Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree: Which Should You Get?
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Editor & Writer
Reviewer & Writer
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- You can land a high-paying career without a four-year bachelor's degree.
- Associate degrees usually take two years to complete, while bachelor's degrees take four years.
- Bachelor's degree holders make about 37% more than associate degree holders.
Ready to earn a degree? At the beginning of your college journey, you'll need to decide between an associate degree vs. bachelor's degree. What's right for you depends on your availability, budget, and career goals.
You might think you need a bachelor's degree to land a high-paying job, but there are many high-paying jobs you can pursue with just an associate degree. Here, we explain how each degree comes at a cost and offers a potential return on investment.
What Is an Associate Degree?
Associate degrees prepare you for entry-level careers or transfer toward a bachelor's program. These degrees usually take two years to complete and require about 40-60 credits. Community colleges and four-year schools offer various associate degrees in a variety of subjects.
You can earn an associate of arts (AA), associate of science (AS), or associate of applied science (AAS). AA degrees focus on liberal arts and humanities, while AS degrees focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or business fields. An AAS offers specialized training to fast-track you into a career such as dental hygiene or respiratory therapy.
Featured Online Associate Degree Programs
Turning Your Associate Degree Into a Bachelor's Degree
An associate degree can qualify you for many high-paying technical careers. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that radiation therapists — an occupation that requires an associate degree — made a median annual salary of $89,530 in 2022.
However, many students choose to pursue a bachelor's degree after earning their associate degree. You can start at a two-year community college to save money before transferring to a four-year school. In fact, many community colleges partner with four-year schools to offer seamless transfers.
What Is a Bachelor's Degree?
Most bachelor's degree require 120 credits, an academic feat that usually takes full-time students four years to complete. Some degrees, such as education, engineering, and computer science, may even require more than 120 credits.
Specific credit requirements and courses vary depending on whether you pursue a bachelor of arts (BA) vs. a bachelor of science (BS). You can earn your bachelor's degree online, on-campus, or through a hybrid program of online and in-person courses.
Many skilled, high-paying jobs require a four-year degree. With a bachelor's degree, you can increase your lifetime earning potential significantly. Bachelor's degree holders earn about 84% more than those with just a high school diploma.
Featured Online Bachelor's Degree Programs
4 Differences Between Associate and Bachelor's Degrees
Associate and bachelor's degrees require different time commitments, credits, and tuition rates. As we detail below, the average associate degree costs less than the average bachelor's degree, but a bachelor's degree can help increase your earning potential.
- Program Length: 2 years
- Number of Credits: 60 credits
- Average Annual Tuition and Fees (2021-22): $4,481
- Median Weekly Earnings (2022): $1,005
- Program Length: 4 years
- Number of Credits: 120 credits
- Average Annual Tuition and Fees (2021-22): $19,806
- Median Weekly Earnings (2022): $1,432
Generally, you'll complete 60 credits over two years to earn an associate degree and 120 credits over four years to earn a bachelor's degree. If you want to earn a degree quicker, you can enroll in an accelerated program.
The best accelerated bachelor's degrees offer compressed courses that allow you to graduate in three years. If you need to study part time because you work or have family commitments, you should expect to take twice as long to complete your degree.
What's the real cost of college? You'll almost always pay less in average annual tuition and fees for an associate degree ($4,481) than a bachelor's degree ($19,806). Regardless of the degree you pursue, you can usually save money by studying online.
Online degrees often offer cheaper tuition, and some online programs charge the in-state tuition rate to out-of-state students. As an online learner, you can avoid paying for transportation costs and on-campus housing. That said, the return on your investment differs for each degree.
While you don't need a bachelor's degree to earn a good living, statistics show that earning a higher degree pays off. According to the BLS, associate degree holders made a median annual wage of $55,870, while bachelor's degree holders earned $78,020 in 2021.
Furthermore, the National Center for Education Statistics found that bachelor's degree holders earn about 37% more in median earnings than associate degree holders. Employment rates for each degree holder also varies. Associate degree graduates have a 4.6% unemployment rate, and bachelor's degree holders have a 3.5% unemployment rate as of 2021.
Not every high-paying job requires a four-year degree. For instance, you can become a licensed registered nurse with only an associate degree and a license. Still, a bachelor's degree opens the doors to higher-paying careers.
For example, an RN with an associate degree makes an average salary of $76,000, according to Payscale. With a bachelor's in nursing degree, RNs can make an average salary of $92,000.
Certain jobs require a degree, such as:
8 Jobs That Require an Associate Degree
Associate vs. Bachelor's Degree: Which Is Right for You?
If you want to start a skilled trade fast, an associate degree offers a pathway to careers in a variety of industries. A vocational education can prepare you to pursue a career as a plumber, welder, or nurse.
When you do not have the time or money to spend earning a four-year degree, a two-year degree may make more sense for you. And, should you ever want to continue your education, you have credits to transfer into a bachelor's degree program.
However, if you're interested in pursuing a career that requires a four-year degree, a bachelor's degree is likely your best path there. Many careers require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, including positions in the business sector, as well as jobs in computing and engineering. Ultimately, the degree you pursue depends on your career aspirations.
Featured Online Bachelor's Degree Programs
Frequently Asked Questions About Associate vs. Bachelor's Degrees
How many credits is a bachelor's degree after an associate degree?
How many credits do you need after completing an associate degree program to earn a bachelor's degree? The average bachelor's degree requires at least 120 credits, and the average associate degree requires 60 credits. This means you'll need to take about 60 more credits after earning an associate degree. However, check your specific program requirements to make sure you're on the right track to your goals.
Do you earn an associate degree while getting a bachelor's degree?
Not typically. An associate degree is usually a stand-alone degree. You'll pursue an associate degree at a two-year or four-year college. After you earn the associate degree, or 60 transferable credits, you have the option to transfer toward a bachelor's program or start your career search.
Do I need an associate degree to get a bachelor's degree?
No. You have the option to begin a bachelor's degree as a freshman just out of high school or as a non-traditional student without any previous degrees or completed credits.
That said, if you have credits from a previously uncompleted degree, you may be able to transfer them. Most colleges accept 24-60 transfer credits. Some colleges do not have a minimum number of transfer credits.