What Is an Associate Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More

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Associate degrees open paths to new job opportunities and can be used to transfer into bachelor's degree programs.

[Featured Image] Associate degree students gather to discuss classwork.

An associate degree is a two-year college degree that you can obtain from a community college, junior college, online university, or some four-year institutions in the US. In terms of education, an associate degree falls between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree.

Students go on to do different things with their associate degree: some transfer into a bachelor’s degree program, while others choose to go directly into the workforce. You can also earn your associate degree after working for several years; it can be the first step to a new career or help you advance in your current one.

Read on to understand key facts about earning your associate degree, and the important factors—like educational and professional goals—you should consider as you decide whether it's the right choice for your future.

Associate degrees: Key facts

Earning your associate degree is typically more affordable and takes less time than earning your bachelor's degree. It can also help you forge new career paths in professional fields such as medicine, engineering, and computer science. Let's review the basics of what it costs—and what it takes—to get an associate degree.

Admissions requirements

Admissions requirements vary from college to college, but you'll generally need to meet the following conditions in order to gain entry to an associate degree program:

  • Be 18 years of age by the time you begin your first day of class

  • Have a high school diploma, or have passed a General Education Development test (GED) or an equivalent test

  • Meet GPA requirements established by some community colleges

Cost

While tuition levels vary between colleges and programs, the average tuition for one year in an associate degree program is $3,800 in 2021, according to the College Board [1]. That’s for public in-district schools—meaning you’re a resident in the district the associate degree program is located.

Compare that with the average tuition for a year in a bachelor’s degree program, which is $10,740 for public in-state schools, $27,560 for public out-of-state schools, and $38,070 for private nonprofit schools.

Financial aid

Students enrolled in an associate degree program might be eligible for federal financial aid, as long as the institution is accredited. You can submit a FAFSA application to see if you qualify to receive federal aid or federal student loans. In 2021, 59 percent of community college students received aid, while 34 percent received federal grants [2].

How long it takes

It generally takes full-time students about two years earn an associate degree, though it can take longer for part-time students. If you prefer to work while earning your associate degree, you'll be in good company. More than four million community college students attended part-time in 2021 (compared to 2.4 million full-time attendees) and 72 percent of them worked [2].

Graduation requirements

In order to graduate, you’ll typically need to complete to complete the 60 course credits required (or 90 if your college is on the quarter system), and maintain a minimum GPA set by your college or department. Learn more about college credits and how they're measured.

Read more: Should You Go Back to School? 7 Things to Consider

Types of associate degrees

The most common types of associate degrees are:

  • Associate of Arts (AA): Associate programs focused on business, humanities, arts, or social sciences are often called Associate of Arts degrees. An AA may be a stepping stone to transfer to a bachelor’s degree.

  • Associate of Science (AS): Associate programs in a field related to science or math are often called Associate of Science degrees. Along with an AA, the AS is typically recommended by schools for students who want to transfer to four-year programs.

  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS): Associate programs that focus on technical and vocational skills are often called Associate of Applied Science programs. These programs are generally designed to prepare students for a specific occupation or work in a specific field after graduation. Fields can include computer science technology, hospitality management, paralegal studies, law enforcement, welding, among many others. Although it’s less common to use an AAS degree to transfer into a bachelor’s program, some four-year degree programs have begun accepting them for transfers.

What can you do with an associate degree?

Once you earn your associate degree, you have two options to consider. You can extend your education and apply to a bachelor's degree program, or you can pursue jobs in the medical, engineering, computer science, or legal fields, among many others.

Transfer to a bachelor's degree program

If you're interested in continuing your education, you can apply to bachelor's degree programs after you earn your associate degree, and begin completing courses in your declared major.

In fact, a number of students earn their associate degree at a lower-cost community college before transferring to a four-year college or university to finish their bachelor's. Remember that for in-state students, the average annual cost of attending a community college was $3,800 in 2021, compared to $10,740 for a public four-year school, which can amount to a significant savings over two years or more [1]. 

Earning your associate degree before deciding to pursue your bachelor's also gives you time to:

  • Build up study skills: If you’ve been out of school for a while and want to brush up on your study skills, or your high school GPA didn’t quite meet admission requirements for a four-year degree, an associate program can give you a boost. Not all community colleges have a GPA requirement for admissions.

  • Get more time to explore: If you’re not sure what you want to study, attending a community college for general studies courses can give you time to explore courses that might interest you before you fully commit to getting a bachelor’s degree in a subject.

  • Enjoy added flexibility: Many community colleges keep working people in mind and offer courses at night or on weekends. If you’re working or have family to take care of, starting off with an associate degree could bring you the flexibility you need.

If you’re hoping to start a degree, and factors like affordability and flexibility are important, online bachelor’s degrees may be another option. Online bachelor’s degrees are available in a wide range of topics, like computer science or psychology.

