An associate degree is a type of undergraduate degree that usually takes two to three years to complete. Most people work toward this at community colleges or vocational schools.
Maybe you want to pursue higher education but can’t afford to do so at the moment. You may even be itching to work but don’t have the credentials to impress your employers. If you’re either of these, your best bet is to earn an associate degree. But, what is an associate degree?
An associate degree is the first level of post-secondary education that you can pursue after earning a high school diploma or GED. In the United States, it’s usually taken as a stepping stone for a bachelor’s degree. This post-secondary study, which is often offered by community colleges, technical schools, and junior colleges, takes learners about two to three years to complete.
Is It Worth It?
Depending on the type of associate degree, it can mean different things for different people. An associate degree in computer science or business administration could prove to be the perfect way to get a career started in said fields.
- Career Karma matches you with top tech bootcamps
- Get exclusive scholarships and prep courses
For many, it is the first step in the undergraduate process. That is, many students elect to attend community colleges and earn their associate degree before moving on to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree.
These students usually take their lower-division courses and prerequisites during their associate degree. Then, they attend a university where they focus on their major coursework.
For adult learners and nontraditional students, pursuing an associate degree is a great option as it is more flexible. This flexibility allows them to pursue their degrees while still balancing family and full-time jobs.
Associate Degree Admissions
Admission criteria vary from school to school for associate degree programs. Learners will most often need to have a high school diploma or their Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED).
Students can receive their GED by taking General Educational Development tests. These tests contain the most pertinent parts of four school subjects: math, science, language arts, and social studies.
Passing the test exhibits a student’s competency to earn a diploma. The requirements for the GED vary by state. Two of the most common prerequisites are that a student must be at least 16 years old and not enrolled in high school.
When it comes right down to it, earning a GED allows students to pass high school. The catch is that it doesn’t provide the same robust job opportunities high school diplomas do. This is a great reason to explore associate degrees further.
Often, before enrolling in an associate degree program, you will be asked to sit for placement exams. These assessments help determine your existing knowledge in areas like math, reading and writing. Administrators use the results to place you in the proper course level for when classes start.
Types of Associate Degrees
As with bachelor’s degrees, there are multiple subsets of associate degrees. They are as follows:
Associate of Arts
These are the standard associate degrees that students who are planning on transferring to four-year degree programs receive. Associate of arts (AA) degrees contain many courses that would be equal to the first two years of a usual bachelor’s degree.
Associate of Science
These degrees are more specific degrees that narrow down certain fields of study. Associate of Science (AS) degrees apply more to careers in computer science and the social sciences. AA and AS degrees can share majors as both form the backbone of the traditional liberal arts curriculum.
Associate of Applied Science
These degrees focus on careers like nursing, dental hygienist, radiologist, and Certified Occupational Therapy. That is, AAS degrees emphasize the practical applications of scientific concepts.
Associate of Applied Business
AAB degrees deal primarily with business and business administration. These are perfect for those who want to gain an entry-level job in the business field.
Both the associate of applied business and science prepare students for almost immediate employment in their specific major. If you are dead set on starting your career right away, consider these degrees.
Earning an Associate Degree vs a Bachelor’s Degree
We already know that the main difference between the two degree types is time commitment. An associate degree usually takes two to three years to complete whereas a bachelor’s degree is usually earned after four years.
This equals to 60 credit hours for an associate degree and 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree. But their differences transcend just time commitments.
Tuition costs and entry requirements for an associate degree are often more relaxed and more appealing to skeptical students. Courses for an associate degree, especially offered through a community college, can save you a lot of money. Additionally, these classes can easily be of the same quality as bachelor’s courses, if not better.
Associate degree requirements aren’t as stringent as for other degrees. There isn’t usually a lengthy application process involving essays and references. Prerequisites also don’t require students to have received stellar grades in high school.
Students often have the option to transfer many of their 60 credits towards a bachelor’s degree at a different school. For example, several community colleges in Oregon have transfer credit agreements with a plethora of universities, whether in or out of state.
Earning an Online Associate Degree
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many schools to shift curriculums to be fully online. These more mandatory online programs have put many students and professors on shaky, unfamiliar ground. But it can prove to be a fantastic advantage to those exploring a path toward an associate degree.
Community colleges and many four-year schools have developed the option to earn degrees online. These schools can prove to be extremely flexible as well, offering full-time and part-time schedule options.
