Best Associate Degrees, Careers and Education Guide
The Associate degree is an important educational tool for individual advancement and a higher salary. It is the quickest post-secondary degree to achieve and the lowest in costs. The degree comes in three types and the differences reflect the purpose of the education. Some degrees prepare the student to go to work as skilled employees in their fields. Other associate degrees prepare students for work but also for further education.
Degrees & Career Paths
What is an Associate Degree?
The associate degree is the first level of college education that high school graduates can pursue. It is a building block for further education, and it can be a door into a trade or vocation. Associate degrees may be more accessible to students because it is a relatively short program; students can complete an associate’s in 2 years (4 semesters) or less. With online and flexible learning, some students can complete an associate degree in 18 months. The time and costs involved make this the most flexible way to achieve higher education and increase current and future earnings.
Why Choose an Associate Degree?
The associate degree represents an academic achievement that sets the graduate apart from those with no education, high school education, or certificates only. The associate degree can be the end of the educational experience or it can be a springboard to a bachelor ’s and graduate school.
The cost of education is a factor for most students, and the associate degree can save thousands for students that take a two-year degree before entering a four-year institution. The costs of an associate degree at a community college tend to be far lower than the two-years of attendance at public or private four-year institutions.
The achievement of an associate degree speaks to the student’s determination to improvement and excellence. In many cases, this degree can start a graduate on the path to the desired career as an entry-level employee. Work experience will be a helpful asset in any future education and career development.
The associate degree is a two-year degree available at community colleges and some four-year institutions. It typically requires about 60 to 72 semester hours of study and students can take courses on-campus or, in some cases, online. There are two types of associate degree. The first type is the college preparatory degrees; the Associate of Arts and Associate of Science each have general education requirements and are designed to work with transfer to a four-year bachelor’s program. The second type is the Applied science degree. These are degree programs that focus on vocational readiness. Students spend most of their coursework on subjects directly related to on-the-job performance. For example, an Associate of Applied Science in Aviation Management prepares graduates to work as Air Traffic controllers and related jobs in managing the national airspace.
The Associate of Arts or Associate of Science Degree
The Associate of Arts Degree and the Associate of Science degree provide general education in addition to some focused coursework; both these degrees can be a foundation for further education. Many students will be able to transfer their entire academic achievement in their associate degree program towards a bachelor’s degree. The difference between the AA and the AS is in the curriculum. Both degrees require some general education like writing, reading, English, and a foreign language. The AS degree adds science, math, computer science, or a physical science to the curriculum. Both degrees provide a foundation similar to two years of work towards a bachelor’s degree.
Types of Associate Degrees:
- Associate of Arts (AA)
- Associate of Science (AS)
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
What is the difference between an AA vs. AS vs. AAS?
The general difference between an AA, AS, and AAS relates to the curriculum content for each degree. The AA and AS prepare students for a four-year college education. The courses are meant to broaden the student’s knowledge of English, literature, cultures, and world languages. The educational goals include insight, analysis, and critical thinking.
- An AA resembles the first two years of a four-year liberal arts program in a humanities discipline. Students take general education courses and then focus on social science, cultural studies, and life sciences.
- An AS resembles the first two years of a four-year science or math-based program, such as physical sciences or environmental studies. Students get a range of general education courses and some focus on science and mathematics.
- An AAS reduces the general education to a minimum and gives maximum time to a specialized area such as accounting, automotive mechanics, computer technology, nursing, and electronics.
What is the difference between an associates and bachelor’s degree?
Associate degrees are shorter than bachelors (usually about half the hours) and require fewer courses. An associate degree generally follows a two-year plan, 60 credit hours, and preparation for work or school. A bachelor’s degree is usually considered the full entry-level degree to a wide range of occupations. Bachelor’s degree programs prepare students for the expert levels of master’s and doctoral study.
Typical Degree Requirements
You’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED to get into an associate degree program. Some schools may also require you to have completed either the SAT or ACT with a specific ending score. The typical credit hour requirements for an associate degree is 60 to 72 credit hours. The variation comes from school decisions and the need for additional courses to meet math and science-based curriculum. The credit hours cover general education, a major course, and related electives.
