Online vs. Traditional: What to expect from an online associate degree program

The associate degree is an undergraduate degree that normally requires two years of full-time coursework. Associate degrees are primarily offered at community colleges, vocational schools, and technical colleges, as well as colleges and universities that also provide bachelor’s and graduate degree programs. An associate degree is considered the minimum educational attainment level for jobs in many industries, including select positions in nursing and healthcare, information technology, social work, and criminal justice. An associate can also serve as a useful stepping-stone for students who also plan to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degree.

As the table below demonstrates, the number of students in the U.S. who have earned at least an associate degree has more than doubled since 1990.

Source: US Census

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than 1 million associate degrees were conferred during the 2013-14 academic year; this represents a 10-year increase of roughly 51%. Many of today’s students choose to pursue an associate degree at a community, vocational, or technical college because these institutions tend to have lower tuition rates than four-year universities. They can significantly lower their education costs by earning an associate at a two-year school, and then transferring into a four-year institution in order to complete their undergraduate studies.

The rise of online associate degree programs has made it even easier for men and women to complete their first two years of postsecondary education. Online programs enable students to complete all required learning tasks entirely or mostly from home. These include accessing lectures and course materials, submitting written assignments, taking exams, participating in online discussions with their fellow students, and communicating with professors, advisors, and other faculty members. The asynchronous (or self-paced) format of most online associate degree programs is also ideal for students with part-time jobs or childcare duties.

ONLINE VS. CAMPUS-BASED ASSOCIATE DEGREES

On-Campus Full Time

Benefits

  • Unlimited access to campus resources, including libraries, computer labs, and writing centers
  • Many courses include labs, practicum training, and other types of hands-on learning
  • Students can easily arrange face-to-face meetings with fellow learners and faculty members
  • College campuses foster social interaction and extracurricular engagement among students who attend

Drawbacks

  • Weekly course attendance and a synchronous schedule can be difficult to manage for students who have jobs, family obligations, and other commitments
  • Many on-campus courses are larger in size, which results in less individualized attention from teachers and other staff
  • Attending courses on-campus can create higher costs for living accommodations, commuting and parking, food, and other student expenses
Evening/Weekend Classes

Benefits

  • These courses are designed to accommodate students with busy weekly schedules
  • A significant number of students actually learn more effectively at night
  • Fewer weekly meetings means that students have more time to prepare for class

Drawbacks

  • Synchronous courses can be difficult for students with part-time jobs, family care duties, and other conflicting commitments
  • Class sessions are longer in order to meet curricular requirements
  • Night and weekend meetings can interfere with family time and social activities
Hybrid/Blended

Benefits

  • Online and on-campus coursework is often a happy medium for students who have been unsatisfied with 100% online or 100% on-campus learning
  • Current technology enables students to easily access classroom lectures using playback tools, which may cut down on the need to take notes in class
  • A lower number of campus visits will reduce commuting and parking expenses

Drawbacks

  • Blended programs require constant access to high-speed Internet, which may be prohibitive for some students
  • Some students fare better online than on-campus (and vice versa), which may result in mixed performance throughout the program
  • Hybrid programs are not as common, so certain associate degrees may not be offered in this format
Online

Benefits

  • Asynchronous online associate degrees are designed for students who prefer to study on their own time, such as those who work or have family commitments
  • Online students can study away from home using tablets, smartphones, and other portable Wi-Fi devices, as well as laptop computers
  • Online associate degrees reduce many overhead costs that are associated with on-campus or blended learning, such as commuting and parking, living accommodations, and food

Drawbacks

  • Online programs require constant access to high-speed Internet, which may be an issue for some students
  • Students in asynchronous online programs may struggle due to the lack of in-person interaction with peers and faculty members
  • Little to no hands-on training may not be ideal for students pursuing associate degrees in technical fields

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET AN ONLINE ASSOCIATE DEGREE?

The majority of today’s associate degree programs are designed for completion after two years of full-time enrollment. For schools that follow a semester-based calendar, the average associate degree program spans 60 credits in length; for quarter-based schools, associate degrees typically span 90 credits in length. According to the NCES, 31.6% of students who began pursuing an associate degree in 2012 completed their program within 150% of normal time (or three years). A credit breakdown for semester and quarter programs is featured in the table below.

