Do I Need An Associate Degree to Get a Bachelor's?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about getting an associate degree and how to decide if it is the right choice for you.

[Featured image] A woman is looking at papers contemplating if she needs an associate degree to get a bachelor's.

Read this guide to find out whether you need an associate degree to get a bachelor's. You'll get a clear answer, and you'll learn how the two degrees differ. You'll also find out how you can benefit from an associate degree, what to consider before getting one, and how you can transfer credits toward a bachelor's degree.

Do I need an associate degree to get a bachelor's?

You don't need to get an associate degree to earn a bachelor's. However, if you're trying to decide between these two degrees, it may help to understand their differences. 

Differences between an associate and bachelor's degree

If you want to pursue a degree after high school, you can aim for an associate degree or a bachelor's degree and go on to earn further degrees if you choose. Read on to learn about associate and bachelor’s degrees in greater detail.

Associate degree

The three most common types of associate degrees include:

  • Associate of Arts (AA): Liberal arts focus 

  • Associate of Science (AS): STEM focus

  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS): Vocational focus

The classes you'll take for an AA or AS degree provide a good educational foundation and typically transfer to a bachelor's program. The classes you'll take for an AAS degree typically help you prepare to enter a vocation upon graduating, and the credits earned usually don't transfer to a bachelor's program.

Examples of careers you can prepare for with an AAS degree include:

  • Air traffic controller

  • Chemical technician

  • Dental hygienist

  • Paralegal

  • Plumber

  • Surgical technologist

  • Web developer

Bachelor's degree

The three most common types of bachelor's degrees include:

Examine this chart to further understand how associate and bachelor's degrees differ. You'll see differences in duration, cost, design, and post-graduate earnings.

Associate degree programBachelor's degree program
Program durationTypically 2 yearsTypically 4 years
Average annual program cost*$11,976 [1]*$30,031 [1]
Program designChoice of general studies design or focused designCombines general study courses and courses specific to a major
Median post-graduate earnings$52,260 [2]$74,464 [2]

*These amounts reflect the average annual cost for tuition, fees, room, and board as of the 2021 to 2022 academic year.

Read more: What Is an Undergraduate Degree?

Benefits of getting an associate degree before a bachelor's

Whether you get an associate degree before a bachelor's depends on your needs and what you hope to achieve. Consider why getting an associate degree first may be the right choice for you.  

Read more: 10 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get with an Associate Degree

Cost less

As evidenced by the chart above, the average cost per year of a two-year associate program comes out to less than half the price of a bachelor's program [1]. If you decide not to pursue a bachelor's or you're able to transfer most of your associate credits to a bachelor's program, you'll save a significant amount of money.

Flexibility to work

If you're hoping to pursue an education while maintaining a part-time or full-time job, you may want to consider an associate degree. Many schools offer an online associate degree and schedule flexibility, so you can get your degree in your free time and at your own pace.

Ability to take breaks

You may decide to continue on to get your bachelor's after earning an associate degree, but if you need to take a break for a while, you can. And, chances are you'll earn more after getting your associate degree.

What to consider before getting an associate degree

Before enrolling in an associate degree program, it's important to know if it's the right option for you. Consider these factors:

Does the school meet your needs?

To decide if a school is the right fit for you, find out whether it offers the associate degree program you're interested in. Determine if you'd rather take online or in-person classes and make sure they're available to you. If you prefer a flexible program, choose a school that allows you to take classes at your own pace. If you need financial aid, make sure the school offers it.

What is your state's policy regarding associate degree transfer?

If you plan to get an associate degree, it's a good idea to understand your state's policy regarding associate degree transfer. For instance, as of March 2024, 35 US states have guaranteed transfer of an associate degree [3]. This means if you get an associate degree in one of these states, you can transfer all credits to a four-year institution within the same state. 

How easy is the transfer process at your preferred university?

If you're planning to get your bachelor's degree after completing your associate degree, make sure to do your research. Choose a college or university that welcomes transfer students. Otherwise, the process of transferring credits may prove challenging. Choose an accredited associate degree program to boost your chances for a smooth transition. 

5 steps for transferring an associate degree to a bachelor's

When you're ready to enroll in a bachelor's program, it's a good idea to have a plan. Follow these steps for transferring your associate degree credits:

1. Research potential colleges and universities.

Examine colleges and universities carefully to find one that matches your needs and career goals. When conducting your search, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the school have a bachelor's program that complements my career goals?

  • How much will it cost me to get my bachelor's at this school?

  • Does the school offer financial aid and/or scholarships?

  • Does the location of the school work for me?

  • What kind of reputation does the school have?

  • Will the school allow me to transfer some or all of my associate degree credits?

Additional factors you should consider when choosing a college or university include class size, extra-curricular activities, and campus safety. 

2. Contact an admissions counselor at the college or university you want to attend.

An admissions counselor can answer any questions about the school (or refer you to someone who can) and help you prepare for the admissions process. In working with an admissions counselor, you may also get a feel for the support and attention you'll get while attending the school. 

3. Determine which courses will transfer.

Your admissions counselor can also help you determine which associate degree courses will transfer to a bachelor's program. If meeting in person, come prepared with your transcripts and details about your courses, such as course names and descriptions. Otherwise, you can email this material. Remember that a successful transfer may depend on when you take a particular class. If too many years have passed, the information you learned may no longer have as much relevance. 

Read more: What Does It Mean to Be a Transfer Student?

4. Test out of classes.

If questions or concerns arise about transferring a particular class or classes, you may have the opportunity to "test out" to validate your knowledge of the material. Some colleges and universities also allow students to test out of classes if they have gained knowledge through prior work experience.

5. Stay on course by meeting with your academic advisor regularly. 

Your academic adviser can help make your transfer process smoother. This valuable faculty mentor can also help offer advice and strengthen your chances for academic success throughout your time in your bachelor's program.

Get started on Coursera

If you want to pursue an online bachelor's degree, explore programs from respectable institutions on Coursera. You can study for these degrees at your own pace, and you'll enjoy affordable and flexible payment options.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.