When to Seek an Associate's?
Associate's degrees save time and money for getting a college degree and moving on to higher salaries than high school graduates can earn. Some occupations even use the associate degree as an entry level qualification, meaning you can get to work 2 years sooner than if you had to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a degree online vs. on-campus?
Students can earn degrees online or on-campus in four semesters or two calendar years. Students that wish to speed up the process can get earlier completion by taking a full course load each semester and in the summer sessions. By taking the maximum level of courses per semester and summer sessions, some students can complete the degree in 18 months.
How much does an online vs. on-campus associate degree cost?
The prices vary by institution. However, on-campus rates are typically the same as online rates. Students save on costs such as residence in a dormitory and food expenses but will still need to purchase books and other supplies. The on-campus school may be located in a higher priced area than the student’s home area. Also, as usual, if you attend an out-of-state program, the online cost will likely be the same as in-state students pay, while attending on-campus, out-of-state would be a much more expensive proposition.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
The choice of major is a vital consideration for students when making selections. The major becomes more important in the applied science degrees because students wish to go to work in their field of study. It is important to align the choice of major and the choice of school. The school should offer the major courses and electives that will meet the student’s goals.
However, if the student only wants to complete their first two years of study at a community college, in an associate degree program, then it is much more important to make sure that your credits will transfer to the next school, which has the major you are looking for. In this case, you should verify credit transfer rather than major.
How many students graduate “on time,” in two years?
The on-time two-year graduation rate is about 13%. The graduation rate at six years is about 57% for full-time students and about 30% for part-time students. When reviewing these facts, students should keep in mind that many people attend community college part-time while they work or are involved in other full-time activities. If you plan to go part-time, this will greatly impact the length of your educational career.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded?
The schools can have regional accreditation, programmatic accreditation, and national accreditation. The regional and programmatic are the most powerful types. These accreditations have wide acceptance among employers and educational institutions. Regional accreditation, as authorized by the US Department of Education, is the first type of accreditation students should seek. Your particular field of study may also have a programmatic, or specialized, accreditation. These exist for many fields, including: engineering, nursing, accounting, etc. The combination of regional and specialized accreditation is very strong. National accreditation is not as widely accepted, and credits with national accreditation don’t always transfer.
Accreditation affects later employment and further education. It also affects eligibility for student loans, grants, and scholarships. Students attending nationally accredited schools should check to see if the accreditation is by an agency under the DOE or CHEA list of approved accreditors.
How to Choose an Associate Degree Program
Students should choose an accredited school that offers majors consistent with the student’s career plans. The costs of education should be a second level factor, and the available financial aid is part of that.
What is an AA degree?
An Associate of Arts degree is a general education that is ideal for students interested in the humanities fields. This is a liberal arts type curriculum that does not center on math and science and adds instead, the social sciences, literature, art, and cultural studies. The Associate of Arts provides an entry-level qualification for a wide range of occupations including sales, graphic arts, and design.
The Associate of Arts degree is a typical 60 credit hour course of study. The schools usually set 36 hours as general education and 24 hours as major and related electives. The course resembles the earliest phase of a four-year liberal arts degree, and it is an ideal foundation for the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
- Average Cost to Get an Associate of Arts Degree is about $3,500 at public two-year institutions and about $14,500 at private two-year programs.
- Time to Completion - Most students can complete an Associate of Arts degree in 4 semesters. The trend is towards later completion, in about 5-6 semesters.
- Communications - Professional Writing
- American Literature
- Introduction to Logic
- Foreign Language, I & II
- Humanities/Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Computer Programmer
- Pharmacy Technician
- Graphic Designer
What is an AS degree?
An Associate of Science is a liberal arts foundation with a tilt towards science and math coursework. By adding the math and science major and electives, students can transfer credits towards a bachelor of arts degree or a bachelor of science at a four-year school.
An Associate of Science degree is similar to an Associate of Arts. The difference is the addition of five or more courses in math, science, or a related subject. Students get 36 hours of general education and the balance of 24 semester hours in math and science-based coursework.
- The average cost to get an Associate of Science degree is about $3,500 at a public two-year institution and about $14,500 at a private two-year program.