However, several factors can affect the length of a given associate degree program. One factor is transfer credits, or credits from courses a student has previously completed at another accredited institution. A 2016 study by Learning House found that only 13% of online students had not earned any prior credits before enrolling in an online degree program; the study also noted that 40% of students had earned between 1 and 30 prior credits, while another 40% had earned between 31 and 90 credits.

Enrollment status is another important variable; those who enroll part-time in an associate program may require four years or more to complete their degree requirements. Some associate degree programs also follow a ‘cohort-based’ system, in which a group of students begin their program at the same time and complete all courses together. Cohort associate degree pathways build positive student relationships among learning groups that do not regularly meet in classrooms, but some students may prefer to follow an individualized learning track and potentially finish their degree ahead of schedule.

How Much Does an Online Associate Degree Cost?

The cost of earning an associate degree represents a major investment for most U.S. college students. In addition to college tuition and interest rates, students must also calculate expected costs related to living accommodations, meal plans, textbooks, administrative fees, and other necessary expenses. Commuting and parking may also be an issue for students attending programs with on-campus components.

Generally speaking, associate degrees are significantly cheaper than bachelor’s degrees because they require two years of coursework, as opposed to four years. However, expected costs will vary by the type of institution where a student earns his or her associate. The table below looks at average costs of attendance for public, private nonprofit and private for-profit institutions.

Average Cost of Attendance


Type of School Average Total Cost of Attendance
Public Institutions $13,333
Private Nonprofit $27,733
Private For-Profit $25,700

Average total cost of attending degree-granting institutions for first-time, full-time undergraduate students
Source: NCES

Budgeting 101

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I CONSIDER WHEN PAYING FOR AN ONLINE ASSOCIATE DEGREE?

Prospective students should take time to compare the costs of earning an associate degree online or on-campus. A recent survey from WCET noted that roughly 75% of online courses offered in the U.S. follow the same tuition rate as comparable brick-and-mortar courses. Additionally, 53.6% of WCET survey respondents reported that students enrolled completely online do not pay all of the fees assessed to students who exclusively attend courses on campus.

However, state residency can affect the cost of learning online. Most postsecondary institutions charge higher tuition rates for out-of-state students than in-state students. A recent survey from U.S. News & World Report noted that the average cost of an online course charged at an in-state rate is $277 per credit. Comparatively, the average cost of a brick-and-mortar course at the in-state rate is $243 per credit. However, online courses are less expensive per-credit than courses for out-of-state students or those attending private colleges.

Students who earn an associate degree online save money related to commuting and parking, as well as extra time they would normally spend travelling to and from campus. This enables them to possibly work more and earn more money while pursuing their degree, as well as save money on childcare costs. Additionally, most online classes utilize digital textbooks and course materials, which tend to be cheaper than the required materials for brick-and-mortar courses.

Living accommodations are generally comparable for online and on-campus students. While web-based learners may not need to live in on-campus housing (which tends to be more expensive than renting an off-campus house or apartment), they must also pay for utilities, Internet access, and other amenities that are usually available for free to those who reside on campus.

HOW MUCH FINANCIAL AID CAN I RECEIVE TO PAY FOR MY ONLINE ASSOCIATE DEGREE?

Annual Financial Aid Awarded


Type of Aid Average Amount per Student
Grants/Scholarships $8,390
Federal Loans $4,720
Education Tax Credits/Deductions $1,290
Federal Work-Study $60
Total per year $14,460

Average total cost of attending degree-granting institutions for first-time, full-time undergraduate students
Average federal financial aid per full time enrolled student for the 2015-2016 school year
Source: College Board

Because a college education represents such a significant financial investment, many students rely on financial aid to cover some or all of their academic costs. Unfortunately, a large amount of available financial aid goes unused each year. According to a recent survey by NerdWallet, eligible high school students missed out on roughly $2.7 billion in federal grant money in 2015 alone.

