What is an associate’s degree? | Top Universities

What is an associate’s degree?

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Hasna Haidar

Updated Apr 15, 2024



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If you’re from outside the US or Canada, you’ve probably heard of bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs, but perhaps not an associate’s degree.

So, what is an associate’s degree, where is it offered, and how can you decide if it’s the right choice for you? Here’s a quick guide…

What is an associate’s degree?

An associate’s degree is an academic program taken at the undergraduate level (the first stage after secondary school). It aims to give students the basic technical and academic knowledge and transferable skills they need to go on to employment or further study in their chosen field.

Associate’s degrees are most commonly offered in the US, but you’ll also find them in some parts of Canada, Hong Kong, Australia and the Netherlands. Other countries have similar programs but under a different name, such as foundation degrees in the UK.

In the US, associate’s degrees are available at various types of college, including community colleges, junior colleges and technical colleges, affiliated colleges of universities and university institutes. It typically takes two years full-time to complete an associate’s degree.

For some students, an associate’s degree provides preparation for a bachelor’s degree, while for others it’s a qualification in its own right, helping to improve employment prospects compared to only having completed a secondary-level education.

What’s the difference between a bachelor’s degree and an associate’s degree?

Both bachelor’s degrees and associate’s degrees are categorized as “undergraduate” degrees, meaning that they are both open to students as soon as they complete secondary level education. In contrast “postgraduate” degrees, such as master’s or PhD programs, require students to have already completed a bachelor’s-level program.

So how can you decide whether to apply for a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree? Here’s a roundup of some of the key differences:

  1. Time

In order to gain either qualification, you’ll need to complete a specified number of study hours or course credits. This may vary slightly depending on the institution and location, but an associate’s degree usually takes two years to complete full time. In the US this equates to 60 credit hours as opposed to the 120 hours required for a bachelor’s degree – which takes about four years to complete full time.

Many associate’s degree students choose to study part-time, which of course means the degree will take longer to complete. On the other hand, it’s also possible to take a “fast-track” course, working at an accelerated pace and even studying during the vacations to complete the degree in a shorter time.

Students who’ve completed an associate’s degree may be able to transfer some relevant course credits to count towards a bachelor’s degree, shortening the time needed for the latter degree.

  1. Costs

Tuition fees for associate’s degrees tend to be lower, and as the course takes less time to complete, the overall cost is considerably less than that of a bachelor’s degree. The difference in costs will vary depending on the institution, but you can typically expect to pay around two to three times less for an associate’s degree. And, as you’ll also spend less time studying, you’re likely to spend less on costs such as accommodation as well.

  1. Entry requirements

Finally, entry requirements for associate’s degrees are typically much less competitive than for bachelor’s degrees, and admissions deadlines are usually later. They can be an alternative for students who don’t meet the entry requirements for a bachelor’s degree, perhaps because they studied more vocational courses or didn’t quite get strong enough grades.

Types of associate degrees

There are four types of associate degrees: AA (Associate of Arts), AS (Associate of Science, AAA (Associate of Applied Arts) and AAS (Associate of Applied Science). The main difference is that the ‘applied’ courses are more focused on preparing students for a particular career, focusing on practical vocational skills, whereas the AA and AS are targeted more at students who want to go on to a bachelor’s degree, with a focus on preparation for higher levels of academic study.

Online associate degrees are also becoming more popular, due to their flexibility and affordability, allowing individuals to work while they study, often for a reduced price.

Careers with an associate’s degree

Possible careers with an associate’s degree will vary in terms of the type of associate’s degree, and the subject you major in. However, there are lots of relatively high-paying and highly skilled jobs that can be entered with an associate’s degree. For example, one recent list of attractive careers with an associate’s degree includes dental hygienist, web developer, nuclear technician, radiation therapist and air traffic controller.

Studying a bachelor’s degree is likely to open up even more possible professional pathways – but it’s definitely worth checking whether you actually need a bachelor’s to enter your chosen career, especially if you’re facing high tuition fees. You may be surprised by how many skilled roles require only an associate’s level qualification. And as many bachelor’s degrees are more academically rather than vocationally oriented, bachelor’s graduates often need to undergo further professional training before they can start work.

Transferring from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree

Transferring from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree is often very simple. As long as your course credits are relevant and accepted by the university offering the bachelor’s degree, you can transfer them and join the bachelor’s program halfway through – known as the 2 + 2 format.

If you do want to have this option, make sure you research your chosen institutions and their requirements, as you may need to take specific classes/credit hours to ensure you’re fully prepared to transfer to the bachelor’s program.

Why choose an associate’s degree?

There are lots of possible reasons to choose an associate’s degree. You may want to enter the workplace more quickly and cost-effectively. Or you may want to study a full bachelor’s degree but not have strong enough grades, or simply like the idea of paying lower tuition fees for a few years before transferring.

In fact, perhaps the easiest way to decide whether or not you should embark on an associate’s degree is to consider the career you want to get into, and to apply for the degree that will best equip you for that position. It might even be worthwhile checking current job listings in the country you want to work in and researching the qualifications and skills most in demand among your target employers.

This article was originally published in November 2013. It was most recently updated in January 2020.

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