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Pursue a career

You can explore new career opportunities with your associate degree—often with higher salaries than a high school diploma will yield. Associate degree holders in the United States earn a median income of $938 per week compared to $781 for high school graduates [3].

Here is a brief snapshot of some of the jobs you can typically start with an associate degree. They’re expected to grow at least as fast as average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [4], and the median salaries in the US are at least $40,000.

JobMedian salary range
Computer network support specialist$60,000-80,000
Web developer$60,000-80,000
Physical therapist assistant$40,000-60,000
Dental hygienist$60,000-80,000
Occupational therapy assistant$60,000-80,000
Radiation therapist$80,000 and over
MRI technologist$60,000-80,000
Civil engineering technician$40,000-60,000
Environmental engineering technologist$40,000-60,000
Geological and hydrologic technician$40,000-60,000
Agricultural and food science technician$40,000-60,000
Mechanical engineering technician$40,000-60,000
Legal assistant$40,000-60,000

Keep in mind that employers for some positions—like registered nurses—might prefer bachelor’s degree holders but may also hire associate degree graduates.

Read more: How to Get Your First Job: A Guide

Differences between associate and bachelor’s degrees

There are benefits to pursuing any kind of higher education, be it an associate degree or bachelor's degree. Holding an academic degree can lead to more career opportunities and higher salaries. If you're unsure which degree is right for you, here are important differences to compare:

Associate degreeBachelor's degree
Length of time2 years4 years
Average annual tuition$3,800 (public in-district schools)$10,740 (public in-state schools), $27,560 (public out-of-state schools), $38,070 (private nonprofit schools)
Credit requirements60 credits120 credits
Common enrollment requirementsHigh school diploma or GEDHigh school diploma or GED, letters of recommendation, GPA, standardized test scores
Campus experienceStudents usually commute from off campus. Sports teams, clubs, and extracurricular opportunities are available.Students can live on campus or off campus. Sports teams, clubs, and extracurricular opportunities are available.
Financial aid availableYesYes
Median weekly earnings in 2019 for graduates$938 (some college or Associate degree)$1,305

Data on average annual tuition and weekly earnings comes from the College Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics respectively [1, 2].

Which is better: Associate degree or bachelor's degree?

The best degree will be the one that helps you achieve your goals—either personal, educational, or professional. While there are a number of careers you can pursue with an associate degree, you may find more opportunities with a bachelor's degree. But if time is a major factor, then an associate degree may be the best choice for your immediate needs. Ultimately, it's important to review your situation—your financial resources, your schedule, your objectives—to determine which is the best degree for you.

If you're interested in earning an academic degree to gain entry to a new career path or advance your career in a chosen field, it can help to look at job postings and see the minimum education required. Understanding the standards your industry expects may help determine which degree you eventually earn.

Associate degree alternatives

If your goals don’t require an academic degree, there are other options that may offer some flexibility.

Professional certificates

Professional certificates are qualifications you can earn by completing courses or exams to demonstrate your ability in a field. They often require no previous experience in a subject, and can take anywhere from several months to a few years to finish. You can get a professional certificate in a variety of fields, including IT support, data analysis, computer programming, and marketing.

Certificate programs can be part-time or full-time, and may be offered online and in person. Because they tend to take less time and financial resources than degrees, professional certificates can be a solid option for those who know what specific skills they want to develop, and prioritize flexibility. If you’re ready to explore, browse some online certificate options.

Trade or vocational school

Trade schools, also known as vocational or technical schools, train students to enter professions that require a certain set of skills. They’re characterized by their emphasis on hands-on training. 

Graduates go on to work as electricians, dental hygienists, chefs, construction managers, and car mechanics, among many other professions. Trade schools typically take two years or less to complete, though some professions may require additional apprenticeships after the program. They can be a good option if you have a specific job in mind and don’t need or want to pursue an academic degree to secure employment in that profession. Some characteristics to consider when researching trade schools include: whether the program is accredited, has a track record of job placement, and makes sense for you financially.

Bootcamps

Bootcamps—intensive programs that are designed to quickly equip you with a new skill set—can be a fast way to enter a new field or advance in your current one. Bootcamps typically take a few months to complete. Though computer coding bootcamps are popular, you can enroll in digital marketing, cybersecurity, or UX/UI design bootcamps, too. Bootcamps can be online or in person, full-time or part-time.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

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Article sources

1. College Board. "Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf." Accessed November 24, 2021.

2. American Association of Community Colleges. "Fast Facts 2021, https://www.aacc.nche.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/AACC_2021_FastFacts.pdf." Accessed November 29, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education Pays, The median salaries in the US are at least $40,000." Accessed November 24, 2021.

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupation Finder, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/occupation-finder." Accessed November 24, 2021.

5. College Board. "Career: Registered Nurses, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/careers/health-diagnosis-treatment-registered-nurses." Accessed November 24, 2021.

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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.

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