At the associate degree level, students may qualify for loans through the U.S. government; these loans have a fixed interest rate and allow students to repay loans based on their employment level, making them a safer option that most private student loans offered through banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. Associate degree-earning students who demonstrate financial need may qualify for subsidized federal loans, while those with no financial need will likely be eligible for unsubsidized federal loans.

Federal Pell Grants are also offered through the U.S. government to undergraduate students that have not yet earned a bachelor’s or professional degree; currently, these renewable grants award up to $5,815 per year, and do not need to be repaid. A survey by FinAid found that 25.3% of undergraduates pursuing a certificate or associate degree receive Pell Grant funding. Private scholarships awarded by companies, degree-granting institutions, and other private organizations are another form of financial aid that does not require repayment. The FinAid survey noted that 16.2% of associate degree students receive financial support through private scholarships.

For more information about financial aid opportunities for students pursuing an associate degree, please visit the three links below.

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Online College Students
The Debt-Free Degree
Understanding the FAFSA

An associate degree is the ideal academic pathway for students who plan to enter careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Many associate degree programs prepare students to enter the workforce and land jobs without further training. Additionally, the associate is a suitable, cost-effective degree option for students who plan to eventually transfer into a bachelor’s program. They will be able to gain foundational knowledge and skills in their area of academic interest, and then enter their bachelor’s studies with many of their credit requirements complete. In most cases, associate and bachelor’s degree programs in the same field offer identical course options in order to ease the credit-transfer process.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), those who earn an associate degree face an unemployment rate of 3.6%. By comparison, those who attend college without picking up a degree face a 4.4% unemployment rate, and those who complete their education with a high school diploma face a 5.2% unemployment rate. The NCES notes that this gap is particularly wide in people between the ages of 20 and 24; associate degree recipients in this age bracket face a 3.8% unemployment rate, while those with a high school diploma face a 5.4% unemployment rate.

The table below compares lifetime earnings of associate degree-earners, high school diploma recipients, and those who earn less than a high school diploma. As the data indicates, associate degree-holders in both the 25th and 75th percentiles outearn their counterparts by a considerable margin.

Lifetime Earnings by Education – 2009 Dollars


  Less than a High School Diploma High School Diploma Associate Degree
25th Percentile $644,600 $867,500 $1,177,100
75th Percentile $1,464,000 $1,889,500 $2,426,300

Source: CEW Georgetown

The Best Online Schools

TYPES OF ONLINE STUDENTS

Online associate degree programs attract a diverse pool of students. The following profiles describe some of the learners you’re likely to meet while pursuing an associate degree online:

Aspiring Academics

Students in this group are usually between the ages of 18 and 24. They typically attend college immediately following high school, and take a wide range of courses in order to gain a well-rounded academic perspective. At the associate level, these learners tend to earn Associate of Arts degrees. According to U.S. News & World Report, 34% of undergraduate online students are under the age of 25.

Career Starters

UWhile Aspiring Academics are driven to explore a diverse course selection, Career Starters tend to focus their studies on courses and trainings that are relevant to their professional pathway. These learners are usually drawn to Associate of Science or Associate of Applied Science degree programs. They are typically between the ages of 18 and 24, and attend college after finishing high school with little to no work experience.

Career Accelerators

These learners have spent some time in the workforce ― and as a result, tend to be older than Aspiring Academics and Career Starters. They typically pursue associate degrees online in order to earn higher salaries and qualify for advancement opportunities in their current job. Career Accelerators represent 32% of all online undergraduate students.

Industry Switchers

These learners choose to earn an associate degree because they would like to transition into a different career altogether. Like Career Accelerators, these students tend to be older than 25. They are drawn to online associate degree programs because of the flexibility, which allows them to continue working until they have graduated. Industry Switchers represent 36% of online undergraduate students.

Students should thoroughly research a wide range of associate online programs before making a final decision on where to earn their degree. Key considerations include the following:

Price

The vast majority of colleges and universities post tuition rates online, including separate rates for in-state, out-of-state, and online learners. However, students should also complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine how much financial aid (if any) they qualify for. They should also research any scholarships or grants offered exclusively by different schools. It’s important to evaluate all potential expenses ― including tuition, living accommodations, transportation, and meals ― in order to accurately calculate overall college costs.

