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Types of Associate Degrees: Which Should You Pick?

What’s Covered:


Are you a high school student looking to begin college? Are you an adult looking to further your education? Are you an employee looking to upskill, or change industries? If any of these apply to you, you might want to consider pursuing an associate degree.


Associate degrees are useful on their own and many can be transferred to larger universities in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. Associate degrees are often much more cost-effective than taking the same college credits at a university and can enable a student to obtain a good-paying job full-time or on the side as they continue their education. 


What Are Associate Degrees?


Associate degrees are post-secondary, undergraduate degrees, often taking two years to complete. An associate degree is a credential above a high school diploma and below a bachelor’s degree. Per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people with associate degrees on average can earn 20% more than people with only high school diplomas. In fact, some associate degrees can lead to six-figure salaries! Generally, associate degrees are concentrated in the arts or sciences. 


‌Types of Associate Degrees


There are several types of associate degrees. The main three are regular, applied, and certificates. Regular associate degrees, like an Associate of Arts or Science, are typically used as transfer degrees. This means that the student pursuing these degrees intends to take their credits to a four-year university to apply for a bachelor’s degree. In doing so, the student will generally enter their four-year university as a junior, rather than a freshman. 


Applied associate degrees, like an Associate of Applied Arts or Science, are degrees intended to prepare a student for the workforce directly, rather than transferring to a university. Applied degrees commonly focus on a particular trade or profession. Certificate programs are similar to applied degrees, in that they are designed to develop career skills. Let’s go a little deeper into the different types.


Associate of Arts


Associate of Arts (AA) degrees provide around 60 credits of a general liberal arts education. Many of the courses taken to obtain an AA are the same that would be taken in the first two years of a bachelor’s degree—think history, literature, music, writing, and communications. An AA degree would be most useful for a student wanting to enter the arts, humanities, or social sciences fields; someone interested in jobs like a reporter, editor, marketer, archaeologist, psychologist, or public relations manager. These degrees transfer well into bachelor’s degree majors like history, sociology, political science, economics, and business.


Associate of Science


Associate of Science (AS) degrees, like AA degrees, provide around 60 credits to put toward a future bachelor’s degree. However, AS degrees typically focus on STEM subjects with some integration of humanities. A student working toward an AS degree can expect to take largely biological science, physical science, mathematics, and computer science courses. An AS degree would be most useful for a student wanting to enter the STEM field and become an engineer, data analyst, IT professional, or scientist. These degrees transfer well into bachelor’s degree majors like architecture, biology, agriculture, physics, textiles, or pharmacy. 


Associate of Applied Arts


Associate of Applied Arts (AAA) degrees focus on preparing a student to enter the workforce, rather than transferring to a larger university. AAA can take more credits to complete than an AA, typically 60-80 credit hours. A student working toward an AAA degree can expect to choose between a variety of programs, including fine arts, advertising, music, or design. Many of the careers available to AAA graduates focus on design, including automotive design, product design, landscape design, and urban design.


Associate of Applied Science


Similarly to an AAA, an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree prepares a student to enter the workforce. Common AAS focuses include accounting, computer information systems, and welding. AAS degrees can take between 60-80 credit hours to complete and usually provide qualifications for careers with stable salaries. There are many careers and transferable skills open to AAS graduates. Some career options include bookkeeper, automotive service technician, paralegal, and dental hygienist.


Certificate Programs


Certificate programs are designed to enhance a student’s knowledge related to a career or industry. Sometimes, a certificate is considered continuing education. This would be a student expanding on their knowledge of the job they are currently doing. Some examples of these could include a data science, cybersecurity, or blockchain certification. 


Other certification programs can enable a student to move into a different industry. These could include full-stack web development, digital marketing, or cloud architect certifications. Certificate programs can be a great addition to any resume. They show a dedication to your craft and a desire to stay abreast of the latest industry trends. 


How to Choose an Associate Degree Program


Consider Your Interests and Career Goals


Thanks to their versatility, community college programs can vary more than undergraduate programs at universities. When deciding if community college is right for you, you should keep in mind what your goal is and choose a program accordingly. 


Depending on your interests you can determine whether you want to pursue an associate’s degree in arts or in science. Once you have determined that, you must consider your career goals and timeline. Do you want to start working in a year or two, if so, you should probably pick an applied degree. Or, if you want to attend a large, four-year university eventually, a regular associates degree might be the better option for you.


Research the Requirements


Make sure you are aware of what is needed to complete your degree. Some community college programs have competitive admissions with minimum academic requirements, like many nursing programs. A good place to find school requirements is on their website. You should also talk to your guidance counselor who will help you research and navigate the different requirements.


Review the Coursework, Faculty, and School Quality


Once you have considered a school, check out their course catalog. Do they offer courses covering what you want? Do they have interesting electives? Research the reputation of the faculty, and vet their professors. See how previous students have rated the faculty. You should also research the school’s academic facilities and career counseling. Do they offer tutoring? Do they assist with job placement? These are all important questions to ask when choosing if a school is right for you. 


Consider the Costs.


The cost of education is a burden to many people and can even be a barrier to education for some. If your goal is to enter into a career or trade right away, or even if your goal is to earn a four-year degree, an associate degree may be the way to go. Per the Education Data Initiative, the average tuition of a public, four-year university education in the United States for an in-state student is $10,740. While scholarships can help, this is still a massive sum. On the contrary, the average tuition for an associate degree program is $3,800. Associate degrees can allow a student to earn those credits toward a bachelor’s degree while paying significantly less. 


How to Find Community Colleges Near You


Local community colleges are a great place to start researching your college and career options. To find community colleges in your state, check out CollegeVine’s FREE Schools Hub! Here, you’ll be able to find community colleges near you that can help you achieve your goals.

Short Bio
Hi! I’m Cheyenne. I help educational institutions inform stakeholders and the wider public about the offerings available to them.

After graduating with my BA in History, and MA in Teaching, I knew education was my passion. Maverick Educational Copywriting was born out of my desire to make all levels of education accessible to students, families, alumni, and all other potential stakeholders. I believe education is at the heart of a healthy society, and making it understandable is a huge start! When not writing, I am usually spending time with my husband and dog, most likely hiking a new trail!