Which is a Better Degree:
an AA or AS?

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Are you considering enrolling in an associate degree program? An associate degree can open many doors, both academically and professionally. Not only can you receive specialized training in a field of your choosing, but completed credits can usually be transferred to four-year colleges and universities. After graduation, you should be prepared to apply for related entry-level positions and/or bachelor’s degree programs.

In addition to increased career and education opportunities, earning an associate degree can help you earn more money. These programs also tend to be more flexible than traditional options, making it easier to manage a complex schedule or work professionally while attending classes. Additionally, tuition and associated costs are often lower than if you were to enroll in a four-year degree program.

It’s important to realize, however, that there are a few different types of associate degrees: Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Applied Science (AAS). Depending on your ultimate academic and career goals, one type may be more preferable than the others.

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What is the Difference Between an Associate of Arts and Associate of Science?

The primary difference between an associate of arts and associate of science degrees is the focus of study. Most AA programs place an emphasis on liberal arts coursework, while AS programs gear learning toward math and science subjects.

Some of the most popular AA degree programs include general studies, business administration, criminal justice, culinary arts, liberal arts and sciences, humanities, and early childhood education. Liberal arts or general education is the primary focus of these degree programs, with programs typically preparing students for further education or work within particular fields. Skills development in communication, team performance, writing, and research is common. AA degrees are often seen as an intermediate educational step toward enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program.

Some of the most popular and best paying jobs with a two year degree include nursing, radiological technology, computer science, HVAC, and web design. While this option does include general education requirements, elective classes in subjects like biology, engineering, mathematics, physics, psychology, and/or politics are also necessary. Credits can be transferred to another institution, although many colleges and universities design their curriculums so that graduates are prepared for various employment opportunities more than they may for further education.

While AA and AS degree curriculums are likely to differ, both options make it possible for graduates to seek employment or enroll in further education. Structurally, the biggest differences you are likely to find relate to class requirements.

associate of arts vs science degree

What’s the Overlap?

There are also many similarities between AA and AS degrees. Both are two-year undergraduate programs with general education requirements. These usually consist of English, mathematics, laboratory science, and social science. Whether you plan to enroll in an AA or AS program, you will be required to take several general education classes in order to fulfill graduation requirements.

Assignments will vary depending on the major or concentration you choose, but professors for both degree types often use similar teaching techniques. In either case, you should expect to complete written assignments, attend lectures, particulate in class discussions, provide presentations, and take part in group study.

It’s also important to note that AA and AS consist of classes that can be transferred to four-year bachelor’s degree programs. As long as the institution is accredited, you should be able to transfer most, if not all, of the credits you earn. This can decrease the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree by up to two years and can make your overall education less expensive.

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What is an Associate of Applied Science (AAS)?

Whereas associate of arts and associate of science degrees help prepare students for further education or entry-level employment in a given field, associate of applied science (AAS) programs often serve a different purpose. In most cases, these degrees are best suited for individuals who want to enter a specialized workforce as soon as possible after graduation. As a result, AAS coursework tends to be a lot more hands-on, with significant time spent in laboratory, clinical, or hands-on settings, depending on what is required for the major.

Requirements for earning an AAS degree are generally the same as those necessary to earn AA or AS degrees. All three options are also offered in-person and online by numerus colleges and universities throughout the nation.

It is extremely important to note that AAS courses do not always transfer to other online higher education degrees. Your future four-year institution may have difficulty finding equivalent classes within their curriculum. If you choose to go back to school in the future, this could result in you retaking some courses at your new college or university. Students who anticipate pursuing additional education should strongly consider opting for an AA or AS degree instead.

Do Employers Prefer an AS or AA Degree?

Some employers may be biased toward either AS or AA degrees, but their appropriateness really depends on the field you intend to enter after graduating. Technical and scientific professions tend to give preference to AS degrees, while employers in humanities-related employment are happy to consider candidates with AA degrees.

