plan is to complete a four-year degree, you can save money by completing the first two years at a community college.

For certain fields, an Associates Degree is enough to give you access to desirable jobs without needing to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree. Information Technology, Computer Programming, Criminal Justice, and Nursing are a few examples of these fields. However, other fields like Accounting or Education require a Bachelor’s Degree in the long-run. While an Associate’s Degree in these fields is an excellent stepping stone, it’s not a terminal option.

Can I get my associates degree in nursing online?

Yes, Associates Degrees in Nursing are a popular option for students looking for a flexible class schedule as well as students who are not geographically located close to a physical college. Just like in-person programs, the online associate’s degree takes two years to complete (unless you take class part-time, which will result in your program taking longer to complete).

Typically all coursework is done online and the school will assist you in arranging clinical opportunities to complete in your local community. Once the program is completed, you’ll have to pass the NCLEX-RN, which is the national nursing licensing examination. Nursing is naturally the most popular career option for graduates of this program, but you can also work other entry-level jobs in the healthcare field that don’t require additional specialized licensure or training.

What can I do with an associates degree in applied science?

You have a number of career options for an Associates Degree in Applied Science depending on which course of study you pursue. Disciplines in the Applied Sciences include Computer Science, Information Technology, Health Science, Military Science, Construction, and more. Typically, Applied Sciences degrees have a stronger focus on developing hands-on career-related skills as opposed to the theoretical or academic focus of liberal arts degrees.

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