In the U.S., an individual possessing an associate’s degree in a particular field of study has attended two years of post-secondary education at a college or university and accumulated approximately 60 credits by taking around 20 classes at three credits each. Generally, an associate degree is earned at a community, technical or junior college that does not offer anything higher than an associate’s degree. Technical colleges frequently include program instruction for trades such as dental technician or medical assisting that take less than a year to complete and culminate in awarding successful students a certificate rather than a degree.
Designed for students who would rather expedite their entrance into the workforce than spend four to ten years in school earning higher degrees, an associate’s degree focuses on hands-on skills rather than academic assignments. Although students are still required to take a certain amount of core courses in order to obtain an associate’s degree, the bulk of their classes revolve around learning the occupation they have chosen to pursue.
For example, a student wishing to obtain an associate’s degree in medical assisting will need to take English, math, composition and several liberal arts courses to fulfill a two-year degree requirement. Sprinkled among these core classes will be instruction regarding medical software, office administrative duties, maintaining patient records, submitting insurance forms and basic medical terminology.
After earning an associate’s degree and working for several years, some students choose enroll in a bachelor’s program pertaining to their field. This entails taking two more years of courses at a university or college offering four-year degrees. Most accredited community colleges are affiliated with universities that allow easy transfer of credits so that students do not need to repeat any classes at the four-year facility.
Types of Associate’s Degrees
The most popular two-year degrees also pay well as full-time positions, such as radiation therapist specialist, which averages an annual salary of $60.00. Radiation therapists take courses teaching them how to utilize radiation equipment designed for the treatment of diseases requiring radiation therapy, particularly cancer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that growth of radiation therapy positions is expected to rise nearly 28 percent in the following decade.
Ultrasound technologist is another high-paying job needing only an associate’s degree. Currently, ultrasound technologists can expect to earn an average of $54,000 annually, with an increase of over $10,000 anticipated through 2020. Sonographers perform ultrasounds on fetuses as well as patients with suspected diseases of the nervous and cardiovascular systems. They are responsible for accurately recording internal images and submitting them to a radiologist for interpretation.
Earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice provides students with a versatile degree that has the potential to furnish them with a wide variety of job opportunities. The field of criminal justice encompasses law enforcement, private security, correctional officer positions and forensic science. Depending on the job, a student with a criminal justice associate’s degree can make between $35,000 and $50,000 a year, with ample room for advancement by pursuing a bachelor’s in criminal justice.
Other preferred two-year degrees include:
- Respiratory Therapist
- Dental Hygienist
- Occupational/Physical Therapy Assistant
- Licensed Practical Nurse
- Medical Massage Therapist
- Cardiovascular Technician
- HVAC Technician
- Pharmacy Technician
- Early Childhood Education
Levels of Associate’s Degrees
While all traditional associate’s degrees (called Associate’s of Arts) involve a two-year program consisting of core and technical classes, students may also choose to take special classes providing them with degrees such as Associate’s of Science (A.S.) or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S).
Associate of Science
Instead of requiring a certain amount of liberal arts courses, an A.S. program focuses on courses examining a student’s academic major in a more comprehensive manner. Generally, students who elect to pursue an associate of science degree are planning to enroll in a four-year program to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree. Some community colleges may require students earn 62 or 63 credits instead of 60 in order to qualify for an A.S. degree.
Associate of Applied Science
A.A.S. programs provide highly technical courses that prepare students for immediate entry into their field of study upon receiving their degree. For example, computer technology, engineering and aviation mechanics are popular associate of applied science degrees that mainly focus on all facets of that job rather than academic subjects. Computer repair, systems engineer and bluepring drafter are more positions for which students often receive A.A.S degrees.
The main difference among these three associate’s degrees is that the A.A. and A.S. degrees facilitate seeking a bachelor’s degree while the credits earned in an A.A. S. program do not transfer easily to a four-year college and are intended for students who plan to gain work experience rather than academic experience.
Benefits of Earning an Associate’s Degree
- Students earning an associate’s degree do not acquire the large student debts that students pursuing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees do. If a two-year student is eligible for Pell Grants, they may not have any accumulated debt at the end of their two-year program.
- People with associate’s degrees earn an average of $150 to $200 more per week than those with just high school diplomas, according to the BLS. In addition, employment rates of students with an A.A., A.S., or A.A.S. experienced nearly 30 percent lower unemployment rates than high school graduates
- Having an associate’s degree means a student can choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree at any point in their life, regardless of the time that has lapsed between degrees.
- Community colleges offering two-year programs have flexible class scheduling to accommodate people who work during the day but want to earn a degree
Enrolling in an associate’s program is also a good way to decide whether a certain career field is what a student wants to do with his life. Since you are only investing two years in learning a particular trade, this allows students with a sufficient amount of flexibility in deciding which career choice is right for them. It is not unusual for someone to obtain an associate’s degree in criminal justice, transfer their credits to a four-year institution and decide to change majors once they have worked in that field and realized it was not something they really wanted to do.