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What Is an Associate Degree?

Oct 19, 2021

What is an Associate Degree?

An associate degree is a two-year program that is usually offered at community colleges, vocational and technical schools, and sometimes at universities. Associate degrees are usually designed with two primary goals in mind; transferring to a bachelor's program in the future or learning knowledge and skills that can qualify you for entry-level work upon graduation.

Associate degrees that are designed for transfer typically act as the first 2 years of a bachelor's degree. They cover introductory and foundational topics in subjects related to one's chosen major, such as psychology or criminal justice. Associate degrees that are designed for immediate entry into a career teach students theory and hands-on skills that are applicable to the career they're interested in, such as nursing or dental hygiene.

Associate degrees are typically divided between the arts and sciences the same way bachelor's programs are, and they usually correspond to a bachelor's program. For example, an Associate of Arts corresponds to a Bachelor of Arts, and an Associate of Science corresponds to a Bachelor of Science. There are also applied associate degrees, which are programs that are intended for immediate career entry.

What's the Difference Between a Bachelor's and an Associate's Degree?

The main difference between an associate degree and a bachelor's degree is the length and depth of each program. Bachelor's degrees last 4 years when studying full-time, and they require around 120 credits, which is twice as much as associate degrees. The subject matter in 2-year degrees vs 4-year degrees can be similar, but bachelor's programs go into more depth with a subject and have more specific courses.

The admissions process for 2-year and 4-year degrees is generally the same. Both require a high school diploma or GED and transcripts, as well as an academic placement test for high school students who are entering a postsecondary program for the first time.

Types of Associate Degrees

There are four main types of associate degrees:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Arts (AAA)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

AA and AS programs are more commonly designed for transfer to a bachelor's program, while applied programs are more career-oriented, meaning they train students to enter a specific field upon graduation. The curriculum for both programs typically includes general education courses that can be found at 4-year colleges in addition to degree-specific courses. Both types of programs can prepare students for further study or immediate entry into a career, but each one's design is usually for one specific goal. However, the transfer policies will differ with each school.

Associate of Arts

Associate of Arts programs are designed for further study and require more liberal arts, social sciences, and arts and humanities courses. These degree programs are a little more general in terms of coursework and can transfer to a number of different bachelor's programs, depending on the degree you get. Examples of Associate of Arts degrees include English, psychology, theater, art, and history, among others. The coursework in these programs is typically equivalent to the first 2 years of a bachelor's degree in a similar subject.

Associate of Science

Associate of Science programs are also designed for further study, but they typically require more math and science courses. These degree programs are a bit more narrow-focused in terms of coursework and may not always smoothly transfer to a bachelor's degree program. They are usually designed for entry into a specific degree or career field. Examples of Associate of Science degrees include math, biology, physics, and astronomy, among others. The coursework in these programs is also equivalent to the first 2 years of a corresponding bachelor's program.

Associate of Applied Science

Associate of Applied Science programs are similar to Associate of Science programs in that their coursework is mainly focused on math and science, but these degree programs are career-oriented and prepare graduates for a specific job. This can include accounting, welding, nursing, and early childhood education, among others. The curriculum involves learning specific skills through hands-on training, and laboratory or clinical practice requirements are usually included. While the credits earned in an AAS program can lead to transfer to a bachelor's program, you may need to take extra courses to fulfill requirements since this is not the traditional path of an AAS degree.

Associate of Applied Arts

Associate of Applied Arts degrees are not as common as AA, AS, and AAS degrees, but they do exist and are typically designed to train students in a certain skill set, usually something related to the arts or even business. Students learn hands-on skills and are prepared to enter the workforce upon graduation, or transfer to a bachelor's program as long as they take the right courses. Like AA degrees, they are usually included in a school's liberal arts division.

