How Long Does it Take to Get an Associate Degree?

written by: T. Panter
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Are you considering the pursuit of an associate’s degree?  If so, you may be wondering how long it could take you to get an associate’s degree. Associate’s degrees are a popular choice for students who are interested in earning a degree as quickly as possible. It is true that there may be some variations depending on the field,.  However, most associate’s degrees can be completed in about two years. The majority of associate degree students graduate from a junior college or trade school in just 18 to 28 months. This short timeline bodes very well for students who are eager to start a career immediately. Not everyone wants to spend many years in college. And even less people want to finish college with a large amount of debt.  A two year associate’s degree is a great option.  Associate’s programs also help speed up bachelor’s degrees.  The completion of an associate’s degree creates a 2+2 transfer format.  This means that a student can spend two years earning an associate’s degree, and then choose to transfer directly into a four year program with two years already completed.  This practical format makes for a faster, cheaper undergrad education.  The following article offers some information on associate’s degrees.  This article includes a lot of important information. What an associate’s degree entails, the different types of two year degrees, what careers associate’s degrees can offer, and the benefits of earning an associate’s degree will all be covered.

What is an Associate’s Degree?

What exactly is an associate’s degree?  An associate’s degree is considered by many to be half of a bachelor’s degree.  It is a marked level of education in between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree.  Associate’s degrees cover the lower-division undergrad credits with 100- and 200-level courses. Students are usually required to complete around 60 credit hours in order to earn themselves an associate’s degree. In many cases, an associate’s degree can involve much less work at a less expensive cost when compared to a four year degree program. Associate’s programs are generally offered at community colleges and technical schools. There are certain universities that also award associate’s degrees in their professional studies departments. Associate’s degrees are a flexible option, as they may be delivered as daytime, evening, or weekend programs. This is a major benefit. It offers a variety of options for both working and non-traditional students. In today’s digital age, associate’s majors can study on-campus, online, or in a hybrid blend of the two. Online associate’s programs offer the greatest flexibility.  These programs allow the learner to log into virtual classrooms.  These classrooms are available anytime 24/7 on one’s unique schedule. With all these options available, it is easier for students to find a program that works for them.

What is the Curriculum for an Associate’s Degree?

Most associate’s degrees have a two-year structure of 60-68 credits. The curriculum for an associate’s degree is most often comprised of three types of courses. These three course types are general education classes, major-related courses, and electives. General education builds atop the 12th grade level in core academic subjects. First-year associate’s students study basic subjects such as English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. Humanities requirements may include either one semester or a full year of a foreign language. Some community colleges also mandate a freshman orientation course during the first Fall term. From there, students with declared majors can dive into their chosen area of study. Major-related courses develop specialized knowledge and skills for a certain profession. This article will cover some of the most popular associate’s majors. In addition to the required courses, to meet the 60 required credits, associate’s degree program allow for free electives in any subject. Students can use these electives to explore new fields or to deepen their majors.

What are Associate’s Degree Admission Requirements?

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Those looking to enter a degree program will find that the admissions process at a junior college or vocational school is much less competitive. The majority of associate’s degree programs have rolling admission year-round.  This means that you are able to apply to one of these programs at any time.  The majority of programs also offer almost 100 percent acceptance. Anyone who fulfills basic academic readiness criteria can enter. Associate’s majors must hold a high school diploma or pass the General Educational Development (GED) test. Some colleges accept the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) too. The only exception to these requirements is for high school juniors and seniors in dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment programs are becoming a more popular option. Many community colleges have these concurrent enrollment options for 11th and 12th graders.  These programs allow high school students to take up to 18 credits before graduation. Earning credits while still in high school can help to shorten the process of earning a degree. Junior college students must maintain good academic standing with 2.0 or better GPAs. Some majors are restrictive for GPAs above 2.25 or 2.5. You can contact the admissions office of your school of choice for any specific associate’s degree requirements.

How Long Does it Take to Get an Associate’s Degree?

Associate degrees most often take two years or four full-time semesters to complete. Some students, particularly those in an online program, may have the option to finish the associate’s degree in less than two years. You may wonder how this could be possible. The answer is that online colleges often deliver accelerated courses. Accelerated associate’s courses can shrink the standard 16-week semester down.  It can sometimes be shortened to as little as six or eight weeks. The same content gets condensed into a faster format to reduce study time. Some of the shortest online associate’s degree programs take 12 to 18 months. Although these abbreviated programs are rare, they do exist.  Studying year-round without summer or winter breaks can speed things up. Transferring in previous college-level credits from AP or IB classes can help, as well. Many technical schools accept the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) credits. These CLEP tests are 34 equivalency tests that prove skill in a subject to skip taking the entire class. Online colleges sometimes also give adults the option to get some credit for relevant work and life experience.  This can be done through the use of portfolios.

