What is an Associate Degree and Why is it Important

What is an Associate Degree and Why is it Important
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

If high school is for building and strengthening fundamental learning, college is about preparing learners for life in the professional world. As such, it is important for high school graduates to not only the program but also the type of degree they wish to enter. An associate degree comes as a popular choice. It is more affordable and faster to complete than bachelor’s degrees and affords the flexibility to either pursue one’s studies further or enter the professional realm upon completion.

This article discusses what is an associate degree and how important can it be. These are questions that are addressed below to assist high school graduates in determining the ideal college majors to pursue and career paths they might want to take.

Associate Degree Table of Contents

  1. What is an Associate Degree?
  2. 5 Differences Between an Associate Degree and Bachelor’s Degree
  3. Where to Find Educational Institutions that Offer an Associate Degree
  4. Careers with an Associate Degree (Highest Paid)
  5. Transitioning from an Associate Degree to a Bachelor’s Degree
  6. Trends in Associate Degree Programs

What is an Associate Degree?

An associate degree is a special program that an individual can undertake at the undergraduate level at a community or vocational college. Through it, students can gain basic academic and technical skills and knowledge for two years. With these, they can seek employment or go for further education (EDSmart, 2020; Haidar, 2020).

Associate degree programs are most common in the United States but they are also offered in Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom (Haidar, 2020). And just like bachelor’s degrees, there are numerous types:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
  • Associate of Applied Business (AAB)
  • Associate of General Studies (AGS)
  • Associate of Business Administration (ABA) (EDSmart, 2020)

5 Differences Between an Associate Degree and Bachelor’s Degree

There are many deciding factors that one has to consider before choosing to study for a bachelor’s or an associate degree. The following are the most common differences between the two, understanding which can help individuals determine the course to take.


The most obvious difference between the two is the time required to finish the courses: an associate degree takes only two years to complete while a bachelor’s degree requires four years. Now, there are programs that require less than that for the associate degree, offering a pathway for fast fulfillment. By taking that route, it is possible to have an associate degree in as fast as 15 months (Fremont College, 2018).


Some research is required to know how much is an associate degree. The cost per credit varies from school to school. However, an associate degree would still be less expensive compared to a bachelor’s degree. For example, Southern New Hampshire University enables students to finish an online associate degree with 60 credits for $19,200 (SNHU, 2020). Another example is Sessions College, which lets individuals finish an associate degree program for $31,320 (2020).

Meanwhile, the average college tuition costs in the United States for the school year 2019-2020 was $30,500 annually. However, this can vary when taking into account in-state and out-of-state rates and whether the student is attending a public or private institution. For example, the average annual cost for a public four-year in-state college or university would be around $21,950. For a public four-year out-of-state institution, that figure hits $38,820 annually. And for a private, nonprofit four-year institution, the amount magnifies to $49,879 per year (Bustamante, 2019).

Admission Requirements

For a bachelor’s degree, the list of requirements for admission is long and competitive. It all starts with the high school transcript. For example, students who want to be competitive and increase their chances of entering Yale are advised to challenge themselves with rigorous courses during the senior year. The university also looks for a balanced list of courses, thus it is expected that applicants take English, math, science, social sciences, and foreign language every year (Yale College Undergraduate Admissions, n.d.).

On the other hand, entry requirements for an associate degree are less so. On top of that, application deadlines are longer (Haidar, 2020). This offers an alternate path to students who were unable to meet the conditions for the admission of their selected bachelor’s degree program but still want to go to college.

Depth of Study

An associate degree arms the student with a basic set of skills and elementary knowledge in a field. These would be enough to allow a learner to be competent enough when they start on their career paths. Generally, students need to have 60 to 80 credit hours in order to say that they completed a program and received a diploma (Delaware Community College, n.d.).

Moreover, signing up for an associate degree no longer requires the student to pass a final project such as an undergraduate thesis (Capella University, 2017).

The same cannot be said for a bachelor’s degree. It requires a final project, which is generally an undergraduate thesis. And when it comes to credit hours, a minimum of 120 credits is needed for a student to be considered for graduation and conferment of the degree (Wayne State University Bulletins, n.d.).

Employment and Salary

According to recent American school statistics, those with an associate degree usually have median weekly earnings of $887 (BLS, 2020a). And the unemployment rate is 2.7%. Meanwhile, those with some college education but have no degrees have median weekly earnings of $833 and an unemployment rate of 3.3%.

Math1.81 minutes  1 minute 
Reading1.25 minutes  52.5 seconds
English (ACT)
Writing and Language (SAT)
47.72 seconds 36 seconds
Essay50 minutes 40 minutes
Source: StudyUSA.com, November 2016

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Where to Find Educational Institutions that Offer an Associate Degree

Associate degree programs are common in the U.S. but it actually started in the U.K. There, it is called the foundation degree. These are not the only countries where students can find AD programs. Below are other countries that offer those as well as a shortlist of colleges or institutions that have them.

United States

  • Purdue University Global
  • Southern New Hampshire University
  • Capella University
  • Strayer University


  • Canada College
  • Vancouver Island University
  • Columbia College
  • Douglas College
  • University of Canada West

Hong Kong

  • HKU SPACE Community College
  • Hong Kong Baptist University
  • The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
  • City University of Hong Kong
  • The Education University of Hong Kong


  • Charles Darwin University
  • University of Tasmania
  • Deakin University
  • La Trobe University
  • University of South Australia

The Netherlands

  • The Hague University
  • NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Tio University of Applied Sciences

United Kingdom

  • University of London
  • Mont Rose College of Management & Sciences
  • Kingston University
  • Ulster University
  • The Open University (fully online university for distance learning)

Careers with an Associate Degree (Highest Paid)

It is not just fields of work requiring bachelor’s degrees that offer high salaries. Occupations that only need associate degrees have high wages, too. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the nine highest paid professions for associate degree earners:

Aerospace engineering and operations technicians

The salary estimates of aerospace engineering and operations technicians can range from $14 to $36 per hour (PayScale, n.d.). Yearly, they can take home anywhere from $63,000 to $100,000 (Glassdoor, 2020).

