The number of associate degrees awarded by postsecondary institutions in recent years has increased dramatically. One million were granted in the 2015-16 academic year — an increase of almost 74 percent over the 2000-01 academic year. In 2015-16, most students earned associate degrees in:

  • Liberal arts and sciences, humanities, and general studies
  • Health professions and related fields
  • Business

Other popular degrees in the 2015-16 term were in law enforcement, homeland security, and firefighting; and computer and information sciences and support services — all programs aligned with jobs that require an associate degree.

What's driving the increased interest in associate degrees? Many reasons could be in play, including employer demand for a more educated workforce. Another factor could be the increased availability of online associate degree programs. Students can now pursue their education at a campus-based school or online. This flexibility can be especially helpful for students who are working, raising children, or have other responsibilities.

5 Reasons to Pursue an Associate Degree

There are many reasons a student may wish to pursue an associate degree. Here are five common motivators:

  1. An online associate degree can typically be completed in two years — an attractive option for those who want to start their career sooner rather than later.

  2. Because of the shorter timeline — associate degree programs usually require half the classes and credits of bachelor's programs — they tend to be significantly lower in costs as a result.

  3. The unemployment rate for associate degree holders in 2017 was lower than for those whose education stopped with a high school diploma: 3.4 percent instead of 4.6 percent.

  4. Weekly earnings for those who held associate degrees in 2017 were $836 compared to $712 for those who only held a high school diploma.

  5. After completing associate degree requirements, students can either enter the workforce and start earning money or pursue a bachelor's degree.

Timeline of an Associate Degree Program

So how long does it take to earn an associate degree? Most programs can be completed in two years or 60 semester credit hours.

First Year
In the first year, students can expect to take general classes as well as courses that introduce their particular field of study. For those who aren't exactly sure what program they want to pursue, this can be a good time to explore different fields by taking classes in a range of subjects. It's possible to discover a new interest, and a potentially new career path.
Second Year
During the second year, students typically dive deeper into their major. It's the time to take classes that provide more specific knowledge and to build the skills needed to begin careers in jobs you can get with an associate degree.Typically, an associate degree translates into the first two years of a bachelor's degree. Students who have that longer-term goal in mind — earning a bachelor's degree — may want to check with their school's academic adviser about which associate degree requirements may transfer into credits for a bachelor's program.

Types of Associate Degrees

There are four major types of associate degrees. Let's take a closer look at each one.

Top Associate Degree Programs

When considering an associate degree program, it's important for prospective students to pay attention to rankings. Rankings are meant to highlight schools that might best serve students' interests and needs. School-related data points can help students compare the tuition and fees, acceptance rates, job placement ratings, and other factors of the various associate degree programs available. Rankings can help students make an educated decision on which program to pursue.


To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific degree being ranked.

1. Offer an associate degree program, either on campus, online, or via hybrid format
2. Have awarded at least one associate degree in 2015-16
3. Have reported data for all 19 ranking variables listed below

Based on those criteria, we ranked 1,374 colleges and universities in the United States on 19 criteria, using 2016-17 data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  1. Program prominence, based on how many associate degrees were awarded in 2016-17
  2. Ratio of undergraduate students participating fully or partially in distance education to total enrollment
  3. Average in-state tuition for undergraduates
  4. Retention rate
  5. Percent of undergraduate students awarded federal, state, local, institutional or other sources of grant aid
  6. Average amount of federal, state, local, institutional, or other sources of grant aid awarded to undergraduate students
  7. Number of programs that are offered at the associate degree level on campus
  8. Number of programs that are offered at the associate degree level via distance education
  9. The availability of any tuition plans
    • Payment
    • Guaranteed
    • Prepaid
    • Other
  10. Services
    • Academic/Career
    • Placement for Completers
  11. Credit offerings
    • Dual
    • Life
    • AP
    • Military
  12. Three-year repayment rate for completers
RankingSchool NameIn State Avg. Undergrad Tuition% Receiving Financial AidRetention RateCareer CounselingPayment Plan
1Holmes Community College$2,60091%67%YesYes
2San Joaquin Delta College$1,28876%75%YesNo
3Central Texas College$3,39066%54%YesYes
4Itawamba Community College$2,90097%68%YesYes
5Hinds Community College$2,88091%65%YesYes
6Fayetteville Technical Community College$2,43282%55%YesYes
7Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College$3,10093%63%YesYes
8Arizona Western College$2,01685%66%YesYes
9Northeast Mississippi Community College$3,15099%68%YesYes
10Ivy Tech Community College$4,21874%51%YesYes
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2018-19, National Center for Education Statistics,

Financial Aid

The cost of tuition, textbooks, and other education-related expenses is a common concern among prospective associate degree students. Fortunately, there are financial resources that may be available to eligible prospective students. Scholarships, grants, and education loans can all help make associate degrees more affordable. Financial aid can be available for degree programs offered through traditional schools as well as schools that offer online associate degree programs.