There are some situations in which an associate’s degree could take longer than the standard 24-month time frame. Some examples of these longer programs are health care careers such as dental hygiene and occupational therapy.  These programs usually ask students to complete 70+ associate’s credits.  Individuals may become dental hygienists with nothing more than an associate’s degree.  But in actuality, this career requires three years of education. Likewise, finishing all the steps for a PT assistant associate’s degree for PTA certification can take longer than two years. Certain applied trades, such as an engineering technician and air traffic controller, may take up to three years as well. Sometimes the curricula includes hands-on learning such as internships and apprenticeships.  When you take into account these extra requirements, the time to graduation is longer. Associate’s degrees in the field of education can often take longer to complete, as well.  These programs usually include off-campus school observation hours as well as teaching practicum.  As we have seen, there are exceptions, and different careers can result in time variations. With that said, it is still safe to say that standard associate’s degrees are two-year programs.

Under ideal circumstances, every associate’s student would graduate within 24 months. But the truth is that life sometimes gets in the way. The Brookings Institution found that only 40 percent of associate’s majors earn their diploma in six years. About 14 percent of associate’s students go on to complete a bachelor’s degree. Students may need gap years to take care of family or work obligations. Individuals might struggle to afford tuition without working full-time. Pursuing an associate’s degree part-time regularly takes 48 to 72 months. Some associate’s majors fall behind without enough academic advising and tutoring. Retaking failed or missed classes adds to the degree timeline. Associate’s students who have a change of heart and switch majors will take more than 24 months. Various personal and professional factors can interrupt studies.  Each of these factors can extend the associate’s degree length.  Even with these possible interruptions in mind, an associate’s degree is still by far the best option for a quick degree completion program. A quick degree completion program enables the graduate to enter the workforce in the shortest amount of time.  

How Do Associate’s Degrees Compare to Technical Certificates?

Most students who are entering community colleges have two main options.  These options are an associate’s degree or a technical certificate. When comparing these two options, associate’s degrees are usually the longer route. Technical certificates are short-term training programs that aim to develop mastery in a specific area. They are designed for students to be able to immediately start their vocation without any need of a degree. These non-degree credentials are acceptable for some jobs. Some of these technical jobs are dental assistants, court reporters, HVAC installers, barbers, truck drivers, and more. Technical certificates provide what is equal to on-the-job training.  These technical programs help students to edge ahead of high school graduates. Getting a technical certificate requires as little as 12 credits or one semester. Certificate programs rarely entail more than 30 credits.  Because of this, the completion time is around 12 months. Certain community colleges also award vocational diplomas. Diplomas are a little more intensive than certificates and they usually average around 35-45 credits. Vocational diplomas could take up to 18 months. Both of these non-degree tracks have transferable credits at accredited colleges.

What are the Different Types of Associate’s Degrees?

As we have seen, the question “how long does it take to get an associate degree?” doesn’t have only one right answer. After all, there are several different associate’s degree types to take into consideration. Each associate’s degree comes with its own set of course and practice requirements. Perhaps the quickest degree type is the Associate of General Studies (AGS). As the name suggests, this is the most generalized associate’s degree. Almost any associate’s-level course, whether physics or physical education, counts toward this degree. AGS majors have free reign to select their coursework based on interest. This generalized degree program is a great option for those looking to experiment with various subject matters before committing to a bachelor’s degree. Associate of General Studies programs can be complete in as little as 12 months. This takes into account previous credits and accelerated online courses. Gaining a multitude of skills and knowledge can aid any with any career choice. Let’s look at some of the other common types of associate’s degrees.

  • Associate of Arts (AA)

    – Associate of Arts degrees are rooted in the humanities with a liberal arts core. Associate of Arts majors develop strong critical thinking, writing, speaking, and decision-making skills. Careers needing “soft” skills rather than technical abilities are the best career options for AA graduates. You will find that in general, AA degrees have a more flexible, less structured curriculum. There are few if any challenging science and math courses required. Instead, students fill up on introductory English, philosophy, sociology, history, psychology, and religion. AA programs are popular for undergrads seeking a 2+2 academic transfer pathway.  This pathway leads to a Bachelor of Arts major after 24 months.

