Online Associate Degree Program Guide

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What Is an Associate Degree?

You don't have to go to college for four years to boost your earning potential, advance your career, or compete for jobs. An associate degree can be completed in two years for a fraction of the cost of a bachelor's. In fact, the average tuition for associate programs is about $3,500 per year — much less than the $9,000 per year for a four-year degree. And, as of 2020, associate degree-holders ages 25 and older earned about $8,200 more per year than those with only a high school diploma (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

A popular option chosen by 24% of college students (spring 2022), an associate degree delivers more than the opportunity for higher wages. You can train for a high-impact career in healthcare or early childhood education or complete general coursework at a reduced cost as you prepare to transfer to a four-year college. You can also maintain your work-life balance with flexible options, such as by pursuing an online associate degree or enrolling in an accelerated program. Are you ready to learn more about what an associate degree can do for you? Our guide reviews everything you need to know to begin your search, including types of programs, career opportunities, and how to get started on your degree.

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Types of Associate Degrees

Associate of Arts (AA)

Often a starting point for individuals pursuing a bachelor's degree, an associate of arts program pulls coursework from diverse fields, including art, business, humanities, and social sciences. Alongside associate of science degrees, these options are ideal for students transferring to four-year institutions.

Associate of Science (AS)

Similar to an associate of arts in structure, an associate of science focuses more on math and science coursework than an AA. It is a common option for students transferring to four-year institutions, especially those seeking an advanced STEM education.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

Unlike the AA and AS degrees, which students commonly use as a pathway to a four-year degree, an associate of applied science offers a practical option for students wanting to jumpstart their careers. AAS programs typically offer vocational or technical curricula and cover topics such as accounting, nursing, and computer science. Graduates usually enter the workforce after graduating.

Associate of General Studies (AGS)

An associate of general studies offers a flexible and broad curriculum. This may be a good choice for students unsure about their academic interests. AGS coursework includes various general education requirements, and students can use this as a first step toward earning a four-year degree.

Explore Featured Associate Degree Programs

Do I Need an Associate Degree?

Associate degrees typically have one of two main functions: build an academic foundation for a bachelor's program or provide practical vocational training. For students who intend to transfer to a four-year bachelor's program, an associate degree allows them to complete a significant number of general education credits. Due to the lower tuition rates at community colleges, knocking out requirements before enrolling at a four-year institution can significantly cut costs.

An associate degree can also provide practical skills and hands-on experiences for students seeking to jumpstart their careers. Popular academic and career options at the associate level include paralegal studies, computer science, and nursing.

And while some private technical and vocational programs may offer similar training, completing an associate degree is a practical choice because it leaves the door open for future academic work. Individuals with a bachelor's degree tend to earn more than those with only an associate degree. Additionally, for many professionals, holding a bachelor's degree is necessary for career advancement.

Associate Degree vs. Bachelor's Degree

Associate Degree Bachelor's Degree
Number of Semester Credits 60 120
Average Cost (Tuition and Fees) $7,002 $37,500
Program Length 2 years 4 years
Median Annual Salary of Degree-Holders $48,776 $67,860

Transferring to a Bachelor's Program

Transferring to a bachelor's degree program from a community college is a popular choice for many students. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center notes that nearly half of bachelor's graduates attend a community college. An associate degree program gives students the chance to complete general education credits at a significantly lower cost.

Additionally, many community colleges have ties with local public institutions and act as a pipeline to state colleges and universities. These relationships let students get the most out of their associate degree credits because they can transfer most or all of their coursework to a four-year institution. Some private schools may scrutinize transfer credits more closely than public institutions, but students who attend an accredited school can expect most of their general education credits to transfer without any issue.

Students should work closely with advisors at their current and future schools to ensure that their college transfer process goes smoothly. This will help them get the most out of their transfer credits.

What Can I Do With an Associate Degree?

Career Outlook

While an individual's earning potential is typically influenced by their level of education, an associate degree is a popular option for various professions that rely heavily on technical skills. Those pursuing an associate degree in healthcare, tech, and STEM can expect to enter growing professional fields that offer lucrative compensation.

Some top-earning fields for associate degree-holders include radiation therapy, dental hygiene, and web development, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects to grow by 9%, 11%, and 13%, respectively, from 2020-2030. For students hesitant about attending a four-year institution, earning an associate degree can prepare them to enter the workforce in just two years.

Keep reading as we highlight some of the highest-paying associate degree jobs.

