Paving Your Path with an Associate Degree: A Comprehensive Look

29/06/202319 minute read
Paving Your Path with an Associate Degree: A Comprehensive Look

In this blog post we discuss important features and unique advantages of the Associate Degree, how long it takes to get one, some common misconceptions to avoid, and we’ll help you review some of the most critical pros and cons for deciding what’s right for you! Whether you’re a student, advisor, or anyone helping a student make informed choices, this post provides an excellent starting point for deciding if an associate degree is the best next step.

Lots of students assume going to college means getting a bachelor’s degree at the end of four years…But, not so fast! The fact is almost every young person planning for college – and parents and guardians – will realize that an Associate Degree can be a very practical degree choice with many real benefits worth careful consideration.

Origins of the Associate Degree

The Associate Degree is just one among many degrees you can consider getting in college. Many of the reasons for getting an Associate Degree today reflect why educators established the degree in the first place, over a century ago.

In the late 1800s a man named William Harper Rainey, President of the University of Chicago, realized that all across America students earning bachelor’s degrees — four-year degrees — were taking similar general education courses during the first two years. Only in the upper-division and graduate-level courses, beginning in the third year, were courses influenced by more advanced research and knowledge.

Harper and other university leaders called the general education courses “junior classes” and the more advanced courses “senior classes.” This division led to the establishment of the Associate Degree and shortly afterwards to the establishment of the first public “junior college.”

In this sense, the junior college and community college systems in the US share a common history with the establishment of the Associate Degree.

History of Associate Degrees
1892William Harper Rainey, President of the University of Chicago, establishes the Associate Degree and divides college courses into “junior” courses and “senior” courses
1901America’s first independent public junior college is established, devoted to instruction in the “junior” courses (lower-division, general education courses)
1910-1914The number of public and private junior colleges in the US grows from 3 total to 46 total
1920Founding of the American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC), which would later become the American Association of Community Colleges
1929-1939Community college enrollment jumps from 56,000 to 150,000 due to the impact of the Great Depression and social beliefs about college and social mobility

By 2001, according to the US Department of Education, there were 1,462 community colleges in the US. And today, data from the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) indicate that over 600,000 students earn Associate Degrees each year in the US.

Finally, many 4-year institutions also offer associate’s degrees. For example, by 2017 over 2,832  accredited 4-year schools in the US were offering associate degrees.

Types of Associate Degrees

There are several types of Associate Degrees, with differences you need to consider when thinking about your own education and career goals.

Here are the four types of associate degrees and the differences between them:

1. Associate of Arts Degree is aligned with liberal arts subjects. The AA degree is often pursued by students who plan to transfer to a four-year college or university to pursue a bachelor's degree with a major in humanities, social science, or fine arts.

2. Associate of Science Degree is typically geared towards STEM disciplines. An AS degree is typically a good degree if you want to transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, or engineering.

3. Associate of Applied Science (AAS) Degree is most often a good choice for students interested in vocational training. An AAS degree emphasizes technical skills and the kind of practical, hands-on training experiences that prepare you for direct entry into the workforce. Some jobs an AAS may help you get include nurse practitioner, veterinary technician, culinary worker, automotive repair technician, dental hygienist, computer programmer, and graphic designer.

4. Occupational Associate Degrees are also career focused, similar to AAS degrees. These degrees are designed to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed for entry-level positions in fields such as healthcare, business administration, criminal justice, information technology, and paralegal studies. Occupational Associate Degrees often incorporate internships or practicums to provide real-world experience in the chosen field.

The AA and AS degrees typically provide a foundation for further education leading to a bachelor's degree, while AAS and Occupational Associate degrees are more vocationally oriented, preparing students for immediate entry into the workforce in specific career fields.

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What to Expect from an Associate Degree Program

Wondering how long it takes to get an associate’s degree or how many course credits are required?

It typically requires about 60 credit hours (15 credit hours per semester), which could mean taking up to five courses each semester to graduate within two years. Most community colleges offer working students flexible part-time study options, but it likely means taking longer to earn your degree.

As far as the kinds of courses required for an associate degree, most students will take mostly general education courses, along with a smaller number of courses for their major, and typically two or three elective courses.

