Associate degree: Two years to a career or a jump start to a bachelor?fs degree
by Olivia Crosby
In 2 years, you can train for some of
the fastest growing jobs in the
economy, increase your earnings, and
pave the way for further education.
How? Earn an associate degree. An
associate degree is a college degree
awarded after the completion of about 20
classes. It either prepares students for a
career following graduation or allows them
to transfer into a bachelor?fs degree program.
Compared with workers whose highest level
of educational attainment was a high school
diploma, workers with an associate degree
averaged an extra $128 a week in 2001, according
to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
People with associate degrees also are more likely
to find jobs: the unemployment rate in 2001 was
more than 30 percent lower for associate degree
holders compared with high school graduates. And,
according to several academic studies, advantages in
the job market might be even greater for those just
starting their careers and for those who work in a career
related to their degree.
But for most people, the best part about earning an
associate degree is the opportunity to enter interesting
professions. Training is available for those with nearly any
interest, from technical fields like electronics and health care
to liberal arts areas, such as design and social work. And
according to BLS, occupations in which workers often are
required to have an associate degree are growing faster than
occupations that require other types of training.
The hallmark of associate degrees is flexibility, both in
what to study and how to study it. Degrees are available from
public community colleges, private 2-year colleges, for-profit
technical institutes, and many 4-year colleges and universities.
Taking classes from home is more common in associate
degree programs than in any other type of educational
credentials program, with more than 9 percent of associate
degree students using distance learning in 1998, according to
the U.S. Department of Education. Other students have a more
traditional college experience, living at one of the one-fifth of
schools that offer on-campus housing and meals. And nearly
all schools offer extracurricular activities?\such as sports,
clubs, and volunteer groups?\as well as academics. Nonprofit
schools, such as private and community colleges, are most
likely to offer these extras.
Keep reading to learn what types of associate degrees are
available, which occupations they prepare students for, what
to consider when choosing a career, how to select and prepare
for a college program, and where to find more information
about associate degree programs and careers.
Types of degrees
All associate degree programs require that students successfully
complete about 60 college credits. That translates into roughly
20 courses. Associate degrees are of two types: Occupationally
focused degrees, which prepare students to work immediately
after graduation, and transfer degrees, which prepare students to
move into bachelor?fs degree programs.
These associate degrees train
students for specific careers. In addition to taking general
education classes?\such as mathematics, writing, and
speech?\students take courses specific to an occupational
major. To earn an associate of applied science in biotechnology
degree at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland,
for example, students are required to take classes in biology,
chemistry, immunology, and drug production, among others.
The courses teach basic principles but focus on applying
those principles to the workplace. So, instead of learning to
isolate a few proteins or DNA strands in a petri dish, students
learn to use machines that isolate hundreds at a time. Graduates
should be able to move directly from school to jobs in
laboratories or production facilities.
Similarly, a course in the international business program at
Florida Community College in Jacksonville teaches students
how to complete and file import and export forms and comply
with regulations. Graduates of the program can apply those
skills as commerce clerks when they leave school.
The best programs tailor courses to industry standards.
Schools ask local employers what skills workers need to
perform specific occupations. Then, the schools create classes
that teach those skills. With the help of advisors from local
businesses, curriculums are updated regularly.
The focus on occupations means that classes are more handson
than are those in bachelor?fs degree programs. According to
surveys by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers in
associate degree programs spend more time conducting demonstrations
and leading practical exercises. And many of the faculty
work in the field in which they teach, so they are able to relate
first-hand stories of life on the job.
The opportunity to work on real-life issues is
common. Students majoring in industrial design at
the Art Institute of Pittsburgh had this chance
when they helped to design a bike for
scientists in Antarctica. The bike needed
to work in harsh conditions over ice and
snow, so the students created blueprints
for an especially stable, durable contraption.
The chance to participate in projects
like these in the first year of college draws many students
to associate degree programs.
Most students also spend at least some of their classtime
in facilities that mirror the workplace. Health technicians,
for example, use medical devices they will find at jobsites.
In the same way, childcare students often train at onsite
Formal cooperative, or co-op, and internship opportunities
are an essential part of many associate degree programs.
During a co-op, a student works full time for a limited period
in a job related to his or her studies, then returns to school.
During an internship, a student works full time or part time
while enrolled in school. Often, students receive classroom
credit for work on the job. They create journals and portfolios
to summarize their experiences and the ways in which they
relate to class.
At many schools, students receive certificates after 1 year or
less of study and then continue studying toward an associate
degree. This gives them an immediate credential to use in the
workplace while continuing their studies.
Students also can continue their studies after earning
their degree. Although occupational degrees prepare
students for a career immediately after graduation, some
occupational degree classes can often be transferred to a
Occupational degrees have different titles. The titles include
associate of applied science, associate of applied arts, associate
of applied technology, and associate of occupational studies.
Another type of associate degree is
designed to be a first step toward a bachelor?fs degree. With a
little planning, all of the coursework completed in this degree
will transfer to a 4-year school. Students take the introductory
classes of a bachelor?fs degree program, graduating with an
associate of arts or an associate of science degree?\and about
half of the credits they need for a bachelor?fs degree. Courses
include writing, literature, science, and mathematics. Most
degree candidates study broad fields like liberal arts or
general studies, but some declare majors and earn their
degrees in specific areas, such as an associate of arts in
literature or an associate of science in chemistry.
Often, classes correspond directly to those offered at local
4-year schools. In fact, most 2-year colleges have agreements
with universities stating that their associate degree fulfills all
of the general education requirements of a bachelor?fs degree.
A few transfer programs look beyond the bachelor?fs to a
master?fs or professional degree. Oklahoma Community
College?fs prepharmacy program, for instance, is the first stage
of a 6-year Pharm.D. program.
Starting college in an associate degree program has several
advantages, including the one most often cited: saving money.
For example, in the 2000-01 academic year, average annual in-
State tuition and fees were $1,359 at public 2-year community
colleges, compared with $3,506 at public 4-year colleges?\a
savings of more than $2,000. Because many associate degree
programs are offered at community colleges, students live
nearby?\thus avoiding the added expenses of room and board
often needed for relocating to a 4-year college or university.
And the cost of an associate degree is rising more slowly than
that of a bachelor?fs. Taking grants into account, the cost of an
associate degree has not risen in the last decade.
But the advantages of pursuing an associate degree reach
beyond cost. Students often receive more personal attention at
2-year schools than they do at 4-year schools, in part because
class sizes are smaller in most associate degree programs. And
according to the National Center for Education Statistics,
associate degree faculty spend a greater proportion of their
When applying to a 4-year program, students who earned
an associate degree are often given preference over students
who completed a semester or two of college credits but did
not earn a degree. Associate degree graduates also are more
likely than other transfer students to complete their bachelor?fs
degree successfully, according to U.S. Department of Education
For students who have low high school grades or test scores,
associate degree programs offer a chance to catch up. Programs
at many community colleges are open to anyone with a high
school diploma or a passing score on the high school equivalency
exam. And nearly all 2-year colleges offer noncredit
classes to prepare students for college courses.
Students in transfer programs also benefit from the career
focus of 2-year schools. By taking a few occupationally
focused courses and participating in career exploration
programs, students have an advantage in choosing a major
when they start a bachelor?fs degree program.