Flexibility

Some students learn better in asynchronous (or self-paced) associate degree online programs, while others thrive in a synchronous format. Asynchronous programs are ideal for students with jobs, childcare duties, and other commitments that may interfere with non-self-paced coursework. These pathways also enable motivated students to complete their degrees ahead of schedule. On the flip side, synchronous programs ― particularly those with cohort groups ― may be the best option for students who do not have other commitments and prefer a standard college schedule. These programs also tend to foster more social interaction and discussion.

Proximity

Many online associate programs ― even some that are advertised as 100% online ― will require students to occasionally visit the physical campus for orientations, lab work, and/or hands-on trainings. Living close to campus also means easier access to libraries, computer labs, gyms, and other student resources, as well as face-time opportunities with faculty members and other students.

Not-for-profit vs. For-profit

The term ‘for-profit school’ has earned some notoriety in recent years; several notable figures, including President Obama, have criticized these degree-granting institutions for providing subpar academic programs that produce below-average student outcomes in terms of employment, earnings, and debt default (or inability to repay loans). However, for-profit colleges and universities may be the most suitable option for some students. Regardless of whether a school is not-for-profit or for-profit, students should carefully research all prospective schools to learn more about criticisms, controversies, and student outcome issues.

Private vs. Public

Students face a significant tradeoff when deciding between private and public degree-granting institutions. Private schools tend to be much more expensive (especially for out-of-state students), but smaller class sizes and more favorable student-to-faculty ratios mean more individualized attention for each learner. Public universities may be larger and provide less individualized attention, but they are usually the cheaper option. This decision often comes down to other factors, such as educational budget, proximity, and program flexibility.

TYPES OF ASSOCIATE DEGREES

Currently, most students pursuing an associate degree will be able to choose from four different degree options: an Associate of Arts (AA), an Associate of Science (AS), an Associate of Applied Science (AAS), and an Associate of General Studies (AGS). The definition and distinctions of each are below.

Associate of Arts (AA): The Associate of Arts degree (or AA degree) is awarded in fields related to the humanities and social sciences. These include education, English and foreign languages, psychology, business, art, and music. AA degrees are designed for students who plan to eventually transfer into a bachelor’s degree program; in most cases, these programs are concentrated in fields that require students to earn at least a bachelor’s before entering the workforce. In many cases, AA programs are 100% online and require little to no campus visits.

Associate of Science (AS): AS degrees are also aimed at students who plan to transfer into a bachelor’s program, though depending on the field of study, they may also be suitable for those who wish to enter the workforce without further education. Unlike the AA degree, AS degrees are largely concentrated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The coursework typically includes more hands-on training, and many feature labs and practicum courses that require on-campus or on-site student training.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS): The AAS is exclusively designed for students who plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation, and will not be suitable for prospective transfer students. AAS degrees are often concentrated in technical or vocational fields that require little to no college education from employees. These include automotive technology, computer programming, clerical work, or medical billing and coding.

Associate of General Studies (AGS): The AGS is ideal for students who do not know what field they would like to focus on, as well as those who wish to earn a customized degree that draws from both AA and AS components. Most AGS students must coordinate their learning track with academic advisers in order to ensure their degree plan is practical and in line with the school’s educational standards.

Please note that there may be some overlap in terms of associate degrees available in certain fields. For example, both AS and AAS degrees are offered in nursing. The key difference between these two pathways is that the AS recipient will be able to transfer into a bachelor’s program after graduation and complete all requirements within two years; comparatively, the AAS recipient will not be able to transfer their credits, and will most likely require an additional three to four years to earn their bachelor’s.

Below you will find descriptions of four of the most popular associate degree programs among today’s students:

Associate in Criminal Justice

The associate in criminal justice is suitable for students planning careers in law enforcement, juvenile justice, probation, and other related fields. The coursework will include studies in law and ethics, principles of law enforcement including criminal investigation, homeland security, and the U.S. justice system.

