What Is an Associate Degree?
| TBS Staff
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Associate degrees are foundational degrees that can help students achieve academic and professional goals in less time than it takes to earn bachelor's degrees.
An associate degree is often used as a building block toward a bachelor's. Transfer credits from a two-year associate program can count toward general education, core, and elective classes for the four-year degree. Community colleges, which frequently charge lower tuition than four-year schools, may deliver these associate degrees online.
Associate programs can also qualify students for entry-level careers in fields like healthcare, education, and public service. Preschool teachers, for instance, only need an associate degree. In other fields, an associate degree can mean increased pay and career opportunities, even if the job does not require a degree. Plumbers, for instance, do not need a degree, but companies may prefer applicants with an associate. In 2018, associate graduates earned a median pay rate of $132 more per week than individuals with only a high school diploma.
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Whether students plan to transfer to a bachelor's program or pursue immediate careers, they can benefit from an associate degree.
Bachelor's Degrees Vs. Associate Degrees
An associate degree explores the most fundamental aspects of a subject over a two-year period. Bachelor's degrees build on this knowledge and often take four years to complete. For instance, an associate degree may include an oral communication class, while bachelor's curriculums advance into cross-cultural and organizational communication coursework.
Students can pursue associate degrees at community colleges and, in some fields, earn employment with no additional education. For instance, preschool teachers only need an associate. Other careers, however, require a degree from a four-year college or university, such as K-12 educators.
Both degrees include general education requirements and major courses. Learners at both degree levels may qualify for financial aid.
Types of Associate Degrees
Students can typically complete certificates and associate degree programs in two years. Certificate programs often include only field-specific courses, while associate of arts (AA) and associate of science (AS) programs also require general education classes.
Learners can transfer associate coursework into bachelor's programs for quicker graduation, especially if their associate school participates in transfer agreements with four-year institutions. Associate degrees can also prepare learners for certain career roles, like preschool teacher or paralegal, without additional education.
AA degrees cover liberal arts subjects, like humanities, sociology, communications, and English. Programs usually focus on general education to prepare for transfer into liberal arts bachelor's programs, but they also offer specialty concentration courses in areas like early childhood education, social work, or digital photography.
AS programs incorporate liberal arts courses, but require more scientific and technical coursework than AA degrees. AS programs include general studies curriculums that help learners transfer into different bachelor's programs, but they also offer focuses like accounting, paralegal studies, business administration, information technology, and pre-dental education, which prepare for entry into specific bachelor's programs.
While AAS coursework can transfer into a four-year program, it is more common for AAS graduates to pursue work after graduation without earning a bachelor's degree. In this respect, these degrees are sometimes considered terminal.
These two-year, career-centered programs prepare for jobs in healthcare, engineering, construction, or home repair, including positions like dental hygienist, surgical technologist, welder, hairdresser, or construction equipment operator. Some of these careers also require a license or certification.
Admission into college associate degree programs requires a high school diploma or equivalent. Colleges and universities may also expect learners to have a specific minimum GPA and to complete their state's pre-college curriculum, which often includes English, math, and science courses.
Candidates without college credit may also need ACT or SAT scores. Other admission materials can include personal statements, writing samples, and recommendation letters. Departments may also expect applicants to fill out the FAFSA.
Requirements for an Associate Degree
Associate degrees require around 60 credits, which full-time students can complete in two years. These credits frequently include general education coursework in English, math, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Associate learners may also take classes in public speaking and computers, plus concentration-specific coursework. For example, accounting students may need classes in federal taxation and business law, and education students may take child development and literacy courses. Schools can also require college introduction classes, which familiarize students with higher education and help them develop study skills.
Beyond the usual papers, exams, and projects, some programs require field experiences, clinicals, labs, practicums, or internships. These requirements are particularly common in healthcare programs, like medical assistant or nursing degrees. Similarly, early childhood education programs may require practicums in preschools or childcares, and paralegal students may need to complete an internship.
Departments often insist on minimum GPAs for graduation.
Cost of an Associate Degree
Students may need to take out student loans with payment plans in order to afford tuition, which can lead to student loan default or forced pauses in studying for candidates who fall behind on tuition payments.
To help manage costs like tuition and textbooks, degree-seekers should fill out a FAFSA to apply for financial aid, which can give them access to grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. Readers can visit this page for more information on financial assistance. Typically, you don't want your cost of attendance to exceed your financial aid award, though a reasonable out-of-pocket amount is sometimes acceptable.
Public schools are usually cheaper than private institutions. In-state programs can also cost less than out-of-state options, and online students may also pay less for tuition, though they often need to pay technology fees. Students should consider all of these factors when choosing programs.
Online Associate Degree Programs
Some online associate degrees require general coursework that transfers into bachelor's programs. Others have focused curriculums that lead to immediate careers.
At most institutions, online and on-campus programs are taught by the same faculty, but virtual delivery allows students to complete assignments on their own schedules, without visiting campus. This means that distance programs can offer flexibility without sacrificing quality. Online programs may also cost less than in-person options, especially since degree-seekers do not have traveling costs.
How to Choose an Online Associate Degree?
Students should consider time requirements when choosing associate degree programs. Learners who want to earn their degrees quickly, for instance, should avoid programs with high credit requirements. Additionally, degree-seekers with hectic schedules should choose asynchronous programs, since synchronous options require set attendance times.
An online associate program should prepare for career goals, and all program costs should not exceed the student's budget.
Frequently Asked Questions
Associate degrees introduce learners to foundational concepts related to their disciplines, as well as general education subjects. These courses are usually harder than high school classes, but not as in-depth as upper-level or graduate curriculums.
Time frames and credit requirements vary, but degree-seekers usually graduate in two years. Individuals who complete AP courses in high school may graduate more quickly.
For some fields, an associate degree meets the criteria for certifications, licenses, or entry-level careers. Other professions require higher degrees, which students can pursue after earning a college associate degree, though they may also go directly into a bachelor's program.
Virtual learning lets students complete assignments on their own schedules and eliminates travel time and cost. These details allow learners to advance in their careers while managing day-to-day responsibilities.
Associate degrees can qualify individuals for many careers, including as dental hygienists, preschool teachers, paralegals, MRI technologists, and web developers. Graduates can also transfer into bachelor's programs.
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