  • General Education Courses or Core Courses give students a foundation in basic undergraduate-level knowledge and skills, such as English composition and communication, foundational math, and exposure to the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. These courses also help students hone study skills and build critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving abilities. Students with different majors typically take many of the same core courses. (Here’s a look at the general ed courses students take at Harvard!)
  • Major courses are determined in large part by the major you choose or the field of study you’re majoring in. Your major courses are a chance to delve more deeply into the subjects that interest you most, alongside fellow students with similar academic interests.
  • Elective courses offer you the opportunity to study additional courses that complement your major, or you can use them as an opportunity to explore new topics, including alternative majors, especially if you plan to keep studying as a transfer student later on.

If you choose an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree, your courses will typically include hands-on laboratory or technical learning, such as how to use real medical devices, advanced automotive repair equipment, or specialized software tools for graphic design, under the guidance of an instructor who most likely has lots of relevant professional experience. Some courses may be designed to help you earn technical certifications widely recognized in certain fields for specific jobs.

Occupational Associate Degree programs often include on-the-job training components, in the form of an internship, for example, related to becoming a legal assistant, administrative assistant, or for other professional career roles.

Finally, while earning an associate degree provides you with a formal way to exit college at the end of two years of full-time study, many students pursue an AA/AS degree as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, applying to four-year colleges and universities as transfer students.

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Associate Degrees and Transfer Credits

A general rule of thumb is that students who attend a two-year college and earn an associate degree can transfer most or all of their course credits and apply them to the general education requirements for a bachelor’s degree.

In reality though, different public and private colleges honor different policies, and different accreditation-related factors and articulation agreements that govern what course credits will (or won’t) transfer between various schools.

Transferring Course Credits

When it comes to thinking about what to expect from an associate degree program, remember that course offerings, transfer agreements, and degree requirements can vary from school to school and program to program.

Be sure to get all the information you need regarding transfer agreements for relevant schools before deciding which school is best and which associate degree program and which courses to enroll in!

The good news is that getting advice from a professional Academic Advisor can help you avoid missteps. You may also find it worthwhile to get input from students who have already earned the kind of degree you’re considering!

Admission Process and Requirements

Some steps in the admissions process and what’s required to apply to college will vary based on the school and program you apply for. For example, admissions to a junior college or community college will typically be easier and less competitive than applying to a leading 4-year college or university.

Applying for admissions for an Associate Degree at a 2-year or 4-year college will typically require:

  • high school transcripts and proof of a high school diploma — or some schools may accept a GED (General Education Development certificate) in lieu of a high school diploma
  • letters of recommendation
  • some form of personal essay

Here are some tips for acing the admissions application process:

  • Start the process early and research which type of degree and what colleges best fit your goals and interests.
  • Know what’s required to apply, including any placement tests (such as SAT or ACT) or any prerequisite courses.
  • Break the process down into small steps, and complete one step at a time
  • Think about adults you can reach out to who can write positive letters of recommendation.
  • Take time and care to write a compelling personal essay (if required) that helps admissions officers understand your life and career interests, unique personality traits, and individual motivations for college learning.
  • Use a checklist provided by the school (or make your own), so you don’t miss any key steps, requirements, documents, or deadlines!
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Benefits of an Associate Degree

Getting a college degree can have a lasting impact on your life, your career opportunities, and your earning potential.

According to US News and World Report, “Small class sizes, affordability, convenience and faculty who are focused on teaching — as opposed to research — are often cited as the main benefits of attending a community college.” 

Another really important benefit of many associate degree programs is ease of access to specialized vocational training and certifications. And, at many institutions, vocational programs are designed to align with regional or national job trends. That means, with just two years of study, you can get very practical job training for in-demand jobs.

These job-oriented associate degrees typically offer you flexible study options as well, designed to help you learn while still holding down a job, or making it easier to balance family responsibilities and college study.

Remember, too, that getting an associate degree is a great way to save money while you explore college life and different subjects, all the while paving the way to apply as a transfer student to a 4-year college or university down the road, if you want to.

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Global Variations

At Crimson, we help students all around the world discover new study options and get into outstanding colleges and universities. So let’s take a quick look at what obtaining an associate degree might look like in different countries…


Much like the US, Canada has many community colleges and technical institutes offering two-year study programs. These programs offer both general education courses and more specialized courses in your chosen field of study and lead to an Associate Degree.

United Kingdom

In the UK the term “Associate Degree” is less common, but other degrees, such as Foundation Degrees and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) offer features and benefits similar to an Associate Degree in the US. These programs are offered at a range of UK universities, colleges, and vocational institutes. Foundation Degrees usually take you two years to complete and include general academic courses and training in practical job skills. The HND also takes two years, with an emphasis on vocational training.


