Associate of Arts vs. Associate of Science vs. Associate of Applied Science: What’s the Difference?

An associate degree can lead to a fulfilling career in a variety of fields. But which degree is right for you: an AA, an AS, or an AAS?
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  • An associate of arts (AA) focuses on liberal arts and general education.
  • An associate of science (AS) focuses on science, business, and other professional pathways.
  • An associate of applied science (AAS) prepares you to enter the workforce.
  • The best associate degree type for you depends on your interests and career goals.

Associate degree programs are 60 credits and typically take two years of full-time study to complete. With an associate degree, you can expect to gain introductory knowledge of your major, and many programs also feature general education coursework.

Online programs and accelerated programs are also available for associate degree-seekers.

Many students pursue an associate degree to enter the workforce quickly or to complete general education courses and other prerequisites before transferring to a four-year college or university.

Featured Online Associate Programs

What Is an Associate Degree?

There are three general types of associate degrees you can earn:

  • Associate of arts (AA)
  • Associate of science (AS)
  • Associate of applied science (AAS)

AA programs focus more on general education and the liberal arts, whereas AS programs include general education courses but focus more on business and STEM.

In contrast, AAS programs prepare you to take on specialized roles in the workforce, such as in nursing or web design, often focusing on technical skills.

AA vs. AS vs. AAS Degree
Factor Associate of Arts (AA) Associate of Science (AS) Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
Program Length 2 years 2 years 2 years
Number of Credits 60 60 60
Sample Concentrations
  • General Psychology
  • English
  • Visual Arts
  • History
  • Education
  • Biology
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Pre-Nursing
  • Information Security
  • Digital Media
  • 3D Animation
  • Nursing
  • Veterinary Technology
Sample Courses
  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Natural Science
  • Social Science
  • Foreign Languages
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Precalculus
  • Calculus
  • Programming Fundamentals
  • Network Security
  • Digital Forensics
  • Medical Terminology
  • Sales and Service
  • Pharmacology

What Are the Most Popular Associate Degree Subjects?

You can study an array of subjects in an associate degree program, from psychology to computer science. Here are some of the most popular programs available.


An associate degree in business provides you with general or specialized knowledge of topics like marketing, operations, and finance. You may pursue an AA, AS, or AAS in business.

Featured Associate in Business Programs

Nursing and Healthcare

Health-related associate programs prepare you for technical positions in healthcare, like nursing and radiologic technology. You'll usually earn an AAS or an associate degree in nursing, also known as an ADN.

Featured Associate in Health Programs


Often awarding an AA degree, communication associate programs teach you how to communicate through various media. You may also learn about different style guides and writing for different audiences.

Featured Associate in Communications Programs

Computer Science

In a computer science associate program, you'll learn about information systems, operating systems, and programming fundamentals. Typically, you'll earn either an AS or AAS.

Featured Associate in Computer Science Programs


In a psychology associate program, you'll study personality theories, psychological disorders, stages of development, and how the mind works. These programs typically award an AA or AS degree.

Featured Associate in Psychology Programs

Which Associate Degree Do Employers Prefer?

These days, many employers are moving away from strict degree requirements, placing more emphasis on a candidate's experience and skill sets.

AAS degree programs can prepare you for specialized roles in more technical and professionally focused industries. Usually, this degree type prepares you to land a job right after you graduate.

While AS and AA degree programs may prepare you for a job immediately after graduation, they typically provide a broader foundation in your field of study, preparing you to transfer to a four-year school to get a bachelor's degree.

What to Know Before Getting an Associate Degree


The cost of an associate degree depends on several factors, including the school's tuition rate, your state of residency, book expenses, and transportation costs.

Some online programs may be more budget-friendly than in-person programs, with many offering in-state tuition rates to students nationwide.


Some courses, especially in more technical fields, require prerequisites. These requirements may increase the time it takes to complete your degree; however, they can often be waived if you've completed AP courses and passed particular AP exams in high school.

Certifications and Bootcamps

Depending on what career path you choose, you could complete a professional certification, certificate program, or bootcamp to achieve your goals. These may be more flexible and affordable options than an associate degree program.


