Should You Get an Associate Degree or a Bachelor Degree?
Most people have heard of master’s degree, Ph.D., and the widely popular bachelor’s degree, but an associate’s degree might not be very common, especially for people living outside the US and Canada.
Students seeking to further their studies after high school can choose between one of two options: an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree.
While both options are excellent post-high school programs, they do not offer the same benefits. The duration, cost, credit requirements, and career opportunities are quite different. Find out the differences between an associate degree vs bachelor degree to help decide what program is best for you.
What Is an Associate Degree?
An associate degree is a post-high school degree awarded for a two or three-year course. It is available for different undergraduate programs specifically designed to provide basic technical and academic knowledge. With the degree, students can gain adequate skills to head on to employment or pursue a higher level of studies in their preferred fields.
When people compare an associate degree vs bachelor degree, it is often to find out the advantages of the former since the benefits of the latter are pretty obvious. There are many advantages of earning an associate’s degree, including:
- Starting a career quickly and more cost-effectively
- Preparing the student for a future bachelor degree program
- Possibility of transferring relevant course credits to a bachelor’s program
- Higher chances of employment
- Letting you get better grades for a full bachelor’s degree
How Do You Earn an Associate Degree?
Most colleges will require a high school diploma or equivalent to gain admission for an associate degree program. Some schools may also require a specific minimum GPA in addition to completing a pre-college curriculum, which usually includes mathematics, English, and science courses.
What Are Some Types of Associate Degrees?
There are different associate degrees in an overwhelming range of subjects, including arts, sciences, and other fields of study. However, all associate degrees fall into four major categories, including Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Applied Arts (AAA), and Associate of Applied Science (AAS).
While these different degree types are awarded in the same undergraduate category, it is important to understand what differentiates one program from the other before choosing. The basic difference is that the AA and AS curriculums are designed to prepare students for higher levels of academic pursuits.
These programs usually include courses covering academic works for the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program. Individuals who prefer to first acquire an associate’s degree as a rock-solid foundation for a future bachelor’s degree will find the AA and AS associate programs most suitable.
On the other hand, the applied courses (AAA and AAS) have curriculums built around practical vocational skills. This duo focuses more on preparing students for specific careers instead of a higher level of study. Whether in the arts or sciences, an applied associate’s degree is best suited for individuals who want career opportunities without necessarily completing another educational program.
Here is a quick breakdown of what you can expect from each associate degree type.
Associate of Arts (AA)
This associate program offers studies in three main fields, including business, social sciences, and humanities. Students can further their studies after the degree or opt to seek employment. The career opportunities for this program include administrative assistant, engineering technician, industrial designer, preschool teacher, librarian, and more.
Associate of Science (AS)
This program allows students to study subjects in the general and technical fields, specifically in engineering technology, information technology, and nursing. Several career options are available, especially in the medical and engineering fields, such as radiation therapists, dental hygienists, and engineering technicians.
The degree also lets you work as a nurse, specializing in different nursing areas, including wellness, psychiatric, human anatomy, sociology, pharmacology, and more.
Associate of Applied Arts (AAA)
An associate degree in applied arts provides specialized knowledge and skills in artistic training. It covers three major areas, namely, music, fine art, and advertising. Work opportunities abound in art-related organizations. For example, you can choose to pursue a career as a music sales associate, art instructor, private music teacher, or advertising layout artist.
Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
This is designed to offer technical education geared at helping students pursue specific careers in a single professional field. The program covers courses such as computer support and operations, criminal justice (or paralegal studies), web design, entrepreneurship, and customer relationship management. Graduating with an AAS degree offers you the chance to work as a chemical technician, web developer, and technical drafter, among numerous others.
Who Should Consider Getting an Associate Degree?