- The expected time to completion for an Associate of Arts degree is 4 semesters (2 years) for an on-time graduation.
- Introduction to Digital Marketing
- Business Organizations
- Writing and Communication
- Mathematics and Statistics
- Natural Sciences
- Nuclear Technicians
- Radiation Therapists
- Dental Hygienists
What is an AAS degree?
An AAS equips graduates to go to work in a specific field or occupation. This degree is ideal for students that know what they want to do. The applied science course of study pares down the general education and focuses on the specifics of a trade or occupation. The AAS is not designed to work with other degrees or to form the basis for a bachelor’s degree. AAS curriculum has its smallest concentration in general education, and the largest focus on the specific trade or vocational category with electives that add a specialization or depth of knowledge.
- The average cost to get an Associate of Arts degree is about $3,500 at a public two-year institution and about $14,500 at a private two-year program.
- The normal time to completion for an AAS is 4 semesters. There may be longer programs that require a cooperative assignment or other practical training such as internships in real-world environments.
- Introduction to Business Organizations
- Introduction to Computer Systems
- Business Mathematics
- Principles of Management
- Air Traffic Controller
- Web Developers
- Aircraft and Avionics Technicians
Highest Paying Associate Graduate Jobs
Associate degrees can improve income substantially over high school graduates. Some associate degree positions are in highly technical fields such medical technician professions, avionics, and healthcare. Associate degrees that prepare students for four-year degree programs can boost income to further heights. An associate degree is a stepping stone to nursing, engineering, and writing positions.
Most Popular Jobs and Careers for AA, AS, and AAS
Top AA jobs:
- Computer Programmers create apps, software, and other basic computer assets. As the world becomes even more digitized, these specialists are more and more necessary for small and large companies alike.
- Pharmacy Technicians assist patients who bring in their prescriptions by explaining dosages and use of medications.
- Graphic Designers use graphics software and design skills to help create ad campaigns, company logos, and other visual aids for companies and individuals.
Top AS jobs:
- Nuclear Technicians provide support for operations at nuclear-powered facilities, research functions, and academic research institutions.
- Radiation Therapists use their knowledge and skills to deliver radiation doses to support a plan of medical care.
- Dental Hygienists require accredited education and a state license in most states. Dental hygienists usually work in dentists’ offices and clinics. They can examine teeth, perform cleanings, and advise the patients on better dental care.
Top AAS Jobs:
- Air Traffic Controllers have the weight of responsibility for using electronic controls to monitor simultaneous flights of scores of commercial aircraft. They keep air traffic safe and guide landing and departure procedures.
- Web Developers design, create, and improve websites. Websites are the primary means of interacting on the Internet. Websites are key elements of eCommerce, and they contain graphs and other information along with written content.
- Aircraft and Avionics Technicians are the specialists that check every aspect of commercial aircraft to make sure that parts and systems are in flight condition. These positions may need FAA certification and testing, and they are essential to safe air travel. Aircraft and avionics technicians perform safety checks, check repair record, and follow up on any in-service complaints or incidents.
Annual Median Salary Range by Occupation
|Occupation||Entry-Level Range||Mid-Career Range||Late-Career Range|
|Air Traffic Controller||$70,000||$85,000||$115,000|
|Air Traffic Controller||$65,000||$86,000||$112,000|
|Aircraft and Avionics Technicians||$45,000||$49,000||$58,000|
Associate Degree Scholarships
Horatio Alger Foundation, Career, and Technical Scholarships
Amount: Up to $2,500
Deadline: June 15
The foundation awards scholarships to students that demonstrate overcoming hardships. Eligible students must be 30 or younger, and a US citizen. They must attend or seek to attend a two-year career or technical program and demonstrate financial need to cover the costs of education. Students must be Pell Grant eligible as determined by the FAFSA submission and they must demonstrate their perseverance in overcoming various types of personal adversity. Eligible candidates will seek a career or technical education at an accredited non-profit post-secondary institution located in the United States. The foundation awards scholarships at up to $2,500 per award.
