Looking to get started in a new career quickly? A two-year degree program may be just the thing.
If you are considering getting a college degree, you may be wondering what the difference is between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. An associate’s degree is a two-year degree program. A bachelor’s degree takes four years.
(An associate’s degree is also called an associate degree. These terms will be used interchangeably in this article.)
One of the main differences between a two-year and four-year college degree program is that two-year programs are often vocational in focus. That means that associate’s degree programs are often created specifically to train for a certain job. These programs are more practical than theoretical in focus.
For example, at the bachelor level, a school might offer a general science degree, not geared toward any specific job description. However, at the two-year level you might find an applied science degree, which prepares you for a specific profession such as a radiation therapist.
As another example, one of the most lucrative jobs you can learn in two years is dental hygienist, and all you need is an associate’s degree.
That said, you can still get an associate of arts degree in two years that isn’t tied to any specific profession but teaches the student about history, art, literature, and other broad topics. These students typically go on to complete a four-year program and obtain a bachelor’s degree.
By learning about the various two-year degree options, you can make the right choice in selecting a degree that matches your career goals.
Types of two-year degrees
Two-year degree programs, as well as vocational certification courses, continue to be popular among students. No matter what your previous work history is, you can probably find a two-year associate’s degree program that can put you on a good career path.
Who might benefit from a two-year degree?
Two main types of students can benefit from going to college for a two-year degree: “kids” fresh out of high school who have little to no job experience and working adults who want to go back to school to enhance career prospects.
For both categories, two-year degree programs can be ideal because they can be completed quickly, and they don’t cost an arm and a leg. The return on investment is big because many of the jobs you can prepare for in a two-year program are actually quite high paying.
For the adult learner who is already working, a two-year program may offer flexible scheduling, nighttime classes, and online learning options.
The major differences between types of two-year degrees
As mentioned, while you can get a general education with a two-year degree such as an arts degree, if you are looking to go to school to get a job, look for a two-year degree program that focuses on a specific career or industry. For example, that might mean opting for the applied science associate’s degree instead of the more general science degree.
For prospective students who are interested in receiving a degree and simply need to finish quickly, another option to a two-year degree would be a fast-track bachelor’s degree. Many online universities offer flexible options that sometimes include giving college credit for applicable work experience.
Fortunately, many community colleges are now starting to offer four-year undergraduate degree programs. This is great news, as community colleges tend to be much more affordable than traditional universities that offer both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. If you don’t need a master’s degree, a community college may be all you need to fulfill your educational goals.
Types of degrees that require only two years of study
Do you need an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree? For quite a few fields, a two-year degree will be enough to start a lucrative career. Here are just a few of the degrees you can get with only two years of college, many of which are in health care:
Associate of applied science degree in occupational science
With this degree, you can get a job as an occupational therapy assistant. With a 28 percent job growth rate and an average salary of $56,690, this is an exciting field to enter—and you will also be doing good. Occupational therapy assistants help professional occupational therapists work with patients who need help returning to work after an illness or an injury.
Associate of science degree in respiratory therapy or respiratory care
To become a respiratory therapist, you only need an associate’s degree to earn an average salary of $59,710, in a field with a 23 percent growth rate. What does a respiratory therapist do? A respiratory therapist is a health professional who works with patients who have trouble with breathing. Disease conditions include asthma, COPD, and emphysema. Some respiratory therapists work with premature babies who suffer from underdeveloped lungs.
Associate degree in air traffic control management
Being an air traffic controller can be a high-stress job, but it is also high paying with a median salary of $122,530 and 11,400 new job opportunities expected through 2022.
Associate of applied science degree in medical assisting
With a median annual salary of $32,480 and a job growth rate of 29 percent, a career as a medical assistant is an excellent choice. This is an administrative role that involves managing patient schedules and records, but it can also include clinical aspects, such as taking blood, checking vital signs, and helping with patient intakes. This is a critical role that serves as the “glue” that holds a medical office together.
Associate of applied science degree in radiologic technology
A radiologic technologist takes X-rays and other types of medical images of patients. Another job duty may be treating patients with radiation therapy for patients. You can specialize in certain diagnostic areas, such as mammography (to monitor for breast cancer) or bones (to screen for osteoporosis, for example). Prospects for job growth are 13 percent with a median salary of $60,070.
