Online Associate Degree Program Guide

Begin your college education with an online associate degree. Our experts at BestColleges have created this guide that features information on admissions, degree pathways, and top career options for those considering an online associate degree.

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by Reese Lopez

Published on August 12, 2021 · Updated on March 24, 2022

Edited by Rebecca Long
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An associate degree program can introduce students to the fundamentals of their chosen field. Some associate degrees build foundational skills that prepare graduates to transfer into a bachelor's program. Others offer practical career training, preparing candidates to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation.

Most associate degree programs take about two years to complete. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), tuition and required fees at public two-year colleges cost about $3,380 during the 2019-2020 school year. Students at the most affordable online community colleges may find even lower tuition rates.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that associate degree graduates earned an annual median salary of about $48,780 in 2020. However, many top-paying careers for associate graduates offer annual salaries in the $70,000-$80,000 range. Careers in healthcare, engineering, and information technology usually feature the highest salaries.

This page offers an overview of online associate degrees, including admission requirements, types of degrees, and options after graduation.

What Is an Associate Degree?

An online associate degree program can help students build the basic skills necessary for entry-level careers or further academic study. Many students use an associate degree as a pathway to a bachelor's program. Others may use the degree to build specific skills for a set career path, such as nursing or auto repair.

Types of Associate Degrees

Associate of Arts (AA)

An associate of arts degree is generally awarded to graduates whose studies focus on the liberal arts, social sciences, and behavioral sciences. Students explore common subjects such as psychology, philosophy, English, and art. This degree can prepare graduates to enter bachelor's programs such as English, history, or communications.

Associate of Science (AS)

Students focusing on the sciences, information technology, and business generally earn an associate of science. Learners pursuing this degree often study in fields such as computer science, marketing, or engineering. Graduates can enter careers such as nursing or information technology support.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

An associate of applied science emphasizes professional training, preparing students to enter a career field as soon as they graduate. Programs that award AAS degrees usually focus on specialized skills that apply directly to a specific career path. Radiologic technician and dental hygienist courses of study are examples of applied science programs.

Associate of General Studies (AGS)

An associate of general studies degree usually builds broad knowledge and skills, rather than focusing on a specific career path. These programs may build vocational, technical, and general academic skills. However, an associate of general studies may not transfer to a four-year college like an associate of arts or associate of science degree.

Why Get an Associate Degree Online?

Online associate degree programs give candidates the freedom to take college courses without visiting a college campus. This flexibility makes the degree ideal for working students who want to maintain employment while attending classes. An online associate degree makes it possible to explore a new career path without disrupting your current source of income.

Online programs may also reduce or remove many common higher education expenses. Online students rarely relocate to a new city or commute to campus, often making college more practical and affordable.

What Can I Expect From an Online Associate Degree Program?

An online associate degree program builds basic knowledge in many subjects. Programs commonly emphasize soft skills that can apply to many types of jobs. Associate degrees serve both students looking to enter the workforce and those who plan to continue their education.

Most full-time online associate degree programs require students to complete 60 credits in two years. Accelerated programs may feature more courses each semester, but take less time to complete. Part-time programs may take longer to complete, but require fewer courses each semester.

Many programs operate asynchronously, with no scheduled class sessions. The asynchronous format lets students complete coursework at any time of day. This flexible course model makes it easier for students to maintain regular jobs while earning a degree.

What Are the Admission Requirements for an Online Associate Degree Program?

Admission requirements for online associate degrees can vary widely depending on the program, school, and location. Programs at many community colleges maintain open admissions, admitting any applicant with a high school diploma or GED certificate. These schools may use placement tests that determine which courses students qualify for.

Associate programs at four-year colleges may have more selective admission requirements. Students may need to take college entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT. Four-year schools may also require applicants to possess a minimum GPA. Some schools also ask students to submit an application essay.

Many associate degree programs may offer credit for prior learning. Students with relevant professional experience or training may also be able to earn credit for their existing skills. Credit for previous educational experience may let students skip over certain courses and earn their degree faster.

What Can I Do With an Online Associate Degree?

Career Outlook

An online associate degree program can prepare graduates for a wide variety of entry-level careers. While graduates with associate degrees usually earn lower salaries than professionals with bachelor's degrees, many jobs offer competitive wages. According to the BLS, associate degree-holders earned an annual median salary of $48,780 in 2020, about 17% more than high school degree-holders earned.

An associate degree can also lead to further education, such as a bachelor's or master's degree. With very few exceptions, top-paying careers in nearly all professional fields require education beyond an associate degree. However, many high-paying associate degree jobs do exist, particularly in fields like healthcare.

Associate degree holders may also gain professional experience in the workforce before continuing their education.

Career Paths

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists work in dentists' offices, providing oral care and checking patients for signs of oral diseases. They remove stains from teeth, apply compounds that help protect teeth, and take dental X-rays. Dental hygienists must obtain proper licensure, though most associate degree programs prepare students for their state licensure exam.

Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $77,090


Medical Sonographer

Also known as diagnostic imaging workers, sonographers operate specialized equipment that takes medical images. Medical sonographers prepare patients for imaging procedures, maintain equipment, and examine test results for image quality. Sonographers may also specialize in different areas, such as abdominal, cardiac, or musculoskeletal imaging.

Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $70,380


Electrical Engineering Technician

Electrical engineering technicians assist engineers in developing electronic equipment, such as computers, appliances, and medical devices. Their common duties include assembling electronic systems, building electronic instruments, and inspecting designs for quality. Engineering technicians can improve their career prospects by pursuing certifications from organizations like the National Institute for Certification in Engineering.

Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $67,550


Radiologic Technician

Radiologic and MRI technicians operate specialized medical imaging equipment to perform diagnostic exams on patients. Radiologic technicians perform X-rays, while MRI technicians perform MRIs. In many cases, radiologic technicians become MRI technicians after gaining professional experience. Most states require licensure or certification for radiologic technicians, but not MRI technicians.

Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $63,710


Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists provide care for patients with breathing issues such as emphysema or asthma. They may examine patients, perform diagnostic tests, and offer treatment such as chest physiotherapy. Respiratory therapists often work with doctors to develop treatment plans for patients. Most states require respiratory therapists to hold professional certification.

Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $62,810


Computer Support Specialist

Computer support specialists provide technical assistance to individuals and organizations. They may help other employees with common computer problems involving both hardware and software. They may also set up computer systems. Some computer support specialists work with specific aspects of information technology, such as computer networking.

Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $55,510


Transfer to a Four-Year Program

An associate of arts or science usually fulfills credit requirements for the first two years of a bachelor's degree program. Most schools offer support for students who plan to transfer to a four-year college after completing their associate degree. Transferring to a bachelor's program can help students gain more advanced skills and earn higher salaries after graduation.

Transfer students should consult academic advisors to determine the most effective course of study. Many community colleges maintain articulation agreements with four-year colleges. These programs let students transfer directly into a bachelor's program after earning their associate degree at a partner school.

How Do I Choose an Online Associate Degree Program?

Cost

Always consider the true cost of college, which includes more than just tuition. In general, public schools cost less than private schools, and in-state tuition costs less than out-of-state tuition. Online and campus programs often feature similar tuition rates, but online programs can help you save on secondary expenses, like travel.

Program Format

A program's format can greatly impact your college experience. Synchronous programs include live class sessions with required login times, while asynchronous programs let you complete coursework at any time. Many colleges offer both full-time and part-time enrollment options, which affect how long you'll stay in school and how many classes you'll take each semester.

Location

When choosing a college, always find out whether an online program includes any required in-person components. Some online degrees, such as nursing, may include required lab sessions or other activities that occur on campus. If you're enrolling in a program with campus requirements, consider choosing a school near your home.

Accreditation

No matter what type of associate program you choose, always make sure your school holds proper regional or national accreditation. Accrediting bodies vet colleges and their academic programs, ensuring that students receive a quality education. Traditional two-year and four-year colleges can earn regional accreditation, while trade and vocational schools can receive national accreditation.

Student Support

When considering a program, always research a school's student support services. Many colleges offer resources such as mentorships programs and connections to internships. If you plan to enroll either fully or primarily online, ask about a school's online student services, which may differ from on-campus services.

Transfer Credits

If you plan to enroll in a bachelor's degree program, always make sure your associate degree can transfer to a four-year college. Check with academic and transfer advisors to learn more about a school's credit transfer policies. Many community colleges maintain transfer agreements with four-year colleges, which allow students to transfer most or all of their associate degree credits.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Associate Degree Programs

Is an online associate degree program worth it?

An online associate degree program can prepare students to transfer to a bachelor's program or pursue a career after graduation. These programs offer excellent value in terms of cost, practicality, and professional preparation. Most students benefit from the skills gained in an associate program, making the degree a good choice for almost anyone.

An associate degree may serve as the first step on the path to higher education. The degree can also help students reduce their overall higher education expenses, particularly if they complete courses at a community college. Online associate degree programs often give students the flexibility to keep working while they complete courses.

How much does an online associate degree cost?

Tuition rates for online associate degrees vary by type of school. However, the NCES reports that public two-year colleges charged an average of roughly $3,380 in tuition and required fees during the 2019-2020 academic year. In comparison, public four-year colleges charged about $9,350 per year during the same period.

Tuition rates at private colleges run much higher than public colleges. During the 2019-2020 school year, private four-year colleges charged an average of $32,770 in tuition and required fees. With very few exceptions, public community colleges and other two-year schools charge the lowest tuition rates among higher education institutions.

How long does it take to get an associate degree online?

Most online associate degree programs take two years of full-time study to complete. However, total completion time can vary based on enrollment format. Many schools offer both part-time and accelerated enrollment options.

Part-time enrollment allows students to complete fewer courses each semester. This creates a lighter workload, but students take longer to graduate. Part-time students may take three or more years to graduate, depending on their course load. Accelerated programs feature a heavier course load each semester, allowing students to graduate faster. Some accelerated programs may enable students to earn their degree in as little as a year.

How much money can I make with an associate degree?

Associate degree-holders earned an annual median salary of $48,780 in 2020, according to the BLS. However, salaries vary widely depending on the industry, type of degree, location, and experience level. In most industries, associate degree-holders earn less than their peers with bachelor's or master's degrees.

In general, professionally-focused degrees in high-demand fields command higher salaries. For example, many healthcare careers offer annual salaries well above the national average. Other fields such as engineering or information technology also offer high salaries to associate degree-holders.

What are the highest paying jobs with an associate degree?

Some of the highest-paid professionals who only need associate degrees to start their careers are radiation therapists, nuclear technicians, and nuclear medicine technologists. According to the BLS, radiation therapists earned a median salary of $86,850 per year in May 2020. Nuclear technicians earned a median annual wage of $84,190 and nuclear medicine technologists made a median yearly salary of $79,590 during the same period.

Healthcare careers also commonly offer some of the best salaries for associate degree-holders. The BLS reports dental hygienists earned an annual median salary of $77,090 in May 2020, while registered nurses made $75,330 per year. Associate program graduates can increase their salaries by gaining professional experience and additional education. In many fields, professional certifications and licenses can also help candidates earn higher wages without returning to school for an advanced degree.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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