National Society of Accountants Scholarship
Amount: $31,500 (Split between up to 25 students)
Deadline: April 1
The National Association of Accountants awards scholarships to students seeking to enter the field of accounting. The NSA awards scholarships in the total amount of $31,500 to 25 deserving students that demonstrate financial need to students that are undergraduate enrolled part-or full-time at an accredited two-year or four-year college or university in the United States. The application period runs from January 1 through April 1. Two-year school students may apply after their first semester. Students must commit to a major course of study and career interest in the field of accounting.
The Coca Cola company awards more than 150 $20,000 scholarships to students about to enroll in institutions of higher learning, and this category includes two-year college programs. The awards are achievement-based scholarships for graduating high school seniors.
Phi Theta Kappa
Amount: $1,000 (Up to 200 Awards – 25 for active military and veterans)
The Phi Theta Kappa Honor society supports high-achieving community college students. The Society offers scholarships to PTK members attending community colleges and currently enrolled in an associate degree program. The Phi Theta Kappa Society administers the Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise program. Applicants must have a 3.5-grade point average. The program offers up to 200 scholarships of $1,000 each academic year. Active military and veterans have a set-aside allotment of 25 awards.
Young CPA Network
The Young CPA Network is an accounting profession community that works well for new and aspiring accounting professionals. The network offers advice and counseling on the issues affecting students and young professionals and has mentorship options that can help students gain valuable insights into the profession and the benefits of becoming an accountant. Students and young professionals share many concerns, such as the best specializations, the demand for services, and employment trends. The network helps students understand the challenges and opportunities ahead. They can start their careers with a sense of the effort needed for success, the ways to balance work and personal life, and the use if an extensive professional network.
The American Dental Hygienists Association
The ADHA is the leading association for student and practicing dental hygienists. The association represents the professional and career development interests of more than 150,000 dental health professionals. Dental hygienists must operate at the highest levels of competency, courtesy, and respect for all patients. Their roles include providing direct services to patients and educating patients and the public on dental health. It offers programs for licensure, improved education, continuing education, and research. The ADHA maintains a dynamic career center that can help new or experienced hygienists find rewarding employment or contracting opportunities.
The International Federation of Air traffic Controller’s Associations
Air traffic control is a global occupation connected by the worldwide network of air travel infrastructure. The IAFTCA is the recognized voice of the many national associations of aviation management professionals. Air traffic controllers play key roles in air travel safety. They track and instruct thousands of flights each day and arrange safe takeoffs, travel, and landings. Air traffic controllers have a high-intensity occupation that requires high-quality training and many hours of supervised training.
Choosing an Accredited College
Accreditation is an important part of selecting an Associate degree program. Accreditation affects the acceptance of the associate coursework by employers and other educational institutions. Regional accreditation of the whole institution and special accreditation of the particular program will impact career and salary for students. The lack of accreditation has immediate impacts such as not participating in federal student financial assistance programs. The lack of access to federal loans, grants, and scholarship can affect the cost of a two-year program and put it out of reach for many students. For employed students that may be eligible for employer-funded tuition assistance, they too look for accredited schools.
The impact on a career is also immediate and long-term. Employers rely upon accreditation to assure them that the student has a quality education and can perform as expected. If the career plan includes further education such as nursing school, then other schools must rely upon indicators of quality education; strong accreditation opens up a wider range of employment and educational opportunities for the associate degree holder.
Associate Degree Jobs: Finding Your Career
Students enter associate degree programs for a variety of reasons. Many seek educational enrichment. Some set the stage for a bachelor’s degree, and some seek to go to work at high-paying, rewarding jobs. The school that grants your Associate of Applied Science, Associate of Arts, or Associate of Science degree is in the ideal position to help with your career advancement. When selecting a program, students should examine and ask questions about the career counseling and job placement assistance services. They must be satisfied that the school has placed priority and resources to help graduates enter the job market, transfer to four-year institutions, or get work experience through promising internships.
The Applied Science fields are focused fields of study such as HVAC, electric systems, and veterinary science. Initial job placement in employee or training positions is an important first step to applying the skills and knowledge. Employers value experience and education. Schools that integrate internships and practical experience add value to the recent graduate’s qualifications. The types of services that schools can offer include job search engines, resources for employers seeking highly trained personnel, searches for internships, and co-operative arrangements that provide experience.