What is an Associate’s Degree?
An associate’s degree is considered by many to be half of 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 60 credits to earn the associate’s degree. Therefore, an associate’s degree involves much less work at a less expensive cost. Associate’s programs are generally offered at community colleges and technical schools. Certain universities also award associate’s degrees in their professional studies departments. Associate’s degrees may be delivered as daytime, evening, or weekend programs. This is a major benefit to have flexible options for 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 to log into virtual classrooms anytime 24/7 on one’s unique schedule. With all of 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 usually 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 English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. Humanities requirements may include 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 dive into their chosen area of study. Major-related courses develop specialized knowledge and skills for a certain profession. This article will dive into popular associate’s majors shortly. To meet the 60-credit minimum, associate’s degrees allow free electives in any subject. Students use electives to explore new fields or deepen their majors.
What are Associate’s Degree Admission Requirements?
Admission at junior colleges and vocational schools is much less competitive. The majority of associate’s programs have rolling admission year-round with nearly 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 is for high school juniors and seniors in dual enrollment programs. Community colleges have concurrent enrollment options for 11th and 12th graders to take up to 18 credits before graduation. Earning credits early helps minimize how long is an associates degree. Junior college students typically must maintain good academic standing with 2.0 or better GPAs. Some majors are restrictive for GPAs above 2.25 or 2.5. Contact the admission office for specific associate’s requirements.
How Long Does it Take to Get an Associate’s Degree?
Associate degrees typically take two years or four full-time semesters to complete. A student in an online program may finish the associate’s degree in less than two years. How is this possible? Online colleges often deliver accelerated courses. Accelerated associate’s courses shrink the standard 16-week semester down to about six or eight weeks. The same content gets condensed into a faster format to reduce study time. Some of the shortest online associate’s degrees take 12 to 18 months. Studying year-round without summer or winter breaks speeds things up. Transferring in previous college-level credits from AP or IB classes helps. Many technical schools accept the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) credits. These are 34 equivalency tests that prove proficiency in a subject to skip taking the entire class. Online colleges give adults options for gaining work and life experience credits through portfolios too.
Some associate’s degrees may take slightly longer than the standard 24-month timeframe. For instance, several health care careers like dental hygienists and occupational therapy assistants need 70+ associate’s credits. Individuals may become dental hygienists with an associate’s degree, but this career actually requires three years of education. Finishing all the steps for a physical therapist 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 three years. When curricula include hands-on applied learning like internships and apprenticeships, the time to graduation is naturally longer. Associate’s degrees in education can be harder with off-campus school observation hours and teaching practica. Although different careers may result in time variations, associate’s degrees are normally two-year programs.
In a perfect world, every associate’s student would graduate within 24 months. However, life sometimes gets in the way. The Brookings Institution found that only 40 percent of associate’s majors earn their diploma in a whopping 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 sufficient 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 to extend the associate’s degree length.
How Do Associate’s Degrees Compare to Technical Certificates?
Students entering community colleges have two main options: an associate’s degree or technical certificate. In this case, associate’s degrees are the longer route. Technical certificates are short-term training programs that develop mastery in a certain niche. They’re designed to immediately start vocations that don’t necessitate any degree. These non-degree credentials are acceptable for dental assistants, court reporters, HVAC installers, barbers, truck drivers, and more. Technical certificates provide the equivalent of on-the-job training to edge ahead of high school grads. Getting a technical certificate requires as little as 12 credits or one semester. Certificate programs rarely entail more than 30 credits, so the completion time is around 12 months. Certain community colleges also award vocational diplomas. Diplomas are slightly more intensive than certificates at around 35-45 credits. Vocational diplomas could take up to 18 months. Both non-degree tracks have transferrable credits at accredited colleges.
What are the Different Types of Associate’s Degrees?
