What is an Associate’s Degree?

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Associate degrees provide a foundational college education that can open up numerous professional and academic opportunities. In just two years of online or community college, you can earn a basic college degree that significantly increases your qualifications over holding just a high school diploma.

For many students, associate degrees not only provide a quick and affordable route toward higher-paying jobs, they also allow you to save money on the total cost of a bachelor’s degree later on. With plenty of online associate degree program options now available, earning a college education has never been simpler or more affordable. Often overlooked, associate degrees warrant more attention; on-campus or online, earning an associate degree just might be the right path for you.

If you already know what you’re looking for, check out the 50 Best Online Colleges for 2019. Many of these schools offer excellent and competitive two-year degree programs.

You can also start your search by checking out The 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges for Associate Degrees or jumping straight to our rankings of associate degrees by program.

Associate Degree Basics

The typical associate degree programs will require you to earn roughly 60 credits, which can be completed in two years of study. Some associate programs utilize an accelerated format that lets you earn a degree in as little as one year of study. However you approach it, the associate degree program provides an abbreviated path of study in comparison to bachelor’s degree programs, which typically take a minimum of four years to complete. Though not as in-depth as a bachelor’s degree, the associate degree program provides a foundation in higher learning that can qualify you to continue into a bachelor’s degree program or obtain various entry-level jobs in both general and specialized fields.

It’s also noteworthy that a great many community colleges have expanded their reach by making a growing set of courses and programs available online. This means that you can earn an online associate degree from a reputable and accredited two year program in nearly any subject.

Associate degrees come in four varieties:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)

AA and AS degrees generally focus on developing core knowledge alongside introductory education in a selected focus. These associate programs typically focus on theory as well as instruction in analytical and critical approaches. With an AA, you will typically take a set of liberal arts or humanities courses alongside courses in your area of concentration.

With an AS, you will typically take a set of courses in the hard sciences—chemistry, biology, mathematics, etc.—alongside courses in your area of concentration. The AA or AS is a highly recommended path for students who intend to use the associate degree as a stepping stone into a bachelor’s degree program.

  • Associate of Applied Arts (AAA)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

The applied degrees, AAS and AAA typically focus on developing technical skills for specific careers, and are recommended for students who are preparing to go directly on to the job market from community or online college. As with AA and AS programs, Arts imply a parallel emphasis on the humanities, while Science implies a parallel emphasis on the hard sciences.

In both cases, your coursework will include more practical and hands-on experience. This makes the applied associate degree a good option if your next step is into a job.

Degrees Awarded

An associate degree can develop a useful foundation of general knowledge in the humanities, liberal arts, and natural sciences, alongside some introductory education in your chosen discipline. Some popular fields for associate degrees include:

What can you do with an Associate Degree?

Many people with associate degrees go straight from the classroom to the job market, with entry-level positions in fields relevant to their area of study. For some, an associate degree is the highest level of education they will ever need to earn. Depending on your career goals and opportunities, it is possible to work up from an entry-level position to a stable, well paying, long-term career.

Plenty of students will use their associate degree to go back to school and earn a bachelor’s degree, which provides greater opportunities for employment and advancement than an associate degree by itself. As long as your associate degree comes from a regionally accredited institution, many universities will accept transfer credits from your associate program that can be applied toward the completion of a bachelor’s degree.

This provides a flexible cost-effective route toward completing a bachelor’s degree. By choosing to earn an associate degree first at an inexpensive institution, such as a community on online college, you can cut down on the overall cost of education. This approach may also allow you to earn an associate degree, take a break from school for work and life, and return to finish a bachelor’s program when you are ready.

If you do plan on eventually making the transition from your associate program to a four-year school, it is critical that you take every step to maximize the transfer of your credits. There may be some bureaucratic and practical challenges ahead. Check out our transfer tip sheets for details on managing credit transfer challenges:

Admission Requirements

The admission requirements for associate degree programs are typically less rigorous than those of bachelor’s degree programs. This make the associate degree a more accessible degree for most high-school graduates. All associate programs require a high school diploma or GED. Rather than require a minimum ACT or SAT score, many associate degree programs require you to submit a score simply for class placement. In most cases, low scores will not prevent you from gaining admission. This is another reason that associate degree programs are a good option for many students. This provides an accessible path of entry to college and a way to build up your academic record before seeking admission to a more competitive four-year public or private school.

Associate Degree Costs

As with any degree, the actual cost of an associate degree can be influenced by a number of factors. Private schools, by and large, cost more, and although they offer associate degrees, it is more common to earn an associate degree from a public university, which usually costs less than a private university, or a community college, which costs significantly less than either of these options.

When attending a public university, your state of residence matters. Out-of-state tuition can be very expensive, averaging about three times the price of in-state tuition. We recommend that you earn your degree in your state of residence to avoid paying the steep price of out-of-state tuition (unless, of course, you have a full-ride scholarship).

Moreover, there is no reason that an associate degree should be expensive. Part of their attraction is that you can gain a college education at minimal cost, so students are commonly advised to earn an associate degree from the most affordable quality option available: community colleges. The most expensive community college associate degree programs can be earned for a net price of less than $10,000; the majority cost much less than that.

For a look at some of the best educational value for your money, check out The 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges for Associate Degrees.

Online Associate Degree Programs

Online associate degrees are rising in popularity, in large part because they capitalize on the affordability and flexibility common to both online education and the associate degree model. Online associate degree programs allow students to earn the education they need, at a very affordable price, on a flexible schedule that fits the needs of even the busiest working adult. These programs allow students to earn a degree with the same level of rigor as their on-campus counterparts, often at a reduced cost, and with fewer complications, such as the need for reliable transportation, or scheduling around odd working shifts. If you are considering earning an associate degree, take the time to look at the best online programs in your discipline.

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