Associate in Business Administration

Many corporate employees begin their careers by gaining foundational knowledge and skills as part of an associate degree online program in business administration. The coursework will focus on areas like finance and accounting, logistics, office administration, marketing, and human resources. The bulk of business administration associate degrees are designed for prospective transfer students.

Associate in Medical Assisting

The associate in medical assisting is designed for students who plan to advance into careers in hospitals, clinics, physician’s offices, and other healthcare facilities. Coursework will combine course lectures and readings with hands-on training; students learn how to perform different diagnostics, provide support to physicians and top-level nursing staff, collect patient data, and keep organized, up-to-date medical records.

Associate in Paralegal Studies

The associate in paralegal studies is a popular pathway for students who are interested in legal careers, but would rather enter the workforce than continue studying toward a law degree. Paralegals provide essential support in law offices across the country. Paralegal associate degree programs cover the basics of this job, as well as the legal and ethical guidelines that have shaped the current justice system.

The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

IS IT BETTER TO ATTEND AN ONLINE ASSOCIATE DEGREE PROGRAM IN MY STATE?

As indicated by the graphic below, more than half of today’s online students currently live in the same state as the degree-granting institution where they are enrolled. There are many perks for students who attend a college or university in the same state where they reside. In-state tuition rates are one major benefit, since most schools charge higher rates for out-of-state learners. According to a recent College Data survey, the average in-state tuition rate at a U.S. public university is $9,650 per year; by comparison, the average out-of-state tuition rate is $24,930 per year.

Current educational technology enables schools to track the current locations of online students to determine whether they should be paying in-state or out-of-state tuition rates. In most cases, the tuition rates for online students will be higher than the rates for in-state students attending brick-and-mortar courses at the same school. However, some colleges and universities assess a flat tuition rate for all online students regardless of their state residency. Online students may also qualify for state authorization reciprocity, or lower tuition rates awarded to those who live in certain states or regions of the country. For instance, the Midwest Student Exchange Program is a reciprocity agreement that reduces tuition rates for students from nine different states in the midwestern U.S.; these students must also attend MSEP schools in order to qualify for the decreased tuition rates. Students should research the tuition rates and policies of all schools on their list before making a final decision.

In addition to lower tuition rates, students choose to remain in-state for other reasons. Many prefer to attend a school close to their family’s home, and taking online courses may even mean they are able to remain at home while enrolled in a degree program. Name recognition is another consideration for many high school students, as well, and they may choose a school if they have friends or family who are also planning to attend. Other factors include interesting or top-ranked degree programs in certain fields, access to campus resources, athletic programs, and unique financial aid opportunities.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS?

Aspiring college students should consider both public and private degree-granting institutions. For those pursuing an associate degree, most options will be public community, technical, or vocational colleges, as well as colleges and universities that award two-year undergraduate degrees. However, there are private associate degree-granting options available, including private junior colleges located across the U.S. and select four-year private colleges that currently offer associate programs.

Public colleges and universities are funded primarily through the federal government. Student populations are typically higher, class sizes are larger (many have more than 30 students), and tuition rates are generally lower. Private colleges receive most of their financial support through donors and grants, as well as student expenses like tuition, housing, and administrative fees. These institutions generally have lower student populations, and smaller classes that rarely exceed 30 students. The tuition rates also tend to be significantly higher.

There are other notable differences between public and private schools, as well. The NCES notes that, during the 2014-15 academic year, average annual tuition rates were $16,188 for public schools and $41,970 for private schools ― a difference of more than $50,000 over the course of a two-year program. Public universities also tend to have larger campuses and more extracurricular activities. Public colleges, on the other hand, provide a more intimate learning environment. The campuses are usually smaller, and students may also be able to choose from more specialized degree programs.

These differences leave several factors to consider. Cost is a major concern, since private colleges are generally much more expensive than state universities. According to the NCES, average annual tuition rates during the 2014-15 academic year stood at $16,188 for public institutions and $41,970 for private non-profit institutions. However, private institutions offer a more inclusive atmosphere for students; courses typically emphasize individualized education, and the student-to-faculty ratios are much lower. These institutions tend to offer more specialized degree programs, as well. Public universities may be more appealing for students who value social and extracurricular activities, as well as large class sizes.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FOR-PROFIT AND NONPROFIT SCHOOLS?

