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What is an associate degree? Here’s what you should know

associate degree
What is an associate degree? Here’s what you should know before taking the plunge. Source: Ulises Ruiz/AFP

Are you done with high school, but don’t know what to do next? If you live in North America, you’ve probably heard of associate degrees. But what is an associate degree, and should you pursue it? 

An associate degree is an undergraduate level programme that you can enrol in upon successful completion of your secondary school studies. It can be an affordable option that you can pursue at various colleges and universities. Here’s what you should know: 

How long does it take to complete an associate degree?

It typically takes two years to complete an associate degree while a bachelor’s degree takes approximately four years full-time. Students generally complete 60 credit hours with an associate degree, and 120 for a bachelor’s. The credits you earn from an associate degree can also contribute towards your bachelor’s, depending on your school’s credit transfer policies, should you choose to continue with your education. Associate degrees are common in North America, but you can also find them in countries such as Australia. They are similar to foundation degrees in the UK.

How much does it cost?

As an associate degree is shorter than a bachelor’s, they typically cost less. The final cost of your programme will vary, depending on factors such as the type of financial aid you receive and the institution you go to. GetEducated notes, “An associate degree takes half as long, and therefore generally costs half as much, as a traditional four-year bachelor degree. Many community colleges offer low-cost associate degree programmes. Community college can be a cheaper, more flexible and less time-consuming way to pursue this kind of programme.”

What will I learn?

Associate degree programmes vary; some offer vocational or technical programmes (e.g. nursing, electrical technician, etc.) or a general studies approach. There are several types of associate degrees, including Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS) and Associate of Applied Business (AAB), among others. Which one you choose largely depends on whether you want to gain a specific set of skills for certain jobs, or if you’d prefer having a general education that can also prepare you for a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, typically requires you to choose a major right off the bat or after completing your core courses, depending on your programme and institution.

What are my education options upon successful completion of the programme?

An associate degree is seen as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, making it a natural pathway to continue your studies. You’ll need a bachelor’s before you can apply for your master’s.

What about my career options?

An associate degree can prepare you for many careers, especially in the technical or skilled-labour industry. Capella University notes that other jobs you can get with an associate degree include dental assistant, licensed practical nurse (LPN), cosmetologist and computer programmer, among others, depending on your qualifications.

So, should I get an associate degree?

At the end of the day, whether or not you should pursue an associate degree depends on factors such as your career goals and financial resources. Degree holders typically earn more than associate degree holders, are less likely to be unemployed and may have a wider range of career options than the latter.

This makes it essential that you identify your career goals and stay up-to-date on the credentials needed to ensure you remain competitive in your field of choice. If money is an issue, an associate degree can be a good option for you to dip your toes in the water, and return for a bachelor’s degree when you have better financial footing. At the end of the day, pursuing your higher education is an investment in your future and well-being, so while the initial cost may put you off, expect to reap the rewards in the long run. 

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