Whether you’re fresh out of high school, or looking to advance your career with further education, the next steps can seem daunting. Picking the right subjects and figuring out how to pay for 4-year college is difficult – to say the least. An associate degree might just be the answer you’re looking for. 

At the end of the day, what matters most is what you’ve actually learned. Education that lets you gain practical experience along with theoretical knowledge is invaluable in preparing you for real-world challenges. That’s where associate degree programs come in. 

But what are associate degrees? How are they different from other undergraduate programs? 

Let’s explore these topics and more through this comprehensive guide.

An associate degree is a two-year undergraduate academic program typically offered by community colleges, technical colleges, and some universities. It usually requires the completion of around 60 credit hours of coursework and provides foundational knowledge in a specific field of study.

An associate degree is usually more affordable than a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, in comparison with a four-year bachelor’s degree program, an associate degree lasts just for two years. This gives you enough time to understand what you’d like to study further and specialize in when you move forward in your higher education journey.

Is It an Associate Degree or an Associate’s Degree?

In most cases, both are correct. While the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook recommends “associate degree” (without the apostrophe), the Chicago Manual of Style allows for either usage. 

While there are several types of associate degree programs, some of them are more common than others. Let’s look at some of them in detail:

1. Associate of Arts (AA) 

An Associate of Arts degree program includes subjects like business, arts, humanities, and social sciences. For an individual with a creative mindset, an Associate degree in Arts can prove to be a great step towards a bachelor’s degree program, or specific entry-level creative roles.

2. Associate of Science (AS)

AS programs typically focus on disciplines within the sciences, such as mathematics, natural sciences, engineering, or technology. They help build a solid foundation in scientific principles and prepare you for further study or entry-level positions in scientific fields. The curriculum typically includes coursework in mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science, among other related subjects. Graduates with an AS degree may pursue careers in various industries or transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a related field.

3. Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

If you have a flair for technology and want to hone your vocational skills, then an Associate degree in Applied Science may be the right fit for you. These programs are designed to equip individuals to perform specific occupations or work in specific industries. These industries include and are not limited to hospitality management, paralegal studies, computer science technology, law enforcement, welding, etc.  Certain four-year degree programs now allow credits from AAS degrees to transfer into a bachelor’s program.

Related: What is an AAS Degree?

Now that you’ve understood the various types of associate degree programs, let’s dive deeper to understand the basic differences between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree.

Here is a table that summarizes the differences between an associate and a bachelor’s degree:

CriteriaAssociate DegreeBachelor’s Degree
Average Duration2 years (full-time)4 years (full-time)
Typical Credit Requirements60 semester credits120 semester credits
Program FocusTechnical, specialized, or general studiesMore focused on a single discipline
Earnings PotentialLower than with a bachelor’s, but higher than with just a high school diplomaUsually higher than with just an associate degree
Cost Per CreditGenerally lower than bachelor’s degree costsGenerally higher than associate degree costs
EmployabilityGood for specific trades or rolesWider range of employment opportunities
Differences between Associate and a Bachelor’s degree

Average Duration

Associate degrees typically last around two years if pursued on a full-time basis, while bachelor’s degrees generally span four years of full-time study. Accelerated programs and part-time options are also available, which can alter the duration of the program you choose. Some colleges and universities may also have different timelines for certain programs. 

Typical Credit Requirements

Associate degrees generally require approximately 60 semester credits to complete, whereas bachelor’s degrees typically need around 120 semester credits for completion. The credit requirements can vary depending on the university and program you choose.

Program Focus

Associate degree programs often provide technical, specialized, or general studies, offering practical skills applicable to specific trades or roles. Bachelor’s degree programs offer a more focused education in a single discipline.

Earnings Potential

An associate degree leads to higher earning potential than a high school diploma. A bachelor’s degree provides even further earning potential, preparing you for most entry-level positions in your chosen field.

Cost Per Credit

The cost per credit for associate degrees is generally lower than that of bachelor’s programs.


An associate can help you gain a strong working knowledge, preparing you for specific roles that involve focused skill sets. A bachelor’s, on the other hand, prepares you for a broader range of careers within your field of interest.

Jobs you can get with an associate degree

While bachelor’s and master’s degrees often take the spotlight in discussions about lucrative careers, associate degree holders can also access high-paying jobs in various fields (and with little to no student debt). Here are popular jobs you can pursue with an associate degree, with links to the official Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) pages for each role:

Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technologists 

Aerospace engineering and operations technologists and technicians assist engineers in designing and developing aircraft, spacecraft, and related systems. They may work in research laboratories, manufacturing facilities, or government agencies, helping to test and maintain aerospace equipment.

See BLS data for Aerospace Technicians

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists perform essential tasks such as cleaning teeth, examining patients for oral diseases, and educating them about proper oral hygiene practices. With an associate degree in dental hygiene and licensure, you can pursue this well-compensated career in the dental field.