A for-profit institution is essentially defined as any college or university that operates as a profit-seeking business. The school treats higher education like any other product that is marketed and sold, with the goal of producing positive returns for the institution’s shareholders. Not-for-profit institutions, on the other hand, do not generate returns for investors; all profits are funneled back into the institution to fund faculty salaries, academic facilities, student resources, and other campus expenses.

Some for-profit schools have come under fire in recent years for providing a substandard education at a higher-than-average price, resulting in students who are saddled with debt and unable to find postgraduate work. In some cases, for-profit institutions have also been accused of misleading marketing tactics. However, the negative press surrounding for-profit education has largely focused on a handful of select schools ― and educational experts note certain benefits to attending these schools for an online associate degree. Reduced tuition is one perk; according to the NCES, the average student at a for-profit school paid $23,372 in tuition during the 2014-15 academic year; this figure is slightly higher than the annual tuition at public universities, and much lower than the rates found at most private colleges. Admission rates also tend to be more favorable at for-profit schools, making them a good backup option for students who may not earn acceptance to more selective public universities or private colleges.

Students should carefully research all colleges and universities on their wishlist. A good rule of thumb: if a college or university is currently accredited, has recorded decent student outcomes, and offers associate degree programs in the student’s area of academic interest, then it is likely a suitable candidate ― whether the school is for-profit or not-for-profit. For more information about accreditation, please scroll down to the section below.

IS AN ONLINE ASSOCIATE DEGREE AS GOOD AS AN ON-CAMPUS DEGREE?

In recent years, the overall perception of online college education has significantly shifted. As opinions have changed, more colleges and universities have introduced web-based courses and degree programs. A report by the University of the Potomac found that more than 275 accredited colleges and universities currently offer online, for-credit courses. As more options become available, online learning has grown in popularity with students nationwide. According to a 2015 survey from the Babson Research Group, roughly 5.8 million college students ― or roughly 28.4% of the U.S. collegiate population ― enrolled in at least one online course in 2014. This represents a two-year increase of 2.5%.

71.4% OF ACADEMIC LEADERS VIEW LEARNING OUTCOMES – THE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE A STUDENT IS EXPECTED TO ATTAIN – FROM ONLINE CLASSES AS COMPARABLE OR SUPERIOR TO FACE-TO-FACE COURSES

Student and faculty member attitudes toward online education have improved in recent years. Employer perceptions have also changed as the job market has become flooded with online degree program graduates ― although some remain more inclined to hire those who earn degrees through brick-and-mortar coursework. According to today’s academic experts, a good rule of thumb when choosing an online associate program is to prioritize those with strong name recognition in the student’s chosen professional field. If the student plans a career in nursing, for instance, then he or she should first apply to schools with favorable outcomes for nursing program graduates. Curriculum is another important consideration; students should make sure an online associate program features identical or very similar coursework to brick-and-mortar programs offered in the same subject.

Annual Trends in Online Education

Accreditation is one of the most important considerations to make when researching colleges and universities. Accreditation is defined as a thorough vetting process that degree-granting institutions must undergo in order to prove they are providing valuable educational experiences for enrolled students. Accreditation is awarded by official, accreditation-granting agencies after the school has been evaluated on the merits of its academic offerings, faculty, student outcomes, and campus resources. The vetting process can take up to several months.