The choice to earn an associate degree vs bachelor degree is purely personal. However, the program can be more advantageous for certain people, depending on the specific situation. It is not uncommon to find students who prefer to first complete an associate’s degree program before taking on a bachelor’s degree. While anyone can choose to pursue an associate degree, the program is best suited for people in the following situations:
- Students who want to acquire solid technical and academic knowledge before proceeding for a bachelor’s degree can start with an associate degree program. It might seem like a huge waste of time to complete an associate before heading for a generally longer bachelor course, but that’s not always the case. As earlier mentioned, it is possible to transfer course credits from the former to the latter in some cases. This will shorten the time required to earn a baccalaureate.
- If you want to pursue a career that requires practical vocational skills, you may want to consider earning an associate degree right after high school. It would be best to choose one of the applied courses, including Associate of Applied Science (AAS) and Associate of Applied Arts (AAA). Of course, no career is 100% guaranteed, regardless of the degree program you choose. However, these courses can improve your chances of finding employment in your chosen field.
- Consider getting an associate degree if you’ve been out of the academic environment for quite a while after high school but are now ready to get back into the system. You probably already have a job, and spending several years dealing with a lot of course work might be too daunting to combine with your job. An associate’s degree program has a shorter duration and fewer credit requirements, so you will likely cope better.
- Similarly, an associate degree offers more flexibility to balance school and personal commitments for individuals who have families. It can be challenging and next to impossible for some older students to fit a bachelor program into their family responsibilities, considering the cost and longer time demands. With advancements in education technology, students have access to more adaptive learning platforms and countless online classrooms where they can successfully complete the required courses without failing in their other responsibilities.
- Earning an associate’s degree is not necessarily to find a specific job or transfer credits to a higher learning institution. If you want to improve your skills in certain fields or have a passion for learning, you may want to consider an associate degree since it is a generally more affordable option. Community colleges are an excellent choice for pursuing your passion for arts, languages, music, and more while giving you the time you need to do other things.
Difference Between an Associate Degree and Bachelor Degree
Generally, a bachelor’s degree program is an extension of an associate degree program, with the former lasting twice as long as the latter. The coursework in an associate program is tailored toward specific vocations, which explains why the degree is referred to as an occupational or technical degree. However, general studies leading to non-occupational degrees are also available.
Conversely, a bachelor’s degree creates more career opportunities for the graduate because the curriculum covers a broader spectrum of topics and is not streamlined for a specific vocation. The coursework often includes several elective courses that add depth to the field of study.
The following is an example of the differences in curriculum depth between a four-year bachelor’s degree program in accounting and a two-year associate’s degree program in the same course.
Program Outcome for a 4-Year Associate Degree in Accounting:
- Show technical accounting skills regarding intermediate-level accounting concepts
- Demonstrate ability to analyze federal income tax issues for individuals
- Demonstrate clear capacity to research and analyze intermediate-level accounting issues
- Show written and communication skills
Program Outcome for a 2-Year Associate Degree in Accounting:
- Apply key concepts in auditing and attestation, and financial accounting and reporting
- Use decision-support tools to evaluate a variety of accounting issues
- Use critical thinking skills for decision-making and financial analysis
- Evaluate the needs of different users of accounting data
- Effectively use oral and written methods to communicate accounting data and recommendations
Here are specific differences between the two degrees.
How Long Does It Take to Earn an Associate Degree vs Bachelor Degree?
If you are thinking of earning an associate’s degree, you will need to set aside a minimum of two years for a full-time program. Some traditional schools and online settings allow for flexible study plans. This lets the students extend the duration of the course to three years.
Usually, people who choose this option have jobs, families, or other opportunities to juggle studying. In some cases, individuals can opt for accelerated courses of study that allow them to earn an associate degree in only 15 months.
On the other hand, a bachelor’s degree program typically runs as a four-year full-time course in colleges or universities. This study duration is necessary to fully prepare the student for broader course outlines, and of course, higher-level career opportunities. You can extend a bachelor’s program to span between four to ten years, depending on the specific course. It is also possible to graduate faster with accelerated classes by choosing colleges that offer shorter online classes.
Like an associate degree program, the course duration for a degree program can vary, depending on a number of factors. For example, if you already have an associate degree, it is possible to transfer your previous credits and cut the program duration in half.