  • Associate of Science (AS)

    – Associate of Science degrees are based in the scientific disciplines.  This is done with a thorough STEM core. Associate of Science majors strengthen their analytical, computer, research, and math skills. Careers in technical, laboratory, computing, and health care fields are best for AS graduates. Most AS degrees have a set schedule with fewer electives and humanities classes. Students can expect biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, computer science, and engineering courses. Capstone research projects might be integrated. AS degrees are another popular 2+2 academic transfer option. This program option takes future Bachelor of Science majors two to three years.

  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

    – Associate of Applied Science degrees are career-oriented.  This means that they focus on vocational fields. Associate of Applied Science majors learn workforce skills from construction to cosmetology. Hands-on learners who wish to immediately enter the workforce without a bachelor’s are great AAS majors. Many colleges don’t allow AAS graduates to transfer their highly concentrated courses. AAS degrees let students pick practical classes.  Some examples of these are auto mechanics, medical imaging, military technology, and plumbing. The general education core is minimal to make way for non-academic subjects. Depending on the major, AAS degrees take 18-36 months.

  • Associate of Business (AB)

    – Associate of Business degrees are another good option.  These degrees are concerned with the development of enterprising corporate entities. Associate of Business majors sharpen their leadership, teamwork, communication, and financial skills. Entry-level careers in the for-profit business sector are best for AB graduates. Most AB degrees follow a well-rounded business core.  This core consists of accounting, economics, marketing, and management courses. AB majors can select specialized business courses.  These courses can range from payroll processing to supply chain logistics. Community colleges with Associate of Business degrees often have good options for students. These include 2+2 transfer paths to B-school bachelor’s programs. Completing the AB major shouldn’t take longer than two years full-time.

  • Associate of Fine Arts (AFA)

    – Associate of Fine Arts degrees give an overview of the visual and performing arts. Associate of Fine Arts majors nurture their creative talents.  They can also nurture storytelling skills and imagination to express ideas in artwork. There are some great career options for AFA graduates. These include careers in the art, design, architecture, writing, and film or television worlds. Most AFA degrees let freshmen and sophomores try out several different forms of media. Some of these are studio-based courses, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic design, and ceramics. Performance-based courses like music, theater, photography, and video editing are also an important part of the curriculum.. AFA degrees are two-year stepping stones into accredited art institutes.  The AFA degree completes the first 60 credits of a Bachelor of Fine Arts and offers a cheaper option for those looking for a career in fine arts.

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

    –  Associate Degrees in Nursing are tailored to train health care practitioners.  These health care workers are trained to meet patients’ needs.  ADN majors develop the basic skills needed to assist doctors in medical facilities. In several states, an Associate Degree in Nursing is needed to become a registered nurse. As part of the degree program, students prepare for the NCLEX-RN exam with a solid core of life and health science courses. ADN programs blend many different courses.  These courses could include anatomy, nutrition, patient assessment, emergency medicine, surgical nursing, and pediatric care. Requirements for clinical practicum hours can make the ADN last beyond two years. Graduates qualify for entering fast RN-BSN tracks.  These tracks lead to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Is Earning an Associate’s Degree Beneficial?

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For most students, the next question to ask after “How long is an associates degree?” is “Will an associate’s degree be worth it?” Many wonder if spending 24 or more months on associate’s education will pay off.  The short answer is yes, it is worth it.  In many cases, it can lead directly into a profitable career.  In others, it works as a great springboard for a continued education program.  In April 2020, Community College Daily reported that 770,484 U.S. students received associate’s degrees last year. The number of freshmen choosing the associate’s route has jumped by 3.9 percent since 2017. America has 1,462 community colleges that serve about 13 million students in total. The biggest community college, Maricopa Community College in Arizona, has over 220,000 attendees. One of the main benefits of earning an associate’s degree, according to the U.S. News & World Report, is that they can act as a starting point. Students who are eager to start working soon can benefit.  Students with hopes of advancing to a bachelor’s in the future can benefit, as well. Here are some advantages of associate’s degrees.

    • Discounted Cost 

      Tuition rates at most colleges are based on a per-credit fee. On average, associate’s degrees ask students to complete 60 credits, and bachelor’s degrees about 120.  Because of this, the cost for an associate’s degree is cut in half. Paying for 60 credits at $250 apiece is cheaper than paying for 120 credits at that same rate. Yet, community colleges and trade schools often have much lower tuition than universities. CNBC reported in April 2019 that the average associate’s tuition was $3,660 per year. Average annual bachelor’s costs rise up to $35,830 at private, nonprofit colleges. Attending an associate’s program first can save students many thousands of dollars. Graduates usually finish their education with less debt when the choose to begin with an associate’s degree program.