Associate in applied science in computer networking
This is just one of many associate’s degree options in computing and IT. One potential job you could get with this degree is computer network support technician. The salary is good at an average of $59,000, with an estimated forty thousand job opportunities coming online by 2022.
Associate of science degree in surgical technology
Surgical technologists have the exciting job of supporting surgeons during surgeries in the operating room (OR). These specialists prepare the OR, sterilize surgical tools, and make sure doctors have the right equipment. They might also work with new medical technologies such as lasers, fiber optics, and robotic surgical tools.
Associate of science degree in cardiovascular technology
With an associate of science degree in cardiovascular technology, you can become a cardiovascular technologist or respiratory therapist and earn an average of $57,250. The job growth projection is not amazing but decent at 17 percent. Respiratory therapists support cardiologists in tasks such as aiding in cardiovascular diagnosis. Some cardiovascular technicians are employed in emergency rooms, where they might be called upon to locate and clear a clogged artery, which can be a lifesaving procedure.
Jobs and positions that may require a two-year degree
With some jobs a degree is “nice to have,” but with many jobs an associate’s degree is required, especially jobs in health care or requiring any sort of licensure.
Fields of work that usually require a two-year degree
There are many fulfilling and even high-paying jobs and positions that don’t require a four-year college degree but do need an associate’s degree.
Generally speaking, fields that require some sort of technical knowledge and proficiency require at least a two-year degree.
Health care is one field where many opportunities exist for those with the right associate’s degree. We will always need health care, and successful health care requires more than just doctors.
Hospitals, medical centers, and doctor’s offices need nurses, medical assistants, speciality technicians such as radiation therapists and respiratory therapists, and additional support staff to provide the best in patient care. Dental hygienists are always needed.
While becoming a full doctor can take almost a decade of study and residency work, becoming a well-paid medical professional such as a nurse or dental hygienist can be achieved in just two years. Nursing is always in demand and pays well, averaging $55,000 per year, and many nurses simply have an associate’s degree.
However, it is worth noting that while nurses in the past required simply a two-year degree, the trend has been for nurses looking to enter leadership roles to get a full bachelor’s degree. That said, it is still worth pursuing an associate of applied science degree in nursing. Jobs are available either as a nurse or nursing assistant.
Nursing assistants have a lower average salary than nurses at $27,510, but it is a good way to start a career in nursing. You perform basic nursing tasks and offer patient care—pretty much everything a registered nurse would do except administering medicine.
Rapidly growing job options that require a two-year degree
It’s not a bad idea to scan projected job openings to see what hot careers you can pursue with a two-year degree. You can find many lists of in-demand jobs requiring an associate’s degree with a quick online search. Check job boards for the latest job openings near you to get an idea of what might be in demand in your local area. Here are just a few job titles that are in high demand that need only a two-year degree:
Just about everyone needs a dental hygienist. That’s the person who cleans your teeth and makes sure plaque and tartar buildup don’t lead to cavities or gum disease. A dental hygienist also helps the dentist or orthodontist with exams and takes images such as X-rays to look at what’s going on inside the oral cavity.
The trend is for dental hygienists to play an important role in preventative health care and learn how to deal with chronic health conditions such as diabetes. The average salary of a dental hygienist is more than $57,000, and the job outlook is good at 20 percent growth. All you need is an associate of applied science degree in dental hygiene.
If you are good with math and science, you can help with engineering projects as an engineering technician. There are a variety of specialities, including industrial engineering technician, environmental engineering technician, electrical engineering technician, and aerospace engineering technician. The average yearly salary for engineering technicians ranges from $41,000 to $52,000 per year depending on the field.
Being a paralegal can be exciting and interesting—though it can also involve a lot of dry research and administrative support. But it’s a great career option for people who are interested in law but don’t want to become a lawyer. With a two-year degree, a paralegal can on average earn $46,000 annually.
Radiologic technologist and diagnostic medical imaging technician
There are many job opportunities at hospitals, health clinics, and laboratories for medical imaging staff, from taking X-rays and helping with other diagnostics. Look for job listings such as radiologic technologist, X-ray technician, or diagnostic medical imaging technicians. The median salary is around $52,000 per year.
