There are college degrees that do not require students to attend school for four years to complete. One such degree is an associate degree, which is cheaper than a bachelor’s degree and takes half the time to finish. It typically covers around 60 semester credits or 90 quarter credits. Upon finishing the degree, learners can opt to pursue further studies or enter the professional realm, affording them a lot of flexibility.
As such, the number of associate degree enrollees in the United States has already progressively been increasing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and has begun to rise further now that online degrees have become the norm. The 2020-2021 academic year saw a projected 600,000 female and 383,000 male students enroll in associate degrees, slated to increase to 615,000 and 392,000, respectively by 2030 (NCES, 2020). This underscores the relevance and importance of associate degrees.
This guide will tackle what is an associate degree and discuss the basics of the program, from the general types to the costs and requirements needed to obtain one. Students will learn the benefits of choosing such a degree and if it is worth it, given the presence of more in-depth educational options like bachelor’s and graduate degrees.
An associate degree is an academic program that covers the fundamental knowledge of a subject. Normally taken at the undergraduate level, the program can be completed within two years and is half as costly as a four-year bachelor’s program. Whether taken online or face-to-face, it affords students sufficient proficiency to take on basic jobs or enter longer academic programs upon completion.
Associate degrees and diplomas bear a host of similarities. Both can be obtained in a shorter period than a bachelor’s degree and provide learners the skills to find jobs in the professional realm. But there is also a world of difference between the two. So what exactly are the differences?
Associate degrees are diverse not only in range but also in the manner in which students can take them. Students can pick a subject in fields like medicine, computer science, and liberal arts, as well as take an associate degree concurrently with their bachelor’s degree. They can even proceed to the job market if they choose to after earning one. But this is all hinged on the type of degree a learner opts for. There are three major kinds.
An AA degree grants learners liberal arts education, covering subjects like literature, humanities, mathematics, history, and life sciences. Aside from a mastery of academics, it allows students to communicate better and build on their ability to conduct and process research.
Average time of completion: 2 years
Natural and applied sciences are at the center of an AS degree, as students gain an understanding of different branches of science mixed with general education. Covered subjects include computer science, chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics. As far as skills are concerned, students get to pick up knowledge that is useful in continuing education and the professional realm.
Average time of completion: 2 years
For students who, instead of pursuing their education, intend to work right after graduation, an AAS degree comes as the logical choice. The program is tailored to prepare learners for a career, so, aside from the core subjects, soft skills and job ethics are taught. Similar to diploma courses, much of the coursework is populated with classes in career education.
Average time of completion: 2 years
Given the vast range of associate degrees available, its lower costs, and the short time it takes to earn one, its popularity in the US continues to experience an upward trend. COVID-19 might have interrupted schooling for a long period, but when the situation stabilized, it has experienced a surge.
Source: NCES 2020
Admission into an associate degree is normally relative to the program chosen, the guidelines of the institution, and the common practices in the state. However, there are associate degree requirements generally found across the board no matter the program or institution a student goes with, from admission standards to grade point averages maintained. Before entering a degree, a school expects its would-be learners to ascertain their academic proficiency in high school.
Proof of High School Graduation
Before advancing to an associate degree, prospective students should submit proof that they graduated from high school. This comes in the form of a diploma and/or its GED equivalent.
Cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA)
Colleges and universities typically require a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 in high school. Take note that some departments or subjects might require higher averages.
Since each subject pertains to a branch of knowledge, some schools and departments require students to show proof that they completed the necessary education to seamlessly imbibe the upcoming lessons. For instance, a business degree may need proof that a learner has finished four high school units in English, two units of science, and five units of a combination of humanities, social studies, and language.
Proof of Passing the State High School Equivalency Exam
To further ascertain the competency of aspirants, there are schools that ask applicants to submit documentation that proves their passing of the State High School Equivalency exam. This legitimizes the applicants’ claim that they are in a position to absorb the upcoming lessons should they qualify.
Communication is key to understanding any of the lessons that will be discussed, thus schools require students to show proof that they are proficient in the language used for instruction. In the case of US educational institutions, this could come in the form of citizenship in an English-speaking country, scoring 500 (paper-based) or 60 (online) in the TOEFL, and, for international transferees, earning a bachelor’s degree from a school that primarily teaches in English.
Associate degrees are much more affordable than bachelor’s degrees given the shorter curricula, shorter completion time, and fewer resources they entail in general. In a lot of cases, associate degrees are around half the price of their four-year counterparts. As such, they come as a cost-effective option.
On average, an associate degree from a public institution nets around $10,950 annually, inclusive of room and board rates, while private institutions charge about $28,627 each year (NCES, 2021). If we factor in living expenses such as rent and transportation, the costs rise dramatically but public institutions remain significantly cheaper.
|Fort Hays University||$6,560|
|American Public University System||$8,100|
|University of Arkansas at Little Rock||$8,400|
|University of Southern Mississippi||$8,624|
|University of North Carolina at Greensboro||$10,061|
|Washington State University||$11,550|
|University of Illinois at Sprinfield||$12,105|
|University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth||$12,630|
|University of Tennessee-Martin||$13,650|
An associate degree is definitely worth it, especially to students who are working on a tight budget and looking to explore their scholastic and professional options thereafter. The return on investment is significant should degree-earners take their upcoming endeavors seriously. And data actually backs this up.
In a study titled “Are They Still Worth It? The Long-Run Earnings Benefits of an Associate Degree, Vocational Diploma or Certificate, and Some College”, published in The Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, it was proven that there are “higher annual and cumulative twenty-year earnings up to mid-adulthood among individuals with sub-baccalaureate education at all levels (associate degree, vocational diploma or certificate, and college dropout) relative to high school graduates … consistent with the notion that sub-baccalaureate education has long-term economic benefits” (Kim & Tamborini, 2019).