Similar to the US and Canada, students in Australia can enroll in associate degree programs at numerous universities and vocational institutions. The associate degree programs typically take about two years to complete and include general education and field-specific courses.

Navigating International Degree Programs, Transfers, and More

Wherever you study, and whenever you’re thinking about transferring course credits to a new school, keep in mind that policies and inter-school agreements for transfer students can and do vary. Simply checking in with a Crimson Academic Advisor for expert help and guidance can be a great way to avoid common missteps and make sure you have a plan that will get you where you want to go!

Potential Career Paths

While many professions require more than an associate degree, there are associate degree programs offered around the world that align with well-paid career roles.

Remember the history we explored earlier in the post?...The Associate Degree was established to help more students prepare quickly for specific types of skilled jobs.

Here are some of the more common types of jobs and professions that many associate degree programs are aligned with:

  • Paralegal
  • Dental Hygienist
  • Registered Nurse
  • Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Computer Network and IT Support Specialist
  • Veterinary Technician
  • Graphic Designer
  • Early Childhood and Preschool Educator
  • Land Survey or Civil Engineering Technician
  • Administrative Assistant

Don’t forget too that an AA/AS degree can provide a practical stepping stone for transferring to a 4-year university!

So, while getting a bachelor’s degree might give other kinds of opportunities, don’t fall prey to the misconception that an associate degree just isn’t good enough.

Many students have launched successful career journeys after earning an associate degree.

Let’s face it, when you combine specialized technical skills, on-the-job training, and practical work experience with professional networking opportunities, you’re likely to find that an Associate Degree on its own can provide a strong foundation for career success.

Challenges and Considerations

If you’re struggling with the PROS and CONS of whether to get an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree, you’re definitely not alone!

Pros and Cons of an AA/AS Degree over a BA/BS Degree
Opportunity to save money on fees and tuitionIf you attend a 2-year college, you may find less course options
Finish in 2 years, not 4Instructors at a 2-year college may have less credentials and research experience compared with those at 4-year institutions
May boost your chances for getting into a competitive research university as a “transfer student”BA/BS degree programs may incorporate more majors and academic pathways
Can always go on to get a bachelor’s degree laterWithout a bachelor’s degree, you may limit your opportunities to access certain kinds of careers and professions
Technical and vocational associate degree programs may reward you with a quick career launch in fields, such as nursing, computer science, automotive repair, and more

While these pros and cons should help with decision making, don’t forget that weighing your own individual goals and interests is paramount in paving the best path forward.

For example, if your goal is to get into an entry-level job as a Registered Nurse quickly, getting an associate degree can make lots of sense…But if you want to explore western philosophy or pursue a career as a doctor, psychologist, senior engineer, or business leader, getting a bachelor’s degree or transferring to a bachelor program after earning an associate degree probably makes more sense!

If you’re a student planning for college you should find it helpful to discuss this list of pros and cons with a parent/guardian, or academic counselor, instead of trying to decide all on your own!

“But…what if I just don’t know what I want to do yet?”

Great question!

Consider that for many students an associate’s degree is a great way to try out college life and explore different subjects — buying yourself some time to make up your mind before committing to a longer, and most likely more costly, bachelor’s degree program.

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered a lot when it comes to the Associate Degree!...You’ve learned 

  • when college leaders first established associate degree programs for students, and why
  • key features of associate degrees, and some common misconceptions
  • important tips about transfer policies and related missteps to watch out for
  • various pros and cons to consider when trying to decide if an associate degree or a bachelor degree is best

In fact, you may want to share this post and discuss it with any friends you have who are struggling with similar decisions. We know it’s easy to get stuck trying to make choices about college and careers with so many options on the table. 

The good news is that a skilled Academic Advisor can often help you figure out the best next step. The knowledgeable Advisors at Crimson Education are helping students like you everyday make informed decisions and may help you get into schools you haven’t considered or ever dreamed of attending.

But more than that, with insights from a network of qualified college counselors and the help of Former Admissions Officers from top-ranked schools, Crimson Advisors have achieved a track record that’s hard to beat when it comes to helping students realize their education dreams.

If you’re interested in finding out the difference personalized advice can make or exploring what’s really possible when it comes to preparing for college, reach out to our Advisors today for information about Crimson programs that will boost your confidence and help you get into the school that’s right for you.