Physical therapy assistant
If you are interested in physical therapy, you can start off as a physical therapy assistant by getting an associate of applied science degree in physical therapist assisting. With a job growth outlook of a whopping 30 percent and a potential average salary of $46,920, this is a great job to look into.
Physical therapy involves the application of exercise and bodywork to heal and repair the body after illness or injury. As the population ages, physical therapy services are more and more needed. The physical therapy assistant supports the physical therapist with helping patients regain movement and function. Many physical therapy assistants go on to complete advanced educational training to become full physical therapists, so getting a two-year degree is a great entry point.
Degrees you can accomplish in a two-year program to further your career
While some professions, such as paralegal or nurse, require a two-year degree, other professions don’t require such a degree, but career growth can be helped by one. This is especially evident in the world of IT. Many IT specialists are self-taught but having a degree can help improve job prospects.
For example, computer support specialists can get a variety of associate’s degrees, such as in specialized technology, to help them be more marketable. That can pay off with a median annual salary ranging from $46,000 to $60,000. Or if you want to move from a help-desk role to more of a network administrator role, having a degree can help with that transition.
Someone who is a self-taught web designer can also benefit from a two-year degree. This can actually work in two directions, as web design can involve both creative and technical skills. Someone with a knack for technology may return to school to gain some skills in graphic design or online marketing, while a graphic designer might want to pursue a two-year IT degree to get a better handle on the underlying technical aspects of websites, including HTML and CSS code.
This principle can apply to many professions. You might have an existing bachelor’s degree in history but decide to take an associate’s degree to round out your IT experience. Or you might have a vocational certification but no relevant degree for your career choice.
For example, perhaps you have a nonaccredited certificate in yoga therapy but would like to work in a physical therapy environment. In this case, getting a two-year degree as a physical therapy assistant would be an excellent choice.
Benefits of a two-year degree
A two-year college degree has many benefits. For starters, it may be a great way to begin your education. A two-year degree can also help you get a job (or a better job). If you are already working but want to change careers, an associate’s degree can be a great way to start a new path quickly.
It’s even easier these days to get a two-year degree with so many great online degree programs available.
A high percentage of college graduates—approximately 50 percent—are those with associate’s degrees or certificates instead of bachelor’s degrees. This is because two-year degree programs offer many benefits.
How a two-year degree can help further your education
Starting out as a student in an associate’s degree program can be a great way to transition from high school to college. For some young students, unsure of what degree they want to get and whether they want to commit to four years of undergraduate schooling, an associate’s degree is a great way to start.
The associate’s degree program can give the student an opportunity to explore a specific area of interest or college major without a huge commitment. Additionally, a two-year degree at a local community college is usually much more affordable than starting off directly at a four-year college to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
This can also be a helpful approach for adults already in the workforce who are considering returning to school and might want to dip their toe in the water.
For example, you might be interested in studying computer science. By starting off at a small community college, you can take a few classes in computer programming and see if you like it before committing to a full bachelor’s degree. Or perhaps you are considering a different type of science degree, such as chemistry. Even if your long-term plan is to receive a master’s degree, getting started with a two-year degree program can be a great way to begin.
How a two-year degree can help you get a job
When you are considering whether to pursue an associate’s degree, you may be wondering how a two-year degree could help you get a job. The reality is, having any sort of degree can be a boost in almost every job search.
With most jobs on the market today, people with college degrees typically get preferential treatment. This is particularly true in the white-collar working world, where résumés are often tossed entirely if a college degree isn’t listed.
And now, applying for jobs is even tougher because many companies use automated applicant tracking systems to scan and screen résumés before a human hiring manager even sees them. Without a degree on your résumé, you risk having your résumé trashed entirely before anyone ever sees it.
Thus, a college degree is never wasted, since even a two-year degree can help you get past an automated résumé scanner, even if your degree is different from your job target.
And, in general, people who go to college—even for two years—usually earn more money than people who have not gone at all. The bottom line is, even with a two-year degree, you can apply for jobs offering a much higher median salary than you would be able to without one.