Three types of accreditation are conferred in the U.S. Regional accreditation is reserved for academic, degree-granting colleges and universities. A total of six regional accreditors provide this type of accreditation nationwide. Not to be confused with regional accreditation, national accreditation is typically given to technical colleges, vocational schools, and for-profit institutions. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes 10 national accreditation agencies. Some critics argue that the standards for national accreditation are too relaxed compared to those of regional accreditation; however, national accreditation may be the best option for those earning associate degrees online in certain technical or career fields. The third accreditation level, programmatic accreditation is awarded to specialized schools or subdivisions found on larger colleges and universities, such as business schools or teaching academies. More than 1,200 of the country’s community and junior colleges have received special programmatic accreditation through the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Additionally, associate degree programs in select fields ― such as nursing or health education ― may also receive programmatic accreditation. There is no current accreditation distinction for online or blended degree programs; students should instead defer to the regional or national accreditation of the school as a whole, or the programmatic accreditation awarded to the school for all programs in that particular field (online, hybrid and brick-and-mortar).

The Best Accredited Online Colleges and Universities

Every college and university requires a different application process. In order to complete all the necessary steps and ensure good odds of gaining admission, students must dedicate several months ― up to a year in some cases. This next section will cover some of the most critical steps for collecting application materials and submitting required forms ahead of deadlines.

GUIDELINES FOR HIGH SCHOOL JUNIORS AND SENIORS

Standardized Tests

A large number of community colleges, vocational schools, technical colleges, and other institutions with two-year associate degree programs offer ‘open enrollment’; this generally means that any applicant will be admitted as long as they have received a high school diploma or GED. However, some schools require associate program applicants to also submit standardized test scores. Test scores may also be required for certain degree programs ― such as nursing and education ― as well as transfer-degree programs aimed at future bachelor’s recipients. In the U.S., two standardized exams are offered to high school juniors and seniors.
The first option, the SAT, features three components: multiple-choice sections in math and reading comprehension; and a long-form essay. Currently, SAT exams are scored out of 2,400 possible points; the average SAT score in 2015 was 1,490 points.

Option two, the ACT, is slightly different. The ACT features four required sections ― reading, English, math, and scientific reasoning ― as well as an optional essay. Each required section is graded on a scale of 1 to 36 points; the four scores are then combined to yield an aggregate score. The optional essay is graded separately on a 1-12 point scale.

These exams are widely considered comparable with one another. However, certain schools may accept one but not the other ― so students must make sure they submit the correct scores to each school on their list. If applying to a diverse pool of schools, students may want to consider sitting for both exams during their junior or senior years. In order to meet most application deadlines, students should make sure to sit for the SAT and/or ACT prior to January of their senior year of high school. Please refer to the SAT and ACT guides below for more information.

Application Strategy

Regardless of their grades and academic achievements, high school students should err on the side of caution and apply to more than one school. All schools under consideration will fall into one of three categories. Safety schools are the most likely schools to accept you based on your credentials, but may not be your first choice as an academic destination. Target schools represent institutions who will most likely accept you, and are the institutions you would like to attend. Finally, reach schools, while unlikely to grant you admission, are well-renowned institutions with reputable degree programs in your desired area of study. While the total number of schools will vary by applicant, PrepScholar suggests sending applications to a total of two to three target schools, two to three reach schools, and two safety schools. Keep in mind that submitting a college application can cost anywhere from $30 to $90 a piece.

SAT Guide
ACT Guide

GUIDELINES FOR CAREER ACCELERATORS AND INDUSTRY SWITCHERS

Flexibility

Be sure to compare schools based on required time commitment for both part- and full-time students. An asynchronous program format will be ideal for students who are currently employed, such as Career Accelerators and Industry Switchers. On the flipside, those who complete a synchronous associate online degree track may complete their program faster and advance more quickly in their current position or new career.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

All credits earned at regionally accredited colleges and universities will be transferable to other accredited institutions ― but some do not accept credits from nationally accredited schools, so students must ensure credit transferability from all technical, vocational, and for-profit schools on their list. In some cases, online associate degree students will qualify for course credits without completing the classes. This is known as ‘experiential credit’, and it is widely available for students who have career and/or military experience related to certain academic fields. Experiential credit is more common in AS and AAS degree programs, but students should look into experiential opportunities for all degree programs.

Admissions Deadline

Application and admission deadlines can creep up on students who are ill-prepared. Some schools will only receive applications and grant admission during certain months of the year; the deadline for enrolling in the fall term for these schools usually occurs between January and March. Other schools provide ‘rolling admission’, and will receive applications year-round. Most candidates who submit applications to rolling admissions schools will receive a response about their submission within four to six weeks.

