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What Is an Associate Degree?

Completed in an average of two years, an associate degree is the quickest and least intensive college degree option. Whether you're a recent high school graduate or you're simply looking for a career change, this is a convenient and inexpensive degree option that can open doors to entry-level positions or higher pay grades in a variety of fields.

Typical Requirements

While exact requirements will depend on the subject and the school itself, enrollment in an associate degree program is typically quite simple, with most only requiring that students hold a high school diploma or a GED. Programs usually take two years to complete and are generally relaxed -- students can take classes at their own pace, and it's not rare for some to take a few years or more to complete their degree. This lack of pressure makes these degrees an especially great option for students who didn't do well in high school, students who don't want to deal with the stress of university, and for older adults who haven't been in school for a while. Examples of general education courses you'll likely be required to take include:

  • English Composition
  • Calculus
  • Biology
  • Intro to Psychology
  • History (U.S., European, World, etc.)
  • Economics
  • Foreign Language (Spanish, French, American Sign Language, etc.)

Most students earning an associate degree do so at local community colleges or through accredited online universities. In either case, the low costs paired with the added convenience of online classes is making associate degrees more accessible than ever. These degrees usually require 60 or so semester credits and take about two years to complete for full-time students, though some online colleges offer faster tracks. Programs include general education courses as part of their requirements, with leftover credits being devoted to the degree subject. Course credits can be transferred and used as part of a bachelor's program for students that choose to continue with schooling.

Why Earn an Associate Degree?

With how inexpensive and quick it is to earn one, an associate degree is a great place for anyone looking to improve their career prospects to start. An associate in any subject correlates to higher wages, and this difference isn't negligible -- on average, people with an associate earn $7,332 more per year than those with only a high school diploma(1). This adds up to a significant increase in lifetime earnings. Besides the money, your career options will also undoubtedly increase, as there are many positions that require an associate degree for hiring. Plus, there's always the added bonus of being able to transfer your associate degree credits into a bachelor's program if you choose to pursue one -- this can mean even higher wages and more job options down the line. By doing the work for the degree now, you'll be creating viable options for yourself in the future.

Besides career and schooling benefits, there is also the benefit of getting to learn about a subject you're interested in from experts. The professors and instructors teaching you in most programs have years of experience and first-hand research behind them and can offer incredible insights into their subjects. If there's ever been a topic or field that's fascinated you, opting for an associate program is an easy and affordable way to dive in deeper.

Associate Degrees vs Bachelor's Degrees

When it comes to choosing between an associate or a bachelor's degree, many prospective students wonder which is more worth the effort. Just as people with an associate degree earn more than those with only a high school diploma, people with bachelor's have the same advantage -- annually, they earn $18,772 more on average than those with only an associate degree(1). Along with these higher wages, having a bachelor's also means a lower unemployment rate(1). This added stability is one reason many students choose this path.

However, an associate degree is a much easier commitment that still comes with many benefits, making it the better choice for some students. These programs only take two years to complete, as opposed to the four a bachelor's program takes, and they're much easier to be accepted into. Monetarily, bachelor's degrees are significantly more expensive, even with lower cost online options becoming available(2). And perhaps most notably, employment for people with some postsecondary schooling or associate degrees is on the rise anyway, with an 11 percent increase expected from 2016 to 2026 -- depending on what you want to do, a bachelor's may not be necessary for your future success(3). These factors considered, for many students an associate degree is the better path to take, particularly if their career goal only requires an associate degree.

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