How a two-year degree allows you to begin your career more quickly
With so many career options available, a junior college can be a great choice for many looking for a new career path. In fact, having a two-year college degree in a specific technical field may be an even better choice than a four-year program for those wanting to pursue a high-paying career.
Consider the difference in job prospects between someone who obtained an associate’s degree to become a dental hygienist versus someone with a bachelor of arts in philosophy. Just because someone is a bachelor’s degree holder, it doesn’t mean they are employable. An electrician who went to a junior college will have a much easier time finding a job than a college-credentialed philosopher.
Thus, many two-year associate’s degrees can not only get you a high-paying job but they can also get you a higher-paying job than many four-year degree programs.
Additionally, companies in high-demand industries often will support employees or prospective employees by providing tuition rebates to complete vocational two-year degree programs. Some states may also offer lowered tuition or even free tuition for essential jobs, such as nurses.
Best two-year degree programs
As you can see, there are many high-paying jobs you can get with just a two-year degree.
Once you have decided to pursue an associate’s degree, the next step is to research schools to find the best program for your personal and career goals.
How to find the best two-year degree programs
One of the first places to start looking for a good two-year degree program is in your own town, city, or state. Contact your local community college and ask them to send you enrollment information.
Perhaps you are looking for something specialized, such as green degrees to help the environment. These might not be so easy to find locally, so you should decide if you are willing to travel. However, since the coronavirus pandemic, most colleges are now offering distance learning, so this should be less of an issue.
If you are interested in pursuing an online associate’s degree, you can get started by reviewing popular online programs by searching based on your area of interest. For example, if you are interested in engineering technician programs, try searching “engineering technician online degrees” or something similar.
Of course, ask family, friends, and your online social network for recommendations. Sometimes word of mouth is the best way to get connected to a great program.
Make sure you do some research and find out if a school is properly accredited. This may also involve contacting the state the school is located in to make sure their “paperwork” is all up to date. You might also request an annual report from the school to find out where the money is going. This is even more important online to make sure that the school is stable and reputable.
What to look for in a two-year degree program
Let’s say you want to become a veterinary technician. As you do your research, you will want to first focus on schools that offer a veterinary technician program. Obviously, you won’t want to go to a school if all it offers is an arts degree.
Then, once you have the list of schools with veterinary technician programs, find out which ones have the better reputation for this job target. The same should be done for any subject area, such as computer science.
You might need to find a school offering multiple areas of interest. Let’s say you are thinking of becoming a medical assistant, but you are also interested in perhaps becoming a radiologic technologist. You might consider applying to be a student at a school that offers applied science degrees in both subject areas in case you want to switch to a different major.
If you are looking into a two-year program that might lead to a bachelor’s degree later on, talk to an admissions counselor. Many two-year schools can help you transition to a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college.
As part of your research, you should set up an appointment with admissions counselors at schools you are most interested in. Many schools will have open houses (now often online) so you can check out what their program is all about.
The best two-year degree programs have three things in common
Everyone has their own list of important things they want to get out of their education. However, in reviewing online programs, consider the following:
The best two-year schools have a good reputation
As mentioned above, you should research schools and talk to admissions counselors prior to making a decision. Check online school reviews, as well as teacher reviews. Are the professors good at what they do? What do people say about the school on its social media pages? Check to see if anyone is complaining there or on sites that report “rip-offs.”
Prices for classes are reasonable at good two-year schools
Community colleges are supposed to be affordable. That’s why they are called “community” colleges. The best two-year schools have reasonable tuition rates and offer ample financial aid and payment options.
The best schools are transparent about finances and staff
You have to be careful, especially in these days of fly-by-night online schools. The best schools will be transparent about their finances and staff, including administrators and professors. Check the bios of the teachers in your program. Are they qualified?
By doing some proper vetting of your school, you will be more likely to get a great education that really prepares you for an amazing and well-paying job.
Thinking about getting a two-year degree? Get started today!
Getting a two-year degree is a great way to start a career, change a career, or improve a career. No matter your age or background, you might be able to benefit from an associate’s degree. With many high-paying jobs out there requiring only two years of education, it’s a great time to get started with your associate’s degree program. Interested in getting started?