Right now, earning online associate degrees is straightforward, cost-effective, and hassle free. While this will affect graduation times, online learners can finish their associate degree at their own pace.
Associate degrees are perfect stepping stones for those who want to achieve their bachelor’s, masters, and even doctoral degrees. There are a few key things to keep in mind when considering an online associate degree.
Will online credits transfer?
You need to determine if your credits will transfer to a different university, even if received online. Many universities are accommodating and flexible, but you need to remain diligent and do your research. You don’t want to repeat a core class you had a lot of trouble with.
Consider what you want to do career-wise
Are you using an associate as a means to an end? Or do you want to transfer right into a specified career?
Does the school or online program offer competent student services?
While perhaps not a priority for many, excellent student services are a vital part of a student’s success. Make sure to often communicate with advisors and support staff to see if a school’s learning aids are helpful enough.
Careers With an Associate Degree
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earning an associate degree opens many job opportunities. Nearly 100 occupations require an associate degree, and nothing more. This means that after a two-year program, you can secure a job at any number of workplaces. Many companies will often accept willing and experienced holders of associate degrees if it’s in computer science.
Business administration, nursing, and science degrees are arguably the best to pursue. These degrees lead to the most sought after careers. Nursing assistants, web developers, and accountants are the most lucrative and dependable jobs to apply for with an associate degree.
Most importantly, those with associate degrees can expect to earn significantly higher than those with only a high school diploma. In 2017, salary for associate graduates averaged at $52,830, marking a $16,000 difference in pay rate for workers in high-school level roles. Occupations requiring only an associate degree are projected to grow 11 percent by 2026.
Best Associate Degree Programs 2020
With the proliferation of associate degree programs out there, the search for excellent ones may be overwhelming. To help whittle down your list, we’ve provided some of the best associate degree programs, complete with career prospects and income forecast.
|Associate Degree Program||Potential Career Path||Median Salary|
|Early Childhood Education||Preschool Teacher||$30,520|
|Human Services||Human Service Assistant||$35,060|
|Medical Assisting||Medical Assistant||$34,800|
|Business Administration||Information Clerk||$35,900|
|Computer Science||Computer Support Specialist||$54,760|
|Cyber Security||Cyber Security Analyst||$60,141|
Early Childhood Education
Potential Career Path: Preschool Teacher
Annual Median Pay: $30,520
While preschool teachers are clearly underpaid, most will tell you it’s one of the most rewarding careers. If you love kids and have a passion for teaching, an associate degree in early childhood education is a great option. In these programs, you’ll learn all about child development and strategies for educating young children.
Potential Career Path: Social and Human Service Assistant
Annual Median Pay: $35,060
Like education, the human services field is brimming with professionals who love to help people. For those interested in human health and wellness, an associate degree in human services can be your springboard into a fulfilling career.
Potential Career Path: Medical Assistant
Annual Median Pay: $34,800
Medical assistants are a vital part of the healthcare industry. They are often on the front lines serving people who need medical help. The field involves a wide array of responsibilities, so a medical assisting associate degree is the perfect way to be prepared.
Potential Career Path: Information Clerk
Annual Median Pay: $35,390
When most people think about business and management degrees, they tend to think of MBA programs alone. But an associate degree in business administration can be an excellent stepping stone on your way to business management and other business careers.
Potential Career Path: Computer Support Specialist
Annual Median Pay: $54,760
For those with a more technical bent, computer science is often a go-to discipline. With an associate degree in computer science, you can often start your career in entry-level positions. Others choose the associate degree as just one stop on their journey to a computer science career. And with the constant rise of the booming tech economy, the job outlook for those with computer science skills is bright.
Potential Career Path: Entry-level Cyber Security Analyst
Annual Median Pay: $60,141
Related to computer science, cyber security is a technical field that seeks to protect private data and preserve the stability of information systems. If you’re interested in a career defending against data leaks and breaches, consider starting with an associate degree in cyber security.
Just as how computer science skills are in-demand, so are cyber security skills. With so many high profile data breaches, the employment outlook for cyber security experts looks better and better.
Other Popular Associate Degree Programs
- Criminal Justice
- Law Enforcement
- Business Law
- Applied Technology
- Digital Media
- Interior Design
- Landscape Design
- Design Technology
- Food Science
- Radiation Therapy
- Respiratory Therapy
- Mechanical Engineering
- Air Traffic Controller
About us: Career Karma is a platform designed to help job seekers find, research, and connect with job training programs to advance their careers. Learn about the CK publication.