There are several career fields in which employers welcome candidates with AA and AS degrees. In fact, this type of education is often considered the minimum amount necessary to qualify for entry-level employment as a:

  • Occupational Therapy Assistant
  • Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  • Web Developer
  • Dental Hygienist
  • Air Traffic Controller
  • Radiation Therapist
  • Funeral Service Manager

It’s worth noting that some employers care more about the institution you attended than the type of degree you earned. Attending a well-known college or university may give you the edge you need during your search for a job. This is particularly relevant if you plan to attend classes remotely, as some lesser-known online schools may not be recognizable by hiring managers.

Generally, it’s a good idea to research the standards for the field you intend to enter before enrolling in an academic program. If you find that either AA or AS degrees are preferred, adjust your education plans accordingly.

What Fields Might This Affect?

Some professions may give preference to candidates depending on the type of associate degree obtained. This means your choice to earn an AA, AS, or AAS can impact your employment opportunities in the future. Highly technical fields, in particular, generally necessitate more hands-on training; these are most likely to necessitate an AAS rather than an AA or AS. Similarly, those interested in pursuing jobs in the sciences would do better to earn an AS over an AA.

Employment opportunities after earning an AA:

  • Production Assistant
  • Marketing Assistant
  • Human Resources Assistant
  • Carpenter
  • Graphic Designer
  • Preschool Teacher
  • Customer Service Representative
  • Account Executive

Employment opportunities after earning an AS:

  • Dental Hygienist
  • Paralegal
  • Legal Assistant
  • Architectural Drafter
  • Cardiovascular Technologies
  • Web Developer
  • Occupational Therapy Assistant

Employment opportunities after earning an AAS:

  • Chemical Technician
  • Radiation Therapist
  • Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Bookkeeper
  • Medical Billing and Coding Specialist
  • Database Administrator
  • Network Manager

It’s also important to note that some fields offer their own degree programs. Examples include associate of engineering, associate of business, and associate of fine arts. If you were interested in one of these subject areas, you should plan to pursue a specialized degree instead of an AA, AS, or AAS.

Similarly, some institutions offer specific programs that are designed to provide associate-level degrees that prepare you to begin working right after graduation. A good example of this is the air traffic controller associate degree (AT-CTI) program.

With so many options, it’s imperative that you carefully research the education requirements needed to enter your chosen field. Having this information before submitting applications can ensure you apply to the most appropriate type of associate degree program.

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Average Cost of an Associate Degree

The cost of earning your AA, AS, or AAS degree can vary significantly depending on a few factors, including location and residency. On average, however, tuition for full-time community college attendees is $3,730 per year, or $7,460 total for two years. This does not include room and board, however, or account for books and supplies needed. Make sure you consider these additional expenses when establishing your education budget.

Community colleges are not the only institutions that offer associate degrees. Many colleges and universities have these programs as well. Tuition prices vary, however, with most academic facilities charging by the credit hour. Generally, attending a public institution will be more expensive than enrolling at a community college. Private schools, in particular, can be quite costly.

Keep in mind that many colleges and universities also charge out-of-state students more. This is true for community colleges as well. As a result, non-residents enrolling at community colleges should expect to pay as much as twice what in-state students are charged. The average community college tuition for out-of-state students in 2021 was $8,210.

Which One Should You Choose?

Determining which associate degree you should pursue is important, but personal preference is usually the deciding factor. While AA, AS, and AAS degrees are all distinct, completing an associate program of any kind will help advance your academic and career goals.

That said, the best way to select a degree type is by assessing your professional aspirations. Consider the job you want to hold and research which degree(s) will help you attain it. Many colleges and universities also have admissions counselors available to discuss potential career pathways.

Some of the decision will also come down to the kind of classes you enjoy taking. If you prefer learning about subjects related to humanities, an AA will likely suit your interests best. Alternatively, give preference to AS programs if you are skilled in math and science.

Additionally, remember that AAS degrees are intended to help students prepare to join the work force as soon as possible. If, on the other hand, you plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the future, then choosing an AA or AS degree is likely optimal.