What Is An Associate’s Degree?

Student reading a book with text: what's an associate's degreeWhen you’re graduating high school, you have a few different options. You can go straight into the workforce, attend a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree, or you can go to a community college to get your associate’s degree – a 2-year degree that is completed after high school. But what exactly does an associate’s degree do for you and why should you get one? We answer your questions here.

What is an Associate’s Degree?

An associate’s degree is a 2-year undergraduate degree that provides technical and academic knowledge. Associate degree programs aim to offer students a faster, less expensive path of study. On completing the program, you will have gained the basic knowledge necessary for certain employment opportunities. Additionally, you could also transfer to a 4-year college an earn a full bachelor’s degree in just two additional years. They can also be referred to as an associates or an associate degree.


 How Can You Get an Associate’s Degree?

Associate’s degrees, for full time students, can be earned in only two years. They require 60 credits, which is usually around 20 total classes. Part time study will take longer, but is an option. These classes can be offered in person, online, or following a hybrid model.

 Where Can You Earn One?

 Students can usually earn an associate’s degree by attending a community college. The acceptance rate for these schools is usually very high and almost all students applying will be accepted, though there are of course exceptions.

Community colleges are scattered all over the country and you can usually find at least one in your own county or city!

 What Can You Do With an Associate’s Degrees?

Some jobs do require associate’s degrees in order to apply. Some firefighting programs, for example, may request that you have this two year degree (though some ask for a bachelor’s, too). You can also apply to jobs like:

  • Paralegal
  • HVAC technician
  • Dental hygienists
  • Veterinary Technician
  • Human resources assistant
  • Physical therapy assistant
  • and more

You can also decide to put your associate’s degree towards a bachelor’s in some cases. Not all schools will accept transferred credits from every community college or every type of associate’s degree, so understanding how transferring credits works is essential. But students can generally go straight into a four year college after they’ve earned their associate (as long as they’re accepted) or they can opt to go at a later date, even years or decades down the line.

What Will You Learn in the Two-Year Program?

The type of associate’s you pursue can impact what you will learn at a community college (we’ll get to the different types in a second), but generally students can attend:

General Education Courses

General education courses cover everything from math to science to English. They help round out your knowledge of different fields. These classes can help you decide on a major if you aren’t quite sure what you’d like to study if you earned your bachelor’s. And they usually count towards your general education requirements for four year colleges, too.

Career Related Classes

If you decide on a major or career path for your associate’s degree, you will have to take classes related to that field. Students wishing to become dental hygienists, for example, can cover psychology, English, dental anatomy, patient care, oral health education, and more.

What Types of Associate’s Degrees Are There?

There are three common types of associates degrees: Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, and Associate of Applied Science. The one you pursue can impact your career options after graduation.

Associate of Arts (AA)

Students in Associate of Arts programs will learn about social sciences, business, literature, arts, and other general education subjects. This is usually the desired degree if you’re planning on attending a four year college after.

Associate of Science (AS)

Associate of Science degrees are also generally earned to be put towards a bachelor’s after graduation. They can cover things like math and science.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

Classes in an Associate of Applied Science program will cover technical and vocational skills required for a specific career field. They are usually not put towards Bachelor’s degrees, but they may be accepted. Students earning their AAS can pursue careers in IT, hospitality, paralegal, firefighting, and more.

How Does an Associate’s Degree Differ From a Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate, Professional Certificate, and Trade Schools?

A bachelor’s degree is a four year program at an undergraduate college that focuses on general education, major related courses, and electives. Many associate’s can be used as credits towards your bachelor’s.

A master’s degree can only be earned after a bachelor’s degree and covers more advanced courses in a specific concentration. They can take at least two years to earn and students will usually require a completed a thesis.

A doctorate can be completed after a bachelor’s or master’s degree, depending on the program. Doctoral degrees can refer to Ph.D.’s and professional doctorates in law, veterinary medicine, and other fields. They take 3 to 8 years to complete.

Professional certificates can be earned by taking an exam or attending very specific courses. They can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. Professional certificates are awarded in everything from IT to marketing and can be available through colleges as well as online programs.

Trade Schools, also known as vocational or technical schools, are similar to Associate to Applied Science degree programs. However, not all education programs within a trade school will earn you an associate’s. They can offer hands on training for dental hygienists as well as construction managers, car mechanics, and other fields.

How Much is an Associate’s Degree?

An associate’s degree program can cost, on average, about $4,000 per year. The average for bachelor’s degrees tends to be higher, so this can be a great option if you’re deciding to save on education costs. Students attending a community college may also have to pay for living expenses, books, travel, supplies, and more.

How Can You Afford an Associate’s Degree?

If you’re struggling to pay for an associate’s degree, you do have options. We recommend looking into:

BENENFITS: Pursuing an Associate’s Degree

There are plenty of benefits of earning your Associate’s degree! If you’re on the fence about attending community college, here are some pros to note:

It Tends to Be More Affordable Than a Four Year College

Since community colleges tend to be more affordable than four year colleges, you can save a ton of money going after your associate’s degree before your bachelor’s. You will take those general education classes during your associate’s program, so you can get those out of the way at a lower price!

You Can Open the Doors to More Career Opportunities

Some jobs do require you to have at least an associate’s degree to apply, especially technical fields like dental hygienist and veterinary technician. If you want to work in these fields but don’t want to go after a doctoral degree, you may have to attend one of these programs.

You Can Earn More Money

An associate’s degree also allows you to ask for more money from employers. It was actually found that associate degree holders earn about $938 per week in the United States. Compare this to high school graduates who earn about $781 per week.

You Can Explore Subjects, Majors, and Career Fields

If you’re not quite sure what you want to study, attending community college is a great option. You can save money while you figure it out while still working towards a bachelor’s and explore different subjects you have interest in. Academic advisers can help you select courses, too, based on your goals after graduation.

Community colleges also usually have good career services departments that can help you achieve your goals, explore jobs, and polish your resume and interview skills.

You Can Earn a Degree in Only Two Years

Since associate’s degrees only take two years to earn, you can obtain a degree in less time compared to a bachelor’s, which usually takes four. This allows you to invest in your education faster and you can always decide to continue your education and take more advanced classes down the line.

Students wishing to earn an associate’s degree, whether they want to attend a four year college or enter the workforce after graduation, should look at community colleges for their education. To learn more about community colleges that match your goals and their available programs, make sure to use our FREE College Match tool.

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