Earning an associate degree brings a plethora of benefits, and these advantages touch on one’s budget and scholastic and professional goals. Having a degree also expands one’s options for work, some of which pay well. To give you a clearer picture, the data below will expound on each of them.
Transferrable School Credits
It is common for associate degree-holders to advance their studies by taking up a bachelor’s degree. One of the reasons for this is that the completed courses in an associate degree can be credited when taking a bachelor’s program. What normally takes a learner four years to complete is reduced by transferrable credits. This also works for those who already have some college education and would want to finish their studies.
There is a considerable difference in tuition costs between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. If we consolidate and then average the costs of public and private institutions, inclusive of room and board charges, a bachelor’s degree would cost around $28,123 annually, more than double the average annual cost of an associate degree, $11,389 (NCES, 2021).
Students who are raring to start a career will only take two years of schooling before entering the business realm should they choose to take up an associate degree. This is half the time it takes for bachelor’s degree students to complete their studies.
Plenty of Career Opportunities
Many jobs require college degrees, some of which come with sizable compensation. This means associate-degree holders have more career opportunities than those with only high diplomas or those who only completed a certificate course. Furthermore, an associate of applied science degree teaches students the fundamentals of how to perform their future jobs, thus granting them an outright advantage when applying.
If we take a look at the numbers, the unemployment rate of associate degree holders (7.1%) is significantly lower than those with some college education (8.3%), a high school diploma (9%), and less than a high school diploma (11.7%) (Torpey, 2021).
With more career opportunities comes the likelihood of entering a high-paying job, and high-paying jobs are aplenty for those who graduated with an associate degree. The median weekly earnings of associate degree holders amount to $938, more than those who finished with some college education ($877), a high school diploma ($781), and less than a high school diploma ($619) (Torpey, 2021). If we focus on the more in-demand occupations of degree holders, the earnings are far bigger.
Source: BLS 2020
Speaking of large incomes, students who earned an associate degree have access to a host of high-paying jobs. The wages for these occupations far exceed the national average as of the first quarter of 2021, which is $989 per week (or $51,428 annually) (BLS, 2021). For associate degrees in general, the highest paying entry-level occupation is air traffic controller with an annual wage of $124,450, followed by radiation therapist ($80, 570), nuclear technician ($80,370), funeral service manager ($78,040), and nuclear medicine technologist ($75,660) (Torpey, 2019). Moreover, each type of associate degree provides graduates access to a set of worthwhile jobs.
Account executives are chiefly responsible for communicating with clients of companies like advertising agencies and public relations firms. They ensure that a client’s requests are received by their company’s operations as well as manage expectations of both the company and its clientele.
Median Salary: $65,196 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Business Administration
Social Media Manager
Social media managers come up with strategies to raise the online presence of clients and implement them on the most relevant social media platforms. Through social media posts, ranging from statuses to videos, they connect their clients with their target audiences from any part of the world.
Median Salary: $45,938 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Marketing
Web designers create designs and layouts of web portals, ensuring that websites are not only aesthetically pleasing but also conform to the preferences of their target audience. Typically, these professionals are highly creative and knowledgeable in programming languages like CSS and HTML.
Median Salary: $47,857 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Multimedia Design, Graphic Design, or Computer Programming
Paralegals provide assistance to attorneys in numerous fields, including the preparation for trials, hearings, and client meetings. They also draft court documents and conduct legal research. This underscores the expansive list of competencies these professionals possess.
Median Salary: $50,426 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
Cardiovascular technologists have a varied skill set that they apply in different areas of cardiology. They perform tests and handle equipment like defibrillators, electrocardiograms, and pacemakers. As such, these medical professionals assist physicians in treating and diagnosing patients with heart conditions.
Median Salary: $63,638 (Payscale, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Cardiovascular Technology
Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technician
Aerospace engineering and operations technicians ensure that aircraft and spacecraft are safe to operate. They test, maintain, and install equipment to make sure that everything is working at an optimum level. Besides the external parts of aircraft, these professionals also account for the operations of internal computer systems.
Median Salary: $68,570 (BLS, 2020)
Degree: Associate Degree in Aerospace Engineering Technology
Dental hygienists perform a wide array of functions to help both dentists and patients. These responsibilities include prophylaxis, reviewing patients’ dental histories, conducting preventive care, and advising patients on how to properly take care of their teeth. As such, they work closely with dentists.
Median Salary: $79,909 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene
Registered nurses are like the operational arms of doctors in that they assist in most major medical procedures, from observing patients to administering various treatments. Working closely with physicians, they can also give insights to patients on recovery and the finer points of treatment plans.
Median Salary: $78,748 with annual overtime compensation of around $11,250 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Nursing
Median Salary: $73,410 (Indeed, 2021)
Degree: Associate Degree in Web Development
Source: BLS 2019
An associate degree is a worthwhile option for learners for a number of reasons. While bachelor’s degrees offer a deeper dive into the core subject matter as well as general education, an associate reduces the costs and the time for one to graduate. This helps when a country faces sour economic conditions, such as inflation or policies that cause tuition and fees to rise faster than financial aid.
Furthermore, degree holders have access to more jobs and normally have higher salaries than those with lower educational attainment. In fact, in-demand associate degree jobs like account executives, web developers, and registered nurses have higher pay than the national average.
Another high point of an associate degree is its versatility. Students can take one whether they plan to advance their studies in the future or enter a career after only two years of studying.
To know more about your options for higher education, you can read our guide on the different types of college degrees.