Web developers

According to ZipRecruiter (2020), web developers can earn $40,000 in the least and $120,000 the most in a year. But the national average is $75,073 per year. This puts it in the 75th percentile across the United States.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologists

The median salary of MRI technologists was $71,670 in 2018. Meanwhile, the highest-paid took home $83,460 and the lowest-paid brought home $59,460. Washington was the state that gave MRI technicians the highest salaries: $91,290. But the city that provided MRI technologists with the highest salary was San Francisco ($97,490) (US News Best Jobs, 2018).

Salary.com (2020), on the other hand, shows that the median range for MRI Technologist I is $69,330 this 2020. And upper-level earners can earn as much as $87,694 per year. However, MRI Technologist II and III have median earnings of $78,317 and $92,068, respectively.

Diagnostic medical sonographers

Diagnostic medical sonographers, a career in the field of radiology, earned a median annual wage of $74,320. Those in the 90th percentile could earn as much as $102,060 per year. The states with the highest number of employment for this occupation are California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois (BLS, 2019).

Dental hygienists

A dental hygienist in the U.S. has an average base salary of $37.84 per hour. In a year, they can earn an average of $78,097 (Indeed, 2019).

Nuclear medicine technologists

Nuclear medicine technologists are usually employed by hospitals but they are also in physicians’ clinics, medical and diagnostic laboratories, and outpatient care centers. Generally, they earn around $77,950 per year but the lowest 10% can take home $56,560 and the highest 10% can have a salary of $105,690 (CollegeGrad, 2018).

Funeral service managers

The starting salary for funeral service managers is between $41,410 and $59,970 per year. Meanwhile, those who have tenure can expect to earn $93,820 in a year. And if they want to make sure they have high earnings, they can look towards New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which offer the top 5 highest salaries for the occupation (OwlGuru, 2020).

Radiation therapists

The national average per hour pay of radiation therapists in 2020 is $42 per hour. This translates to an annual income of $88,324. Additionally, there is little variation in the salary for this occupation. Thus, wherever in the United States they may be, their earnings would still be similar (ZipRecruiter, 2020).

Note that aside from an associate degree, most states require radiation therapists to have accreditation from a recognized radiation therapy program. They should also have certification from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). To achieve that, future radiation therapists must take the certification exam from ARRT (BLS, 2020b).

Air traffic controllers

Air traffic controllers have an average base salary of $45,091 per year in the U.S. This can still go up depending on the tenure or skill level of the individual. So far, the company that has the highest salary for ATCs is the Federal Aviation Administration at $142,590 per year. And the city that pays ATCs the most is Washington, D.C. with an average of $125,611 annually (Indeed, 2020).

Source: Glassdoor, 2020; Indeed, 2020; Salary.com, 2020; ZipRecruiter, 2020; Indeed, 2019; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019; CollegeGrad, 2018; OwlGuru, 2020;

Transitioning from an Associate Degree to a Bachelor’s Degree

Once an individual finishes their associate degree, he/she has the option to proceed to a bachelor’s degree program. They can use the coursework they finished to apply at other universities or colleges. This is possible in the U.S. through articulation agreements, which are accords between educational institutions that enable the transfer of credits (Wiggins, 2018).

Additionally, it is recommended that holders of associate degrees test out of classes whenever they could. This means that they have to display a level of proficiency that allows them to skip certain courses. For example, Northeastern University has prior learning assessments (PLAs) that test individuals of their mastery of a subject (Burnham, 2018).

During the 2018-2019 academic year, there was a 1.4% increase in associate degree earners from the previous school year. However, looking at the historical data, there is an overall decrease in the number of individuals who earned an associate degree for the first time (Dembicki, 2020).

When it comes to which fields have the most degree earners, the National Center for Education Statistics (2020) shows that two-thirds of the one million degrees conferred in 2017-2018 were mostly in the liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; health professions and related programs, and business.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Why Choose an Associate Degree?

If an individual wants to fast-track his/her career, they can opt for an associate’s degree rather than a bachelor’s degree. That is because an associate degree can be completed in two years. There are even universities or colleges that allow students to expedite the completion of an associate program. That means learners can earn their associate degrees in as fast as 15 months.

This is also a great education pathway for those who want to have university or college education but are still quite unsure of the major or field they want to focus on. By entering an associate degree program, they can explore options and discover which educational and career track they have an affinity for.

Moreover, an associate degree is suitable for professionals who want to strengthen their credentials. If ever they want to branch out of their current occupation, they can augment their skills and knowledge through an associate degree.



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  4. CollegeGrad. (2018). Nuclear medicine technologists: Jobs, career, salary and education information. CollegeGrad.
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  18. BLS (2020, May 11). Learn More, Earn More: Education Leads to Higher Wages, Lower Unemployment. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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  20. U.S. News (2018). How much can an MRI technologist expect to get paid? U.S. News Best Jobs.
  21. Wayne State University (n.d.). Bachelor’s degree requirements. Wayne State University Bulletins.
  22. Wiggins, C. A. (2018, September 20). How to transition from an associate to a bachelor’s degree. World Education Services.
  23. Yale College Undergraduate Admissions (n.d.). Advice on selecting high school courses. New Haven, CT: Yale University.
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  25. ZipRecruiter (2020b, June 25). Web developer annual salary. Zip Recruiter.


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