If you're currently in the workforce but want to go back to school, you might need extra flexibility. Part-time or online learning options can make it easier to return to college while working.


It's essential that you earn your associate degree from an accredited school. This will increase the likelihood that other colleges will accept your transfer credits, making it easier to pursue a bachelor's degree later on if you want.

Additionally, if you attend a school that doesn't hold the appropriate accreditation, you will be ineligible to apply for federal financial aid through the FAFSA.

AA vs. AS vs. AAS: Which Degree Is Right for You?

The Future Magnate

You plan to get into a particular field and begin working right away. There's no time to waste!

The best degree for you is... an AAS degree


  • AAS programs teach you skills directly applicable to a particular job.
  • You can quickly qualify for entry-level positions in your chosen industry.

The Tech Guru

You like to work with numbers and science. The left side of the brain is where you live!

The best degree for you is... an AS degree


  • Coursework covers the basics of science and math.
  • An AS prepares you to earn a BS in your desired major.

The Literary Scholar

You excel at critical thinking and communication. You'd never miss an English class!

The best degree for you is... an AA degree


  • AA programs focus on the arts and humanities.
  • With an AA, you can go on to pursue a BA or BFA and eventually graduate school.

The Experimenter

You're not quite sure what you want to study but are open to trying things out and seeing what you like.

The best degree for you is... an AA degree


  • AA degrees give you tons of coursework options, from humanities to sciences.
  • You'll develop a strong foundation in a variety of areas.
  • Credits can count for general education requirements at a four-year school, potentially saving you money in the future.

Featured Online Associate Programs

Frequently Asked Questions About Associate Degrees

Is it better to get an associate degree or a bachelor's degree?

The best degree for you depends on your life circumstances and career goals. Compared to a bachelor's degree, an associate degree takes around half the time to complete; however, it focuses mostly on introductory coursework.

A bachelor's degree, meanwhile, allows you to dive deeper into your field of study and opens the door to research opportunities and graduate school.

One of the advantages of earning an associate degree from an accredited school is that you should be able to transfer many (or all) of your credits to a four-year institution. If you're unsure whether a bachelor's is right for you, enrolling in an associate degree program can help you decide while you earn transferable credits. It can also be a more cost-effective way to complete general education courses or introductory courses in a field of study you're interested in — the annual tuition at two-year institutions tends to be lower than at four-year institutions.

What is the most useful associate degree?

The most useful associate degree for you will depend on what you want to do with your career.

For example, if you don't know what kind of degree you want, you might pursue an AA in general studies and take a variety of courses to explore different fields and find what inspires you. By doing this, you'll also earn credits that can count toward your general education requirements if you transfer to a four-year university.

An AAS, on the other hand, prepares you to join the workforce immediately upon graduation. If you know what you want to do and want to do it as quickly as possible, an AAS degree could be a good fit.

What is the highest-paying associate degree job?

High-paying associate degree jobs include nuclear technology, radiation therapy, web development, and network engineering.

These jobs tend to require an AAS. Many AAS programs can prepare you for these roles. Concentrations include nuclear medicine technology, radiologic technology, web design, and networking and cybersecurity.

According to Payscale, cybersecurity analysts earned an average annual salary of $80,100 as of June 2023, whereas web developers earned $62,360.

Is an associate degree easier than a bachelor's degree?

Many consider an associate degree easier than a bachelor's degree. Associate degrees are a shorter commitment than a bachelor's degree. These degrees typically take around two years to complete and consist primarily of lower-level coursework.

How long does it take to finish an associate degree?

It takes around two years to earn an associate degree. Some accelerated programs may shorten that time by having you take more than 15 credit hours in a semester or attend summer classes.

Other programs might require you to take prerequisites before your major courses, depending on which classes you took in high school. This could extend your graduation timeline.

Another factor that may affect how long it takes to earn an associate degree is your life circumstances. For example, if you already have a job and hope to earn a degree while you continue to work, you may need the flexibility of a part-time associate degree program. These can take four years to complete. 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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