What Is an Associate Degree? Key Information to Know

Associate degrees open paths to new job opportunities and can be used to transfer into bachelor's degree programs.
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An associate degree in the US is typically a two-year college degree that can be obtained at community or junior colleges, online, or at some universities. Though typically pursued immediately after high school, you can get an associate degree after working for several years. An associate degree can be the first step to a new and steady career or help you advance in your current one.

Associate degrees are commonly used to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program, which will generally take another two years to finish. Associate degree graduates can also choose to go directly into the workforce. Read on to understand some of the basics of getting your associate degree. Understanding these basics can help you make the right decision for yourself given important factors like your educational, financial and professional goals.

Associate degrees: Key facts

  • An associate degree generally takes about two years to complete. After graduating from an associate degree program, students may be able to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program or can go straight into work. 

  • While tuition levels vary between colleges and programs, associate degree programs tend to be cheaper than bachelor’s degree programs.

  • Common types of associate degrees include associate of arts (AA), associate of science (AS), and associate of applied sciences (AAS).

  • It generally takes 60 course credits to complete an associate degree. This generally takes around two years for full-time students, or more years for part-time students.

  • Associate degrees can prepare students for jobs in the medical, engineering, computer science, or legal fields, among many others.

Differences between associate and bachelor’s degrees

In the US, an associate degree is often the stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, but both can be obtained separately. Here are the basic differences.

Associate degreeBachelor's degree
Length of time2 years4 years
Average annual tuition$3,770 (public in-district schools)$10,560 (public in-state schools), $27,020 (public out-of-state schools), $37,650 (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$874 (some college or Associate degree)$1,281

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

Transferring into a bachelor’s degree 

An associate degree can be used to transfer to some bachelor’s degree programs. If you’re thinking about transferring eventually, it’s a good idea to speak with an academic advisor at your community college and an admissions offer at the university you want to transfer to—the earlier the better. This can help to ensure that the courses you take will be transferable to a bachelor’s program you’re interested in. 

Everyone’s situation and goals differ. Here are some reasons why starting at a community college for your undergraduate degree might make sense for you:

Lower overall cost: Since tuition is typically cheaper for associate programs and students can save on housing costs by commuting from home, transferring from a two-year program into a bachelor’s program can bring down the overall cost of your undergraduate education.

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. Most community colleges don’t have a GPA requirement for admissions.

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.

Flexibility: Many community colleges keep working people in mind and offer courses at night, on weekends, or online. 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 bachelor’s degree but affordability and flexibility are important, online bachelor’s degrees may be good to look into. Online bachelor’s degrees are available in a wide range of topics, like computer science or psychology.

Some online programs are specifically designed for people who have some college credits under their belt—such as this bachelor’s in applied arts and sciences from the University of North Texas hosted by Coursera.

Jobs you can get with an associate degree

Students may be able to use their associate degree to transfer into a four-year program, but others go directly into the workforce.

Here is a brief snapshot of some of the jobs you can typically start with an associate’s degree. They’re expected to grow at least as fast as average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [3]. 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.

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 a 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.

Associate degree alternatives

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

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.

FAQs

  • How many of my associate degree credits will transfer to a bachelor’s degree program?

This depends on the courses you took and the bachelor’s program you’re trying to go to. Universities will generally evaluate your courses and decide if they’re transferable or not. Some community colleges may have agreements with universities that will guarantee that some of your credits will transfer (if the requirements are met), but many do not.

To make sure you maximize your transferable credits, talk to your academic advisor at your community college, and reach out to an admissions officer at the university you want to transfer to.

  • What are other types of degrees I can get?

Other academic degrees you can get are bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, doctoral degrees, and professional degrees. A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years, or two if an associate degree is obtained first. You may go on to enroll in a master’s degree program after completing a bachelor’s. A doctoral degree, or PhD, is the generally the highest academic degree you can receive in most fields. Other professional degrees—such as JDs for aspiring lawyers, or MDs for doctors—are usually pursued after finishing a bachelor’s degree.

  • Can I become a registered nurse (RN) with an associate degree?

Yes. Though hospitals might prefer nurses with at least a bachelor’s degree, the minimum academic requirement to become an RN in the US is generally an associate degree or a diploma in nursing, according to the College Board [4]. Students must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and any state licensure requirements. Many community colleges offer degrees specifically for those who want to enter the nursing field. An associate degree can also be transferred to a bachelor’s nursing program.

Related articles

Article sources

1. College Board. "Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2020.pdf." Accessed March 29, 2021.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Median weekly earnings $606 for high school dropouts, $1,559 for advanced degree holders, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/median-weekly-earnings-606-for-high-school-dropouts-1559-for-advanced-degree-holders.htm." Accessed March 29, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupation Finder, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/occupation-finder.htm?pay=&education=Associate%E2%80%99s+degree&training=&newjobs=&growth=&submit=GO." Accessed March 29, 2021.

4. College Board. "Career: Registered Nurses, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/careers/health-diagnosis-treatment-registered-nurses." Accessed March 29, 2021.

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