Technology Requirements

Technical requirements are crucial for online students. A reliable computer and high-speed Internet are absolute musts. Certain programs may also require certain computer applications, plugins, and software programs. Students who are unsure if they meet technology requirements should reach out to the school’s online programs division for more information.

REQUIREMENTS TO APPLY TO AN ONLINE ASSOCIATE DEGREE

Letters of Recommendation

A letter of recommendation on a college application should come from former teachers, employers, coaches, youth leaders, and other authoritative figures with knowledge of the student’s academic and extracurricular achievements. Applicants should never seek letters of recommendation from family members or friends that they have not worked with in the past. Obtaining letters may take some time, so applicants should give each person at least six weeks before they plan to mail the application ― and follow up with anyone who appears to be delaying the process.

Resume

A resume is a comprehensive summary of the applicant’s employment history, academic achievements, and volunteer projects. High school college applicants should include all past jobs; if they haven’t held an official job before, then they should provide details about volunteer work, school leadership projects, and other similar experiences. For Career Accelerators and Industry Switchers who have been out of high school for several years, their resume should focus primarily on work experiences and professional recognition. Applicants must go through their resume to ensure all information is accurate and up-to-date.

Personal Statement/Essay

College applications will widely vary in terms of personal statement and essay requirements. In some cases, applicants will be asked to write a summary of their academic and professional goals as they relate to that particular degree program. Other applications ask students to write essays in response to a given prompt. The amount of writing will also vary from school to school; some applications will require one to two, while others may feature as many as five or six. Applicants should write or type everything out to ensure good flow, voice, and comprehension, and also check for spelling and grammar errors.

Official Transcripts

The vast majority of accredited public and private colleges and universities will ask applicants to provide official high school transcripts that include all course grades and the student’s cumulative GPA. Transcripts may be used to grant or deny admission ― or, at schools with open admission, determine the level where the applicant should begin their studies. Most applications will require official transcripts, which are printed on official school stationery and sealed in tamper-proof envelopes. Be careful when requesting transcripts because unofficial transcripts are also widely available, even though they are not deemed acceptable by most admissions officers.

Additional Testing for Students

Some community colleges will ask students to sit for English and math placement exams to determine their academic level, and which courses they should enroll in first. Additionally, college applicants who are non-native English speakers may be asked to sit for an English as a Second Language (ESL) placement test to evaluate their language skills. None of these tests are ‘pass/fail’, and used instead to help students follow an academic path that is suitable for their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Undergraduate Application Guide

TRANSFERRING TO A DEGREE PROGRAM

Many students who pursue an associate degree plan to eventually transfer into a bachelor’s degree program with up to half of their credit requirements already completed. Many community and technical colleges have transfer agreements with larger public universities and private colleges in the same state; these agreements enable students to earn their associate in a given field, and then transfer into a bachelor’s program as juniors at participating four-year institutions. Transfer agreements are most often available for Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) degree pathways. Additionally, some state schools offer non-direct transfer opportunities for AS or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree recipients. In these cases, students may be able to transfer some but not all of their associate degree credits; those who are unable to transfer all of their credits may be required to take additional coursework at the four-year school. Students can learn more about transfer agreements by visiting the websites for both the two- and four-year schools on their list. Please note: most public and private schools that have earned regional accreditation will not accept credits from nationally accredited or unaccredited two-year schools.

Transferring credits is free-of-charge, and students can save a lot of money by attending community, technical, or vocational colleges for two years before transferring to a larger, more expensive four-year school. However, there are hidden costs associated with transferring credits. If a student is unable to transfer all of their credits and must take additional courses at the four-year-school, then this could represent thousands of dollars in extra tuition costs. Other considerations ― such as living accommodations and meal plans ― are associated with the student leaving home in order to live closer to campus. Online students may be able to mitigate some of these expenses by remaining at home and earning their bachelor’s degree remotely.

For more information about transferring college credits, please visit our transfer guide below.

BestColleges.com Transfer Guide

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