Highest-Paying Associate Jobs

Radiation Therapist

Radiation therapists typically hold at least an associate degree. These professionals utilize their technical training while administering radiation treatment, operating complex machinery, and handling various administrative tasks. They often work as part of an oncology team. Radiation therapists must hold state licensure of certification through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists.

Median Annual Salary: $82,790 (May 2021)


Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists must complete an accredited associate degree program and take part in extensive hands-on training. These professionals complete standard dental cleaning, conduct diagnostic work with X-rays, and consult with dentists about a patient's dental health. Dental hygienists must hold state-based licensure.

Median Annual Salary: $77,810 (May 2021)


Web Developer

Requiring an associate or bachelor's degree, depending on the employer, web developers utilize their training to design and maintain websites. In addition to website creation, these workers assess traffic and performance while working closely with managers or clients to ensure that websites function effectively.

Median Annual Salary: $77,200 (May 2020)


Network Support Specialist

Computer and network support specialists rely on their computer science training to maintain and evaluate network systems. These professionals troubleshoot issues, repair computers and devices, and train individuals to use new software or hardware. These support specialists often hold technical certifications for various products and skills.

Median Annual Salary: $57,910 (May 2021)


Medical Sonographer

Medical sonographers operate imaging equipment and assist in the diagnostic process. These digital imaging workers prepare patients for procedures, maintain equipment, and assess images alongside doctors. Medical sonographers typically graduate from programs that hold programmatic accreditation from organizations such as the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. In addition to an associate degree, job seekers should secure professional certification.

Median Annual Salary: $75,380 (May 2021)

How Much Does an Associate Degree Cost?

The cost of an associate degree can vary widely between schools but typically represents a more affordable academic option for students pursuing vocational training or preparing to transfer to a four-year school.

Factors impacting costs include in-state or out-of-state tuition rates, full-time or part-time enrollment, and whether a student attends in person or online. Some programs also include extra expenses and fees for lab-based classes, required equipment, and uniforms. Additionally, tuition rates can vary based on location, as some states are more expensive than others.

Continue reading to learn more about the pros and cons of online and on-campus associate degrees.

Online vs. On-Campus Associate Degrees

While not for everyone, online coursework offers a flexible and affordable academic option, especially for working students. Many top online programs utilize asynchronous course delivery where students can complete requirements at their own pace. This format may be ideal for students juggling personal and professional obligations.

Online programs can also help students cut some costs associated with campus-based learning. With sky-high gas prices, those not driving to school can save significantly. Online learners can also avoid paying various campus-based fees.

However, some degree-seekers feel more comfortable in a traditional classroom setting where they can benefit from in-person instruction and social interactions. Students should think about their learning needs before deciding on a program format.

On-Campus
Pros Cons
  • Access to on-campus resources and support services
  • In-person social interaction and networking
  • Hands-on learning opportunities
  • Classroom learning environment with fewer distractions
  • Extracurricular clubs and activities
  • May be more expensive than online programs
  • Set class times with less flexibility
  • Time/money spent on commuting
Online
Pros Cons
  • Flexibility to learn on your schedule
  • Learn from anywhere with an internet connection
  • Network with people around the world
  • Save time/money on commuting
  • May be more affordable than on-campus programs
  • Access to online tutoring and career services
  • Requires more self-discipline
  • Not all programs are available online
  • More technical requirements
  • Potential social isolation and loneliness

How to Choose an Online Associate Program

The method of finding the right online program varies from person to person, but there are some factors each student should consider when figuring out how to choose a college. Variables like cost, accreditation, and format can all significantly impact whether a program is a good fit or not.

Continue reading to review how to find your online program and begin your journey in higher education.

Cost

Cost is often one of the most significant factors that students consider when choosing which college is right for them. That said, financial considerations may not weigh as heavily when it comes to community colleges due to their inherent affordability.

When reviewing potential schools, degree-seekers should consider the true program cost — college expenses are much more than just tuition rates. Students can often reduce out-of-pocket costs by attending online, securing scholarships, and finding work-study programs.

Accreditation

Students should consider institutional and programmatic accreditation when reviewing potential schools and degree pathways. Public community colleges should all hold institutional accreditation, and students can rest easy knowing that their institutions meet the academic standards required by accrediting bodies.

Programmatic accreditation is a vital consideration for students enrolling in technical and vocational programs — especially for learners who want to work in healthcare. To secure professional certifications and state licensures, students typically need to complete an accredited healthcare program. As a general rule, prospective students should also seek out nonprofit schools rather than for-profit institutions.

Online Learning Format

For those interested in a distance program, a program's online delivery style can vary significantly depending on the online learning format. Some programs utilize synchronous delivery where students attend live virtual classes, while asynchronous programs use more of a self-paced format without scheduled meeting times.