The question “how long is an associates degree?” doesn’t have 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, they’re the most generalized associate’s degree. Virtually any associate’s-level course, whether physics or physical education, counts toward this degree. AGS majors have free reign to select their coursework at whim. It’s a great interdisciplinary option to taste-test various fields before a bachelor’s degree. Associate of General Studies programs can be as short as 12 months with previous credits and accelerated online courses. Gaining a multitude of skills and knowledge can aid any career. Let’s look at 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 best for AA graduates. Most AA degrees have a more flexible, less structured curriculum. There are few if any tough 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 to a Bachelor of Arts major after 24 months.
- Associate of Science (AS) – Associate of Science degrees are based in scientific disciplines 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 that takes future Bachelor of Science majors two to three years.
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS) – Associate of Applied Science degrees are career-oriented to 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 classes like 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 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 of accounting, economics, marketing, and management courses. AB majors can select specialized business courses from payroll processing to supply chain logistics. Community colleges with Associate of Business degrees often have 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 a generous overview of the visual and performing arts. Associate of Fine Arts majors nurture their creative talents, storytelling skills, and imagination to express ideas in artwork. Careers in the art, design, architecture, writing, and film or television worlds are great for AFA graduates. Most AFA degrees let freshmen and sophomores try out several different media. Get ready for studio-based courses, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic design, and ceramics. Performance-based courses like music, theater, photography, and video editing are also likely. AFA degrees are two-year stepping stones into accredited art institutes to complete the first 60 credits of a Bachelor of Fine Arts cheaper.
- Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) – Associate Degrees in Nursing are tailored to train health care practitioners for meeting patients’ caregiving needs. ADN majors develop the fundamental treatment skills needed to assist doctors in medical facilities. In several states, an Associate Degree in Nursing is the minimum education level to become a registered nurse. Students prepare for the NCLEX-RN exam with a solid core of life and health science courses. ADN programs blend courses like 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 for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
Is Earning an Associate’s Degree Beneficial?
For most students, the second question 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. 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, 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 and students with hopes of advancing to a bachelor’s in the future can benefit. Here are some advantages of associate’s degrees.
- Discounted Cost – Tuition rates at most colleges are based on a per-credit fee. Since associate degrees generally require 60 credits, and bachelor’s degrees require about 120, 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. However, community colleges and trade schools frequently 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 thousands of dollars. Graduates usually have less debt despite the $1.6 trillion student loan crisis too.
- Shorter Study Time – The associate’s degree takes around two years as opposed to four or more years. Associate’s graduates could finish in as little as 12 months. Less time studying gets individuals into paying professional jobs faster. Associate’s programs ensure people don’t have to wait 48+ months to begin earning a stable income. Sometimes, associate’s graduates enter their chosen field at the entry-level and work on a bachelor’s degree simultaneously. Getting an associate’s degree shortens the time to a baccalaureate as well. Transferring 60 Associate of Arts or Associate of Science credits halves the 120-credit bachelor’s curriculum.
- Distance Learning – Many associate’s degree programs are offered entirely 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 with no room and board costs. Textbooks might be electronic to skip bookstore fees. Online studies are eco-friendly since there are not any back-and-forth car commutes either.
- Easier Admission – Students who rank in the lower percentile of their graduating class can struggle with getting into bachelor’s programs. The most competitive four-year colleges, such as Harvard and Stanford, 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. That does not mean 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 any GPA and no prerequisites. 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 gainfully 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, including chemical technician, human resources assistant, paralegal, and radiation therapist, aren’t available without an associate’s. Getting locked out of jobs needing 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.
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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 require an associate’s degree. Some popular career choices for associate’s degree holders include nuclear medicine technologist, preschool teacher, registered nurse, electrical engineering technician, mechanical drafter, and computer programmer. Nine of the associate’s-level careers predict much faster-than-average growth. For instance, the employment of diagnostic medical sonographers will expand by 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 for 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 jumpstart a career and gain work experience without being in debt for many years. Careers from radiologic technology to computer network support are unlocked with an associate’s degree. 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 regionally 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. With so many possibilities available to graduates of associate’s degree programs, it is 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.