How to Choose an Associate Degree Program

Associate degree programs can be a great way to test out if you like a certain subject or career field without fully committing (and paying for) a bachelor's program. It's still important to consider many factors when choosing a program, though. Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do I see myself studying, and what are the associate degrees available in that subject?
  • Do I see myself transferring to a bachelor's degree program, or do I want to work right away?
  • Are the degrees I'm interested in suitable for transfer, career-readiness, or both?
  • How much money can an associate program save me vs. a bachelor's program if I'm planning to transfer?
  • Can I take online classes, and if so, are there any in-person requirements?

If you're having trouble searching for programs, try the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator. You can search for associate degree programs using a number of factors, including location, institution type, tuition, distance learning, degrees and majors offered, and graduation and transfer rates. Once you've narrowed down some possibilities, consider talking to an academic advisor from each school. They can answer questions you may have about classes, credits, transfers, and more.

How to Apply for an Associate Degree

The application process for most associate degree programs is pretty straightforward. The materials you'll need for most colleges include:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Official high school transcripts
  • High school cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher

Many community colleges will require students to take a placement test or provide scores from equivalent tests such as the ACT, SAT, or ACCUPLACER. Placement tests cover basic college-level subjects, such as math and English, that students may already be familiar with. They are used to determine the academic skill levels of students who are entering college for the first time and what courses to put them in. Some programs, such as nursing, will have additional requirements that are specific to that program, such as taking certain courses and earning a higher GPA.

Requirements for an Associate Degree

Associate degree programs, whether they are AA, AS, AAA, or AAS, have general education and major-specific requirements. Each student must take a minimum number of general education courses in subjects such as math, English, science, and liberal arts. Then students can take courses that are specific to their program, as well as electives.

Some programs, particularly AAS degrees, have more math, science, and technical requirements. Students are typically required or encouraged to complete an internship, clinical practicum, or laboratory classes. Examples of degrees that require this include nursing, automotive technology, and dental hygiene. Additionally, some programs, such as nursing, require students to complete certain prerequisite courses and maintain a passing grade or minimum GPA throughout the program.

Most associate degree programs last 2 years when studying full-time. Each year is broken up into 2 semesters. Students take a certain number of courses each semester. The amount of courses they take usually determines if they are full- or part-time. Each course is usually worth at least 3 credits. Associate degrees require around 60-65 credits for graduation, with career-oriented degrees sometimes requiring more credits than transfer degrees.

Cost of an Associate Degree

Cost is an important factor when deciding on a degree program. The cost of an associate degree can vary depending on several factors such as location, institution type, online or on-campus, and whether a student is attending in-state or out-of-state. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average total cost of an associate degree at a public school for in-state students who lived on campus was $15,748 for the 2019-2020 school year. The average cost for students who lived off campus with family was $9,608, and without family, it was $18,862 during the same school year.

For comparison, the average total cost of a bachelor's degree using the same criteria for an on-campus student was $25,487 for the 2019-2020 school year. For off-campus students who lived with family, it was $14,920, and without family, it was $25,560 for the same year.

Is an Associate Degree Worth It?

Determining if an associate degree is worth it depends on your personal, academic, and professional goals, as well as your financial and living situation. If your goal is to work a skilled job that a 2-year degree qualifies you for, transfer to a bachelor's program, or attend a lower-cost college for your first couple of years, then an associate degree may be beneficial for you. Each person's situation is unique, and therefore, the worth of an associate degree is unique. However, there are some statistics that may help you decide.

While there are high-paying jobs that only require a high school diploma, college graduates do make more money than high school graduates. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more education typically leads to higher wages, with high school graduates earning a weekly median salary of $746 and associate degree holders earning a weekly median salary of $887, as of 2019.

What Can You Do With an Associate Degree?

Associate degrees can qualify individuals for careers in many industries. A lot of skilled, essential jobs can be obtained with an associate degree. Some of them include nurses, dental hygienists, automotive technicians, radiologic technologists, accountants, and paralegals. Entering a career right away isn't the only option. Associate degrees provide foundational study in a number of subjects that can prepare you for a bachelor's degree, including psychology, criminal justice, engineering, accounting, and bachelor's nursing programs.