Some online institutions and universities also recognize prior college credits or Advanced Placement (AP) units earned in high school. These can shorten the bachelor degree program’s time and save the student a significant amount of money.
Remember that spending two years running a four-year program doesn’t automatically earn you an associate degree. Two-year colleges run a curriculum specifically designed to meet the requirements for an award of an associate degree. The course requirements are different than those of a four-year college. You need to apply to a college or university that offers the specific program you want.
How Many Credits Are Needed for an Associate Degree vs Bachelor Degree?
You need to earn at least 60-semester credits studying in a community college or state university to get an associate degree. This is approximately 20 three-credit courses covering a specific curriculum. Students will have to complete about 120 coursework credits to be awarded a bachelor’s degree.
Indeed, young and older adults can choose to run either of these programs, but many students in four-year colleges are usually in their late teens or early twenties. Many older students (or nontraditional students) who waited to attend college at a later time are likely to tread the path of an associate program.
Some college graduates can also choose to further their academic pursuits by earning an additional associate degree. Although this might sound counterintuitive, and students who choose this path might appear as if they are going backward, the move broadens their career opportunities. This is especially true if they can’t find gainful employment with a bachelor’s degree. They can easily get entry-level level positions with an associate degree and seek higher opportunities later.
What Fields require a Bachelor’s Degree versus an Associate Degree?
An associate’s degree is all that is required to get into the workplace in a skilled-labor or technical industry. If you would rather skip a four-year university program to quickly begin a career, you can do so with an associate degree. There are many job opportunities you can get with an associate degree. Some popular examples include:
- Computer programmer
- Advertising sales agent
- Biomedical technician
- Administrative assistant
- Engineering technician
- Air traffic controller
- Industrial designer
However, with many employers thinking of bachelor’s degree holders as more attractive or more qualified, getting certain jobs can be quite competitive. This is particularly true if applicants from both ends of the spectrum are vying for the same position. Depending on the available position, some organizations do not care what the field of study is; the job will likely go to the applicant with a four-year degree.
Some career opportunities are strictly for holders of bachelor’s degrees. Some of these include:
- Airline and commercial pilot
- Chemical engineer
- Aerospace engineer
- Sales manager
- Advertising or Marketing managers
- Computer network architect
- Business management
Although a bachelor’s degree might not be mandatory for accounting, you will need a college degree in accounting if you are thinking of becoming a CPA. In some cases, advanced coursework in auditing, financial reporting, and other related subjects are required for accounting careers.
Value of an Associate vs. Bachelor Degree
What is the average cost of an associate degree vs bachelor degree?
The overall cost in tuition and fees varies from one school to another, but a bachelor’s degree generally costs more than an associate degree. On average, the yearly tuition and fees for a public four-year college are more than $9,400 (for in-state students).
Out-of-state students can expect to pay an average of $24,000 for a four-year bachelor degree program in a public college or more than $32,000 in a private university. On the other hand, tuition and fees for a public two-year college program will cost approximately $3,500.
What is the earning potential of having an associate degree vs bachelor degree?
Typically, you can expect to pay less in tuition for an associate degree, but there’s a trade-off in the earning potentials. Whether it is a BA or BS, students with bachelor’s degrees will potentially earn up to about 40 percent more annually than those associate degree holders.
More specifically, the average weekly earnings for a bachelor’s degree holder are approximately $1,248, while an associate degree holder’s weekly earnings are about $887.
The pay comparison notwithstanding, many high-paying jobs require only an associate degree. A few examples of these jobs with their annual earnings are:
- Air Traffic Controller (more than $124,000)
- Computer network support specialist (about $68,000)
- Dental hygienist (a little over $74,800)
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (over $71,000)
- Occupational therapy assistant (over $57,000)
- Radiological therapist (approximately $80,500)
- Registered nurse (over $71,700)
- Web developer (about $69,400)
How to Decide Between an Associate and Bachelor Degree
What is Required to Obtain a Bachelor Degree Versus an Associate Degree?
Typically, it takes about 120-semester courses (or approximately 40 college courses) to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Some colleges use quarter systems instead of a semester system.
