Vocational Certificates vs. Associate Degrees

by TBS Staff

Updated May 23, 2023 • 6 min read

thebestschools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

For students who do not want to pursue a four-year degree, there are other educational opportunities to consider.

Vocational certificates and associate degrees offer different educational paths than a four-year degree, but both can help prepare you for a rewarding career. Which route is best for you depends on your personal preferences and career aspirations.

This guide is designed to help you explore the differences between vocational certificates and associate degrees. We'll also answer common questions about these modalities, and discuss learning objectives, employment outcomes, and earning potential students can expect at each type of program.

What Is a Vocational Degree?

Vocational certificates provide intensive, focused training that prepares learners for work in a specific trade. In these programs, students develop the core skills needed to perform daily, practical tasks for vocational careers, like carpentry, appliance repair, automotive maintenance, plumbing, real estate, cosmetology, medical coding, dental assisting, or the culinary arts. Our page on trade schools and vocational education offers a comprehensive listing of available subjects for vocational certificates.

Typically, students earn these certificates at state vocational schools or from private, nonprofit technical schools.

Many high schools also offer technical courses, which can be applied to vocational certificate programs after graduation.

Depending on the trade or field, internships and apprenticeships may provide initial training transferable to qualified vocational schools.

Vocational education is less expensive and takes less time to complete than a traditional degree. While some certificates can take as long as an associate degree — two years — many can be completed within a matter of months, or even weeks. Previous professional experience can reduce these time frames even further. Ultimately, this means vocational schools can place learners in the workforce faster than a traditional degree.

In terms of expense, certificates are also cheaper than degrees. The Simple Dollar reports that a four-year degree costs $127,000 on average; vocational schools charge a fraction of that, just $33,000 on average. This potential savings lessens students' financial burdens and helps them avoid student loan debt.

Aspiring professionals can also take advantage of financial aid opportunities specific to vocational education. Many technical schools offer in-house scholarships and grants, which are less competitive than outside scholarships because they are limited to enrolled students only. Field or trade-specific organizations often extend similar awards, too.

If you want to attend a vocational school, you should complete the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid.

Note: If you are enrolled in a vocational education program, you may be eligible for Pell Grants and other federal aid that does not require repayment following graduation.

What Is an Associate Degree?

While not as comprehensive as a four-year degree, an associate degree builds more versatile, transferable skills than a vocational certificate. An associate program will cover the same kind of information that most four-year college students learn in their first two years of school. It is not as singularly career-focused as a certificate, but it's also less extensive than a baccalaureate program.

Associate degrees are a great option for a variety of students. If you're not sure what you want to study, or if you want to improve your upon your high school grades before applying to a four-year school, or even just pay less in tuition for two years, you may be interested in an associate program.

Some traditional universities offer associate degrees, as do junior colleges, community colleges, and some technical schools. An associate degree includes general education as well as courses in a focus subject, completed over two years. Potential areas include business administration, science and the liberal arts, nursing, criminal justice, accounting, and paralegal studies. Many schools offer online instruction for busy learners and working professionals looking to balance their education with other commitments.

Associate degrees typically come in three forms: an associate of arts (AA), an associate of science (AS), and an associate of applied science (AAS).

An AA program focuses on the humanities, while an AS degree offers training in STEM areas, like dentistry, medical assisting, and information technology. Both degrees include general education credits and are often designed to transfer to a bachelor's program.

Meanwhile, an AAS degree more resembles vocational education, exploring technical subjects like occupational therapy, surgical technology, and biomedicine, all with an eye toward immediate employment after graduation.

Each program takes approximately two years, though learners with transfer credits or applicable professional experience may be able to finish sooner. Associate degrees also offer preparation for subject-specific exams or professional certification. Additional certification is not always necessary, but it may be required in fields like medicine, technology, and accounting.

Note: One of the main advantages of associate degrees is that they do not require a significant time commitment, but they still offer room for future advancement. In fact, most schools expect learners earning an associate degree to transfer to a bachelor's program in the future. This type of progression is optional, but some fields — like nursing — may require it for more advanced job opportunities.

Employment Outcomes

The table below looks at projected job growth and salary potential among associate degree-holders and vocational school graduates. Factors like local demand, competition, and area of employment can affect employment outcomes.

Even though programs in vocational schools are often less comprehensive, they can still result in high pay. Both vocational certificate and associate degrees can improve employment prospects, as compared to candidates with only a high school diploma.

High-Paying Careers That Require a Certificate
Position 2019 Median Salary Job Growth
Makeup Artists $75,730 7%
Claims Adjusters $66,540 -4%
Aircraft Mechanics $64,310 3%
Fire Inspectors $60,230 8%
Court Reporters $60,130 7%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
High-Paying Careers That Require an Associate Degree
Position 2019 Median Salary Job Growth
Air Traffic Controllers $122,990 1%
Radiation Therapists $85,560 9%
Nuclear Technicians $82,080 -4%
Nuclear Medicine Technologists $77,950 7%
Dental Hygienists $76,220 11%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Vocational Certificate the Same as an Associate Degree?

No. Associate degrees are academic programs that build a broad set of skills, while vocational certificates provide training and preparation for a specific job or task.

How Do You Get Into Vocational Training?

Prospective learners should first decide what trade they want to pursue. Then, they must research vocational programs for that trade, select a school, complete an application for admission, and pay an application fee. Some programs may also require a basic education assessment or placement test.

Which Is Better: Associate or Bachelor Degrees?

The answer depends on your career goals. An associate degree takes two years to complete, while a bachelor's usually takes four. Many two-year degrees offer transfer pathways to four-year programs; they can also provide career training for entry-level work. Bachelor's degrees offer broader job prospects and preparation for advanced study, but may not be necessary for all careers.

Do You Automatically Get an Associate Degree After Two Years?

No. Learners receive an associate degree when enrolled in a two-year program, but they must complete all requisite courses to earn that degree. Likewise, students receive a bachelor's degree when enrolled in a four-year program, but only after completing required courses.

How Do I Convert My Associate Degree to a Bachelor's Degree?

An associate degree can substitute for the first two years of a bachelor's degree, covering general education requirements or even early major requirements for some focuses. Four-year schools also often have agreements with junior or community colleges to encourage transfers. Once you've earned an associate degree, follow your school's transfer requirements to enroll in a bachelor's program at a four-year school.

Featured Online Programs

Learn more, do more.

More topic-relevant resources to expand your knowledge.

Popular with our students.

Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

woman in an office