Why Accreditation Matters

Accreditation refers to the process that higher education institutions undergo to confirm that they adhere to the strictest educational standards. Accredited associate degree programs are known to offer quality education and can help prospective students qualify for federal grants and loans. An online associate degree from an accredited institution can also paint the degree holder in a more competitive light to prospective employers.

Fastest-Growing Careers with an Associate Degree

If you're looking to pursue an associate degree that's tied to increased job opportunities nationwide, these are the ones the Bureau of Labor Statistics says should grow the fastest, according to 2016-26 employment projections.

Dental Hygienists
Current Employment : 221,560
Projected Employment : 10.8%
Dental hygienists brighten smiles while enjoying flexible schedules and having conversations with patients from all walks of life. They can choose to work full-time, part-time, or only on weekends. Since preventative care is now a priority in the United States, this career path qualifies as one of the best associate degrees.
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
Current Employment : 72,790
Projected Employment : 19.5%
Diagnostic medical sonographers use high-frequency sound waves to generate images of the inside of the body. Due to the large aging baby boomer population, the need to diagnose medical conditions like blood clots and heart disease will likely increase, making diagnostic medical sonographers a growing career path.
Occupational Therapy Assistants
Current Employment : 44,990
Projected Employment : 33.1%
Occupational therapy assistants can be found in a variety of settings including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing homes, workplaces, and schools. This is a growing field because occupational therapy is expected to continue to be a vital part of treatment for individuals with various injuries, illnesses, or disabilities.
Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Current Employment : 329,870
Projected Employment : 12%
Paralegals and legal assistants play a vital role in supporting lawyers and can work at law firms, corporate legal departments or government agencies. The need for paralegals and legal assistants, especially those with strong computer and database management skills is expected to grow significantly.
Physical Therapist Assistants
Current Employment : 96,840
Projected Employment : 27.1%
Physical therapist assistants work under physical therapists and help patients manage pain and regain movement. The healthcare needs of individuals with diabetes and other chronic illnesses as well as those of older adults are expected to increase the demand for physical therapist assistants.
Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education
Current Employment : 431,350
Projected Employment : 7.1%
Preschool teachers are responsible for instructing children between the ages of 2 and 4. They often witness — and can participate in — groundbreaking moments as children experience important developmental milestones during this time. The continued focus on the importance of early childhood education is expected to raise the need for preschool teachers.
Radiologic Technologists and Technicians
Current Employment : 207,360
Projected Employment : 9%
Radiologic technologists conduct a variety of diagnostic imaging tests like X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans. They can specialize in sonography, mammography, cardiovascular radiography, or other specific techniques. These professionals' expertise can help physicians accurately diagnose and effectively treat different conditions. The aging population is expected to lead to an increased need for imaging and therefore more radiologic technologists.
Respiratory Therapists
Current Employment : 132,090
Projected Employment : 20.8%
Respiratory therapists care for patients with breathing challenges as a result of conditions like asthma or chronic respiratory disease. Since the middle aged and senior populations are increasing, there is likely to be a greater need for the treatment of respiratory conditions, making respiratory therapy a growing field.
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians
Current Employment : 110,650
Projected Employment : 19.3%
Although veterinary technologists and technicians do not go through as many years of education and training as veterinarians, they work just as closely with animals. Employment for veterinary technologists and technicians is on the rise as veterinarians continue to use these professionals to perform general care and lab work on household pets.
Web Developers and Digital Interface Designers
Current Employment : 148,340
Projected Employment : 13%
Web developers have the opportunity to design websites from start to finish and completely unleash their creativity. Many web developers work from the comfort of their own home and are constantly learning due to the ever-evolving field of technology. The increasing popularity for e-commerce and mobile devices make web development a fast-growing industry.

Highest-Paying Careers with an Associate Degree

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the occupations that typically require an associate degree — and that pay the highest wages nationwide.