See BLS data for Dental Hygienists


Drafters create technical drawings and plans used in construction, manufacturing, and engineering projects. They may specialize in architectural drafting, civil drafting, or mechanical drafting, using computer-aided design (CAD) software to produce detailed drawings and blueprints according to specifications provided by engineers or architects.

See BLS data for Drafters

Radiation Therapists

Radiation therapists administer radiation treatments to patients as part of their cancer treatment plans. This specialized healthcare role typically requires an associate degree in radiation therapy, along with certification and licensure. Radiation therapists earn a competitive salary, reflecting the critical nature of their work in cancer care.

See BLS data for Radiation Therapists

Computer Network Support Specialists

Computer network support specialists provide technical assistance and support to organizations’ computer users and network administrators. They troubleshoot network and system issues, install and configure computer networks and hardware, and ensure that systems operate efficiently and securely.

See BLS data for Computer Support Specialists

Aircraft Mechanics and Service Technicians

Aircraft mechanics and service technicians inspect, repair, and maintain aircraft to ensure they operate safely and efficiently. They work in airports, maintenance hangars, and repair stations, diagnosing mechanical issues, performing routine maintenance, and making necessary repairs to keep aircraft in optimal condition.

See BLS data for Aircraft Mechanics 

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers

Diagnostic medical sonographers use ultrasound equipment to produce images of patients’ internal organs and tissues for diagnostic purposes. An associate degree in diagnostic medical sonography and professional certification can qualify you for this financially rewarding career in healthcare.

See BLS data for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers

These are just a few roles that graduates with an associate degree can land. An associate degree in a relevant field can open up many career opportunities in fields like business, accounting, healthcare, sales, marketing, technology, and more. Before finding the career you’re best suited for, you’ll need a degree that can get you there. Is that degree an associate’s? The next section looks at the cases for which an associate degree is ideal. An associate degree is worth considering if you strongly relate to any of the mentioned student groups.

An associate degree can prove to be beneficial if you belong to one of the following groups of students:

Recent High School Graduates

An associate degree serves as a great option for recent high school graduates eager to gain practical skills and kickstart their career sooner.

Career Explorers

Those exploring different career paths can use an associate degree to explore various fields before committing to a longer educational program.

Individuals with Time Constraints

Students facing time constraints due to work or family commitments can benefit from the flexibility offered by associate degree programs, which often include part-time and online study options.

Transitioning Veterans

Veterans transitioning to civilian life often discover that an associate degree provides them with valuable qualifications, paving the way for new career opportunities.

An associate degree can thus be an excellent path for those looking to kickstart careers, advance professionally, gain working experience, or simply explore their interests and enhance their learning without incurring too much debt. In areas such as business, human resources, healthcare, etc. an associate degree can open up many opportunities.  

It’s important to make sure to choose the right associate degree program for you. Let’s explore what you need to look for while making this decision. 

While choosing an associate degree program, there are certain factors you should consider, and look at more closely than others: 


Ensure that the associate degree program you choose is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency. Accreditation ensures that the associate degree program meets established standards of quality and rigor, enhancing the value of your degree.

Curriculum Relevance

Review the curriculum to ensure it aligns with your career goals and interests. Look for programs that offer courses relevant to your desired field and provide opportunities for hands-on learning or internships.

Transfer Opportunities

If you plan to continue your education, consider associate degree programs that have transfer agreements with four-year colleges or universities. This ensures that your credits will transfer smoothly if you decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the future.

Faculty Qualifications

Research the qualifications and experience of the faculty members teaching in the program. Look for instructors with expertise in their field and a track record of effective teaching and mentorship.

Student Support Services

Consider the support services available to students, such as academic advising, tutoring, and career counseling. These resources can enhance your educational experience and help you succeed academically.


Evaluate the flexibility of the program, especially if you have work or family commitments. Look for programs that offer flexible scheduling options, including evening or weekend classes and online course offerings.


Compare tuition costs and financial aid options to ensure that the program is affordable for you. Research scholarship opportunities, grants, and loans that may help offset the cost of your education.

Though often overlooked, an associate degree can be a great option, particularly for those looking to start their careers early, or advance in their current roles with a short, cost-effective degree. Associate degrees are typically designed to help candidates get the best practical experience while earning a degree, getting them job-ready. Besides being great for career advancement and entry, an associate degree is also a solid stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, making it easier to continue your academic journey. 

At the end of the day, the best degree for you is the one that suits your requirements, including your budget, time constraints, and learning objectives. An associate degree just might be what you’re looking for, and can be well worth considering. 

Feel free to check out our blog for further information on associate degrees, and other college-related topics.

Can I earn an associate degree online?

Yes, many colleges offer 100% online or partially online associate degree programs that let you earn your degree from home.

How many credits are required to complete an associate degree?

Commonly, to complete an associate degree, a student requires about 60 semesters or 90 quarter credits to obtain their degree.