Jobs You Can Get With an Associate Degree

There are plenty of rewarding, high-paying jobs for people with an associate degree across several industries, such as healthcare and finance.

According to the BLS, the careers for associate and nondegree award graduates with the most positive outlooks include:

  • Nursing assistants
  • Teaching assistants (excluding postsecondary)
  • Cosmetologists
  • Licensed practical nurses
  • Automotive service technicians and mechanics
  • Computer user support specialists
  • Preschool teachers, excluding special education
  • Heavy tractor trailer and truck drivers

These careers have median annual salaries that range from $26,090 to $52,270, as of 2019, with cosmetologists, hairstylists, and hairdressers making the least and computer user support specialists making the most. Employment in these professions from 2019-2029 is expected to be positive, with heavy tractor, trailer, and truck drivers having the most positive outlook, gaining a total of 209,200 job openings over the next decade. Most of these jobs also don't require any on-the-job training; some have short-term and moderate training.

Transferring from an Associate Degree to a Bachelor Degree

Transferring from an associate degree to a bachelor's degree can be a smooth process as long as you research and have as many materials prepared as soon as possible. Associate degrees typically last 2 years and require 60 credits, while bachelor's degrees typically last 4 years and require 120 credits. Ideally, you spend your first 2 years in an associate program earning the first 60 credits and the last 2 in a bachelor's earning the last 60 credits, totaling the 120 credits needed. But this all depends on the degree you're pursuing and the college you're attending.

AA and AS degrees can allow you to transfer the most amount of credits because that's what they're designed for. AAS degrees can also transfer, but you may need to take extra courses to make up the credits. The same goes for whatever major you're applying for. For example, even if an Associate of Arts degree in English is designed for optimal transfer, if you decide to apply to a bachelor's degree in computer programming, you might have to take extra courses because your English degree didn't cover all of the requirements.

Many 2-year schools have transfer pathway programs with 4-year universities where they advise students on the courses they'll need to take and have a seamless transfer of credits to that specific 4-year school. An academic advisor can help you with choosing the right courses even if you don't plan on doing a transfer pathway.

Online Associate Degree Programs

Online associate degree programs are widely available and can be a great way for students with full-time jobs or busy lives to find time in their schedule to earn an education. Many programs can be done completely online, although some may still have in-person requirements such as internships or clinical rounds. Online programs also usually have the same credit transfer policy as their on-campus counterparts. Each school has a different tuition policy for online students, but since room and board don't need to be paid, and classrooms and other on-campus resources aren't being used, it is generally cheaper than attending in-person. Some online schools offer a fixed tuition rate, meaning the tuition doesn't rise each year the way it would at other schools.

Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources for Associate Degrees

Financial aid is available for associate degree students the same way it is for traditional college students. The first step to receiving financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The form uses a number of criteria to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid, such as household income, taxes paid, and any additional sources of revenue or savings you may have. Federal aid eligibility requires a few things, including a valid social security number, citizenship or noncitizen status, enrollment in a postsecondary program, and good academic standing. There are several types of federal aid, but the most common are loans like the Stafford loans, grants like the Pell Grant, and work/study programs, which is when a student receives aid by working a certain job while in school.

Several colleges that offer associate programs have scholarships and aid available to students. The criteria for these can differ with each award, such as major, degree level, and if you belong to any ethnic or underrepresented group. You can usually find this type of aid at a school's financial assistance office. An example is Cincinnati State Technical and Community College's Adult Learner Scholarship of $1500-$3000 for students 21 and older who are returning to school to complete a degree program.

Independent organizations also offer scholarships for students. The criteria for these can vary as well, but many usually don't require attendance at a specific school. The Darrel Hess Community College Geography Scholarship is open to community college students across the country who plan to transfer to a 4-year geography program, and is worth $1,500.

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