How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate Degree?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Often called a “two-year degree,” an associate degree could take more or less time depending on your school, your goals, and your pace.

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An associate degree is often referred to as a “two-year degree,” because it typically takes about two years to earn one. You'll find associate degree options at a variety of post-secondary institutions, including vocational colleges, community colleges, and traditional colleges and universities.

With an associate degree, you can enter the workforce after graduation, or you can put it toward earning your bachelor's degree. If you're able to transfer your college credits, an associate degree can usually fulfill the first two years of requirements for a four-year bachelor's degree.

To determine if an associate degree is right for you, learn more about the potential time investment and benefits.  

Typical timeline for an associate degree

The biggest factor determining how long it takes to get an associate degree is whether you choose to attend school full- or part-time. The timeline may also vary from program to program and from school to school. 

Full-time associate degree timeline

As a full-time student, you can expect to earn your associate degree faster than if you were a part-time student. The average amount of time it takes is around two years. However, it's possible to get an associate degree in 12 to 18 months if your school offers an accelerated schedule.

Advantages of full-time schooling

The biggest advantage of going to school full-time is the potential to finish your degree faster. If you take 15 credit hours per semester, sometimes known as a full course load, you can complete your requirements in four semesters. Other advantages of full-time schooling include:

  • Increased access to scholarships: Many scholarships require applicants to be enrolled full-time to qualify [1].

  • Greater completion rates: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average completion rate for full-time students is 76.1 percent, a marked increase from the rate of 46.5 percent for part-time students [2].

  • More robust campus experience: Many schools only let you live on campus if you’re a full-time student. By living on campus, you might have greater access to other learning opportunities and activities. 

Part-time associate degree timeline

If you have family obligations or work, you might opt to pursue an associate degree as a part-time student. Studying part-time, it may take you anywhere from 48 to 72 months to earn an associate degree.

Advantages of part-time schooling

One of the biggest advantages of a part-time schedule is greater flexibility. Because you're taking fewer classes every semester, you have more free time, which may be a good option if you're working or have family obligations. In addition to that flexibility, other advantages of going to school part-time include:

  • Income while in school: Going part-time gives you the freedom to work while you pursue your degree.

  • Lower tuition: The more courses you take each semester, the more you spend. But by going part-time, you’ll have a lower financial commitment at any one time and may be able to spread out the cost over a longer period of time.

Other factors that affect the length of time

While different schools may have different requirements, most require 60 to 68 credits in order to graduate with an associate degree. Here are a few other factors that may lengthen the timeline:

  • If your school requires more credit hours, it might take you longer to complete the program. 

  • If you change majors or switch to a different school, some of your completed credit hours may not transfer to your new school or program.

  • If you drop classes, you reduce the number of credit hours you are completing during that semester. 

Accelerating your associate degree program

If you’re motivated and have the time, you may be able to speed things up. Here are a few steps that might help you earn your associate degree faster:

  • Take more credits per semester or attend an educational institution with a semester format that enables you to complete more credits throughout the year.

  • Earn college credits in high school that you can apply to your associate degree program.

  • Take summer classes to advance through the program more quickly. 

Benefits of an associate degree

If you’re unsure of the value of an associate degree, consider a study by Harvard Business School that suggests employers are more likely to see you as being job-ready if you have a degree [3]. In fact, the demand for associate degrees is steadily growing, according to data from Statista. An estimated 1.07 million American students will earn an associate degree in the 2029-2030 academic year, up from 1.04 million in the 2018-2019 academic year [4].

Here are some other reasons why students choose to pursue an associate degree:

  • Flexibility: An associate degree gives you flexibility in several ways. First, the amount of time required is less than that of a bachelor’s degree (two years vs. four years). Most of these programs are also conducive to working around your schedule should you have other commitments. Additionally, you can choose from a variety of educational institutions—both in person and online.

  • Financial savings: Associate degree programs require fewer credit hours to complete and as a result typically cost less than four-year degrees or graduate degrees. This may allow you to save money and start working sooner.

  • Higher earning potential: You might make more money after earning an associate degree. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median earnings for high school graduates $40.620. But if you have an associate degree, that increases to $48,776 [5].

  • Increased job prospects: The average unemployment rate for people with a high school diploma is around 9 percent, according to the BLS [5]. The same statistic drops to 7.1 percent if you have an associate degree.

  • Options: This degree can stand on its own. But you can also use it as a step toward a bachelor's degree, as many of the credits you complete while earning your associate degree may transfer.

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

Alternatives to an associate degree

Earning an associate degree isn’t the only path available to you. Many students choose to take a gap year to work, travel, or discover their passions. Others explore job-training opportunities that enable them to learn while gaining work experience. Other options include taking online courses or pursuing a certificate. 

Online courses

Taking online courses can help you sharpen individual skills or explore your interests in more depth. This option often gives you greater flexibility with your time while exposing you to a wide range of subjects. For example, you might learn about machine learning now, and then take an introductory course in psychology next. 

Certificates

Having a certificate on your resume validates that you've completed courses in specific subjects. With these programs, you'll develop technical skills associated with whatever the subject matter may be. For example, earn a Google Project Management: Professional Certificate to built skills in organizational culture, change management, and project planning.  

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Article Sources

1. College Raptor. “Part Time and Full Time Student Hours: What's the Difference?, https://www.collegeraptor.com/getting-in/articles/college-applications/difference-between-part-time-and-full-time-student-hours/." Accessed December 29, 2021.

2. National Center for Education Statistics. “Graduation and Retention Rates: What Is the Part-Time Retention Rate in Postsecondary Institutions?, https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/TrendGenerator/app/answer/7/33." Accessed December 29, 2021.

3. Harvard Business School. “Dismissed by Degrees,  https://www.hbs.edu/managing-the-future-of-work/Documents/dismissed-by-degrees.pdf." Accessed December 28, 2021.

4. Statista. “Number of Associate's Degree Recipients U.S. 2030, https://www.statista.com/statistics/238249/associate-degree-recipients-in-the-us/." Accessed December 28, 2021.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed December 29, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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.

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