In that case, students are expected to complete at least 180 quarter credits to be awarded a baccalaureate. The major area of study usually has only 10 to 12 courses or 30 to 36 credits.
As earlier mentioned, an associate degree requires approximately 60 credits covering education coursework in social sciences, natural sciences, English, and math.
Where Can You Find the Best Bachelor and Associate Degree Programs?
Many traditional colleges and online schools are offering both bachelor and associate degree programs. However, choosing one that best suits you requires careful research. First, you need to consider several factors when choosing a degree program (as discussed below).
You can find associate degree programs in community colleges as well as some universities. Whichever school you choose, make sure their curriculum has been vetted to meet the minimum education requirement. You want to avoid possible problems with employers that may arise if the school or program they offer is not duly accredited.
Several universities offer programs leading to a technology degree both for bachelor and associate levels. Choosing a great bachelor’s degree program can make things a bit easier if you ever decide to pursue an advanced degree.
What Factors Should You Consider When Selecting a Degree Program?
Choosing a degree program based on a whim or emotion is usually not the best way to approach such an important decision. Following a gut feeling might not prevent you from academic success, but selecting a degree course is one of the life-changing decisions you will make and should be considered more carefully.
Here are some factors to consider when choosing a degree program.
1. Interests and Strengths
Start by asking yourself what you like. What holds your interest? What subjects were you good at in high school? What are your hobbies, and why do you enjoy the things you do? This self-reflection is an excellent way to dig down and know what course of study will suit both your current personality and your long-term dreams.
It is crucial to have high interests in whichever course you plan to undertake. You will need between two to four years (or more), depending on what program you choose. This requires a higher level of commitment if you must survive your chosen course of study. You will probably find it difficult to cope if you settle for a degree program with subjects that do not hold your interest or topics that you are not too good at.
2. Research Career Options
What vision do you have when it comes to your career? What type of job do you think you will enjoy the most? What career do you think your interest and strengths are best suited for? These are questions that can help you determine the specific degree program that is most suitable for you.
It is important to consider all the aspects of a job category before choosing to focus on a specific field of study. For example, if your self-examination reveals that you have a liking or strong interest in health, you need to decide what aspect of medicine you want to build a career in.
Do you like having physical contact with people? If you do, perhaps an associate degree that could land you a job as a physical therapist assistant might be something you want to consider. On the other hand, if you don’t enjoy touching people, a medical laboratory technician might suit you.
The bottom line is to give some serious thoughts to your future career plans and pick the degree program that will take you closer to that vision. If you already have a job that you thoroughly enjoy, you might want to choose a degree course that will help you advance. Otherwise, you may need to run a completely different program that can open you to better opportunities.
3. Narrow Down Your College Choices
Prepare a small list of colleges and research them to determine which ones offer the program you want. Decide whether you want a traditional or online learning environment. Keep in mind that online schooling may let you access a wider range of courses than brick and mortar schools in your area.
Before choosing a bachelor or associate degree, ensure that the program is accredited, especially if you are thinking of running a course in a relatively new school. Some schools might have newer departments with programs that have not been accredited. Accreditation means that a licensed organization has vetted and verified the school or department’s curriculum to meet the minimum academic standards for universities or colleges.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose to run a program leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree; if the curriculum is not accredited, your degree will not be recognized by employers. It will also not be possible to transfer credits to other higher institutions of learning.
5. Factor in Costs and Convenience
Advertising is typically created to sway prospective students, but don’t base your decisions solely on that. If you are an older student with a family or job, make sure you take your time to really consider the programs as a whole, especially how convenient it would be to effectively manage the courses considering your other responsibilities.
Can you effectively do your job while running a full-time program? Would you be able to fit four-year coursework into your other commitments? Do you have the required budget to pay the tuition for your preferred program?
The cost of a bachelor’s degree program is often more expensive than an associate degree program. However, associate programs can cost as little as $2,500 to as much as $60,000 in tuition alone. For this reason, it is important to first research your preferred program holistically before taking the plunge.