    • Shorter Study Time

      The associate’s degree takes around two years to complete as opposed to four or more years. Associate’s graduates could finish in as little as 12 months. Less time studying allows for individuals to get into paying professional jobs faster. Associate’s programs ensure that people don’t have to wait 48+ months to begin their careers.  Sometimes, associate’s graduates enter their chosen field at the entry-level.  In many cases, they can then work on a bachelor’s degree at the same time. Getting an associate’s degree shortens the time to a baccalaureate as well. Transferring 60 AA or AS credits halves the 120-credit bachelor’s curriculum.

    • Distance Learning

      So many of the associate’s degree programs are offered 100% online. It is possible to finish all 60 credits without stepping on a college campus. Online learning is the most flexible degree mode to study anytime. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and WebEx bring classrooms right to students’ computers. Online learners learn how to use cutting-edge technology and communicate well with diverse peers all over the planet. Online associate’s degrees are cheaper, as they include no room and board costs.  There are also no costs for gas and tolls, which are common expenses for a commuting student.  Textbooks for online courses might be electronic, allowing students to skip bookstore fees. Online studies are eco-friendly since there are not any back-and-forth car commutes either.

    • Easier Admission

      There is a struggle for some to get into a bachelor’s program.  This is often a struggle for students who rank in the lower percentile of their graduating class.  The most competitive four-year colleges only admit about 5 percent of applicants. Perfect GPAs and test scores are essential to get accepted. Not every high school senior excels academically though. This should not mean that average students with mostly Cs and Ds can’t attend college. Associate’s degrees offer an easy opportunity to boost one’s grades. Applicants can usually enroll in an associate degree program with no prerequisites. They can also enroll with any GPA. Associate’s majors can work hard to boost their academic transcripts. When transferring, colleges will normally only look at associate’s performance.

    • Higher Pay Potential

      According to SmartAsset, the average salary for associate’s degree graduates is $41,496. Associate’s degree holders have a mean $798 weekly income. Indeed, that is lower than the $1,137 weekly and $59,124 annual earnings of bachelor’s grads. Associate’s students get a monetary boost above high school graduates though. Individuals with only a diploma or GED receive a $35,256 median wage. Workers who dropped out of college make $25,636 on average. The lifetime mean value of an associate’s degree is $1.6 million. Completing a cost-effective associate’s degree can put more cash into paychecks.

    • Better Job Stability

      Americans with associate’s degrees are more likely to be employed than high school grads. Jobs for people with only a diploma or GED are dwindling. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 65 percent of jobs require college training. Many careers aren’t available without an associate’s degree. Some of these careers include chemical technician, human resources assistant, paralegal, and radiation therapist. Getting locked out of jobs that require a college degree will limit one’s hiring prospects. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the employment rate for adults age 25 to 34 was 74 percent with a high school diploma. For the same age group, employment rose to 87 percent with an undergraduate degree.

What Careers Are Available with an Associate’s Degree?

One exciting fact about associate’s degrees is that they offer training that can be used in many careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook lists 46 jobs that need an associate’s degree. There are some popular career choices for associate’s degree holders. These include nuclear medicine technologist, preschool teacher, and registered nurse.  Other popular choices are electrical engineering technician, mechanical drafter, and  programmer. Nine of the associate’s-level careers predict much faster-than-average growth. For instance, the employment of diagnostic medical sonographers is projected to expand.  This field should expand 14 percent for 18,000 new jobs by 2028. Web developers can expect 20,900 openings for 13 percent growth. The hiring of veterinary technicians will skyrocket by 19 percent.  This projection predicts 21,100 animal care careers this decade. These careers are as different from each other as day and night.  Yet they are all possible with an associate’s degree.

Earning an associate’s degree can be a great way to jump start a career and gain work experience without being in debt for many years. Many exciting careers can be unlocked with an associate’s degree.  These range from radiologic technology to computer network support. Certain jobs, such as nuclear technicians, provide an above-average salary of over $80,000. Air traffic controllers even report a six-figure mean wage of $120,140. Look for high-quality associate’s degrees at accredited colleges. Accreditation is important to guarantee that the 60-credit curriculum meets industry standards. Choose a community college that offers both career and 2+2 transfer pathways. There are so many possibilities available to graduates of associate’s degree programs.  This makes it easy to see why it is such a good choice. That is especially true when considering how long it takes to complete an associate’s degree.

Updated January 2024

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