Funeral Home Managers
Mean Annual : $95,220
90th Percentile : $161,870
Funeral service managers plan funerals and may work in funeral homes and crematories. Since the timing of funerals is unpredictable, these professionals are usually on call and work full-time. As a result of this demand, funeral service managers land some of the highest-paying jobs with an associate degree.
Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Mean Annual : $80,240
90th Percentile : $105,690
Nuclear medicine technologists use radiopharmaceuticals, which are radioactive materials to capture images of organs, analyze body functions, evaluate biological specimens, and treat disease. Due to the high specialization of this profession, nuclear medicine technologists are paid highly.
Radiation Therapists
Mean Annual : $91,620
90th Percentile : $128,630
Radiation therapists can save lives by treating cancer and other life-threatening diseases in patients. They administer a variety of radiation treatments and are usually a vital part of oncology teams. Because radiation therapy procedures are typically planned in advance, radiation therapists keep regular work schedules and get paid well.
Avionics Technicians
Mean Annual : $66,970
90th Percentile : $97,150
Avionics technicians perform maintenance and repairs on airplanes, helicopters, and spacecrafts. There are plenty of opportunities for career advancement for avionics technicians as they may become lead mechanics, lead inspectors, or shop supervisors. Workers in this profession often work overtime and on the weekends, factors that can contribute to the higher pay.
Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians
Mean Annual : $59,600
90th Percentile : $94,370
Cardiovascular technologists and technicians help physicians in the diagnosis and treatment of heart and blood vessel conditions. Since surgeons, physicians, and expert researchers and use and depend on these professionals, and because many are required to earn a certification, they are paid highly.
Computer Network Support Specialists
Mean Annual : $68,860
90th Percentile : $106,420
Computer network support specialists are considered IT professionals who offer assistance and advice to computer users and all types of organizations. They enjoy high pay because without their expertise, organizations may experience safety and security issues with their networks.
Electrical and Electronics Drafters
Mean Annual : $65,720
90th Percentile : $100,650
Electrical and electronics drafters generate accurate technical drawings, instruments, and information, which shows how equipment, devices, and parts are changed. Due to the fact that many industrial, corporate, residential, commercial, or power plant environments count on them to succeed, electrical and electronic drafters are paid highly.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists
Mean Annual : $74,270
90th Percentile : $101,580
Magnetic resonance imaging technologists specialize in MRIs, which are often used to help diagnose ailments. They have the skills necessary to properly position patients inside scanners that utilize powerful magnets rather than radiation. Since a license or certification is required for magnetic resonance imaging technologists, they earn a high wage.
Mechanical Drafters
Mean Annual : $60,500
90th Percentile : $92,010
Mechanical drafters produce detailed drawings and build models of mechanical parts and devices. Engineers, architects, and manufacturing companies depend on these skilled professionals to bring construction projects to life. Their critical function in creating highly specific plans translates into one of the highest-paying jobs with an associate degree.
Mechanical Engineering Technologists and Technicians
Mean Annual : $59,160
90th Percentile : $88,640
Engineering technicians are often called "problem solvers" because they are experts in handling technical issues by conducting experiments, gathering data, and calculating results. Regardless of their engineering specialty, the broad skill sets they use to solve all kinds of problems translates into one of the best jobs you can get with an associate degree — and one that comes with high pay.

What Comes After an Associate Degree

After an associate degree, students may choose to pursue a bachelor's degree and further their careers. For instance, a nurse with an associate degree may decide to earn a bachelor's of science in nursing so they could land a job at a magnet status hospital that only employs nurses with at least four-year degrees. In addition, some management positions in industries like accounting or technology require bachelor's degrees.

Instead of continuing their education to earn a bachelor's degree, some individuals with associate degrees such as those who are physical therapy assistants or occupational therapy assistants may earn a license. Licensing is a standard recognized by employers and clients and can allow associate degree graduates to pursue rewarding careers.

Browse Associate Programs by Subject features colleges and universities that offer online associate degree programs in the following disciplines:

AccountingArt & Design
Building Information ModelingBusiness Administration
EducationComputer Programming
Early Childhood DevelopmentCriminal Justice
Graphic DesignHealth Sciences
Hospitality ManagementParalegal & Legal Studies
Medical Administrative AssistantMedical Assistant
Medical Billing & CodingNursing
Criminal InvestigationTechnology & IT
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Article Sources


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  • How Employers View an Associate Degree, U.S. News,, accessed August 2018
  • Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics,
  • O*Net OnLine,, accessed August 2018
  • Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics,, accessed August 2018
  • Undergraduate Degree Fields, National Center for Education Statistics,, accessed August 2018
  • Unemployment rates and earnings by educational attainment, Current Population Survey, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,, accessed October 2018
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