Learn How to Choose the Right Associate’s Degree

Maybe your job requires advanced training, but you don’t want to spend a fortune on a full four-year college education. This is a common situation. The solution for many is to acquire an associate’s degree.


This level of education qualifies you for many careers that are fulfilling and pay well. You won’t have to take on a mountain of college loans to make it happen, either. However, before you get this degree, you should know the facts.

What is an associate’s degree?

You earn this degree by completing a college program that is at least two years long, or 60 semester credit hours. College course listings tell you how many semester hours each class is worth based on how many hours you spend in class over the week. Three hours is a fairly common rating, so to earn 60 hours over two years, you should count on having a 15-hour per week schedule. Some programs require more than 60 hours.

The associate’s degree is not a full four-year program, but it requires training in an academic setting. This makes it a step above getting a certificate. Generally, these degrees are either Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degrees. However, students can also earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in a technical program. The AAS sometimes has the name of one’s program in the title.

The biggest drawback to earning an associate’s degree is the salary difference when you come out of school. Some sources report that the average employee with this level of education earns about 25 percent less than a four-year university graduate. As you progress in your career, that discrepancy actually increases to 50 percent over the next 10 years.

However, the savings of earning an AA, AS or AAS are significant. A semester of this education costs half as much as a semester in a four-year program, and the program itself is half as long. With the cost of college going up, it’s easy to see why this might be the best choice for a high school graduate.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has compiled a list of the jobs with the highest salaries that require you to get an associate’s degree. They each have a median salary of at least $50,000 per year. Plus, associate’s degree programs contain courses that help you ultimately achieve a bachelor’s degree, which is one of its advantages if you plan on further education down the line.

Learn About Program Requirements for an Associate’s Degree

The requirements for an associate’s degree vary by institution and by the program, but it will generally have a minimum number of semester credit hours spread out over two years and contain a mix of mandatory courses, also called core courses. The programs also have approved electives or optional classes.

One of the most important aspects of the courses in an associate’s program is transferability. When assessing the program requirements for your specific college, see what kind of transfer agreement it has with bachelor’s programs you might like to enter someday. You don’t have to decide whether or not you’re actually going to get a B.A. or B.S., but you should keep your options open. Try to take courses that provide the highest value for the money you’re spending on them. The fact that these courses are transferable to major universities you’d like to attend tells you that you’re going to get a solid education.

One major advantage of the program requirements for an associate’s degree is that you can fit them to your schedule. Community colleges cater to students who are working while they learn, so the colleges offer day and evening classes. Ask the admissions office of your prospective school about whether you can use summer sessions to take classes, making your workload easier and possibly finishing sooner. Some schools allow you to take a fast track option, completing your degree in a little more than one year.

Find Out Where to Get an Associate’s Degree

Community colleges and private programs both offer associate’s degrees, but the quality varies. This is why considering the transferability of the courses is so important. However, there are other ways to check that the school you’re obtaining your associate’s degree from is a good choice.

Do your research on the faculty who teach the courses. Find out how many years they have been teaching and where they obtained their degrees and experience. Someone who has real knowledge of the subject matter often has an online trail that tracks through major universities and companies you recognize.

There are also websites that give online student ratings for professors. Take these with a grain of salt – as you would with any internet comment board – but they might help you learn whether the professors themselves are accessible and engaging.

Consider the school itself. Some private programs have received terrible press for their quality. On the other hand, there are community colleges with longstanding ties to the region that have great track records in helping students launch careers. You can usually find graduation rates and rates of employment on a school’s website.

Do some research and compare your college program against the industry you’re trying to join. Look on professional social media sites for a local company you would like to enter. Check out the profiles of the people who are employees there. Do some of them have degrees from the school you’re considering?

If you do more digging, you might even learn whether a prospective employer has a job training program with your local community college or other schools. Try to establish proof that the program you are considering helps place people in the workforce. If you are unable to do that, you should consider alternatives.

Learn How to Apply for an Associate’s Degree

Once you know what degree you want to pursue and at what school, the next steps become easier. Check out the admissions page on the school’s website or call its admissions office to get the process rolling.

The school will want you to complete an application. Make sure you are aware of deadlines and all the specific forms that are required. They vary from college to college. If need be, have an admissions official walk you through the process, so you don’t omit anything.

Some schools offer textbook-free classes. These are classes where the materials are free online documents instead of traditional books. It’s worth considering these classes, as they could save you significant amounts of money.

As you explore the options for your associate’s degree, ask for the contact information of any alumni groups. Have a short phone call or email exchange. Ask them how the school benefitted them and what to expect. Make this part of the process a way to learn about the program you want to join. If at any point there is something you don’t understand, make sure you slow down and find a good explanation.

Why Choose to Pursue an Associate’s Degree

College costs a great deal of money. While you are at the beginning of your career, just obtaining your first higher-level classes, you might not want to get saddled with enormous debt. The associate’s degree gives you flexibility while you pursue jobs in the profession that interests you.

However, this kind of degree isn’t for everyone. Some career paths require that you get a bachelor’s degree as soon as possible. Nonetheless, for many, an associate’s degree is a good way to cut down on those initial costs.

By starting at a community college, you save money on the core classes you need for a four-year degree. In certain fields, like nursing or other medical professions, an associate’s degree might help you get work right away. So you can get this degree first, begin earning money and obtain real-world experience. Then maybe go back, finish your bachelor’s and reenter the workforce at a higher rate of pay.

Ultimately, it’s not about choosing to get an associate’s degree or to get a bachelor’s. It’s whether an associate’s degree puts you into a position so that you get the career and education you want. The key to using this option is to learn how the people before you have used it to land in the right place. As you make your decisions, reach out to those who have gone before and start asking questions.

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