For learners seeking additional flexibility, an asynchronous program allows them to keep up with coursework from anywhere at any time. The student who thrives in a more structured academic setting may favor the scheduled nature of synchronous classes. In addition to fully online delivery, some programs utilize a hybrid format that blends virtual lessons with hands-on, classroom-based learning.

Whether enrolling as a full-time or part-time student, online coursework can expand academic opportunities, especially for working adults.

Student Support

Online and on-campus students should consider the student support services available at an institution when deciding which school to attend. The best schools tend to offer a lengthy roster of student services, including financial, academic, and personal support.

Common student support services include college mentors, mental health counseling, and various tutoring options. Additionally, a vibrant campus atmosphere with clubs, social justice organizations, and intramural athletics can enhance the college experience. At top online colleges, distance learners can also participate in many of these activities.

How to Apply to an Online Associate Program

High School Diploma or GED Certificate: Before enrolling in an online associate degree program, prospective students must hold a high school diploma or GED certificate. Schools may require applicants to submit official transcripts or GED scores.

Standardized Test Scores: Even though many schools are changing admission standards and nixing college entrance exam requirements, some institutions still mandate the submission of standardized test scores. These scores can also benefit strong test-takers interested in transferring to four-year institutions.

Application Essays: While not all community colleges and online associate degree programs require application essays, they are a fairly common requirement. These short, written exercises typically respond to prompts, and schools utilize these writing samples to assess an applicant's writing and critical thinking abilities.

Letters of Recommendation: Letters of recommendation allow students to handpick individuals who can offer insight into what makes them a quality candidate for admission. Students often ask for a recommendation letter from teachers, counselors, coaches, or work supervisors.

Credit for Life and Work Experience: It is common for associate degree programs to offer credit for prior learning. Elements like professional credentials and military experience can often translate into college credits, saving students money and accelerating graduation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Associate Degrees

What is the easiest online associate degree to get?

The easiest online associate degree to complete depends primarily on a student's skill set and their academic and career goals. For example, students who excel in math and science often pursue a STEM-based degree. Similarly, those with a knack for reading and writing often thrive in the humanities.

But beyond what academic track proves easiest, students should carefully consider why they plan on completing an associate degree. Some students use an associate degree program as a pathway toward a bachelor's degree, while others gain practical professional training to jumpstart their careers.

Should I get my AA or AS?

Whether a student should pursue an associate of arts or an associate of science depends largely on their academic and career goals. An AS degree is a popular option for students who enjoy STEM-based coursework and plan on transferring to a four-year institution. Degree-seekers who enjoy humanities and social sciences courses often pursue an AA degree.

Whether a student completes an AA or AS degree, both academic tracks prepare students to transfer to a four-year college or university with a substantial number of transferable credits. After transferring, students can often complete their bachelor's degree in 18-24 months.

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

While particular academic requirements vary between schools, most associate degree programs take about two years of full-time study to complete. Usually requiring about 60 credits, associate degree programs introduce a mix of general education and major requirements. Some specialized programs may take longer to complete.

Although many associate degree programs offer online options, students should carefully review academic requirements — some classes may require an in-person lab component. Additionally, vocational programs often require hands-on internships or clinical experiences.

What is the quickest associate degree?

The time from initial enrollment to graduating with an associate degree can vary, but full-time students typically graduate in about two years. Students completing requirements with part-time status can expect an extended academic experience. Alternatively, degree-seekers who complete some college-level coursework in high school or enroll in summer classes can expedite the process.

Students enrolling in healthcare fields like nursing and radiologic technology usually take a bit longer to graduate due to extensive clinical experiences. These programs also prepare learners for various professional licensure and certification exams.

Is getting an associate degree worth it?

Earning an associate degree can definitely be worth it. This academic pathway is a popular option for vocational students and those who plan to transfer to a four-year bachelor's degree program. Due to their inherent affordability, associate degree programs can also help students save thousands of dollars on their education. Learners also have the chance to explore a variety of academic disciplines without the financial pressures associated with four-year institutions.

Additionally, online associate programs expand educational access for working adult learners. Online programs — especially those with asynchronous delivery — make it easier for students to complete course requirements while simultaneously keeping up with work and personal obligations.

Explore Featured Associate Degree Programs

Explore Subject-Specific Associate Degrees

Biological Sciences

Business

Computer Science

Criminal Justice

Education

Healthcare

Law

Philosophy & Religious Studies

Physical Science

Psychology

Social Sciences

Technology

Visual & Performing Arts

Web Development

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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