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
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:
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.
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.
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.
Weekly earnings for those who held associate degrees in 2017 were $836 compared to $712 for those who only held a high school diploma.
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.
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:
- Program prominence, based on how many associate degrees were awarded in 2016-17
- Ratio of undergraduate students participating fully or partially in distance education to total enrollment
- Average in-state tuition for undergraduates
- Retention rate
- Percent of undergraduate students awarded federal, state, local, institutional or other sources of grant aid
- Average amount of federal, state, local, institutional, or other sources of grant aid awarded to undergraduate students
- Number of programs that are offered at the associate degree level on campus
- Number of programs that are offered at the associate degree level via distance education
- The availability of any tuition plans
- Placement for Completers
|Ranking||School Name||In State Avg. Undergrad Tuition||% Receiving Financial Aid||Retention Rate||Career Counseling||Payment Plan|
|1||Holmes Community College||$2,600||91%||67%||Yes||Yes|
|2||San Joaquin Delta College||$1,288||76%||75%||Yes||No|
|3||Central Texas College||$3,390||66%||54%||Yes||Yes|
|4||Itawamba Community College||$2,900||97%||68%||Yes||Yes|
|5||Hinds Community College||$2,880||91%||65%||Yes||Yes|
|6||Fayetteville Technical Community College||$2,432||82%||55%||Yes||Yes|
|7||Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College||$3,100||93%||63%||Yes||Yes|
|8||Arizona Western College||$2,016||85%||66%||Yes||Yes|
|9||Northeast Mississippi Community College||$3,150||99%||68%||Yes||Yes|
|10||Ivy Tech Community College||$4,218||74%||51%||Yes||Yes|
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.
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.
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
WorldWideLearn.com features colleges and universities that offer online associate degree programs in the following disciplines:
- 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov
- Associate's Degree, Notre Dame College, accessed August 2018, https://www.notredamecollege.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/associate-degrees
- How Employers View an Associate Degree, U.S. News, https://www.usnews.com/education/articles/2014/08/04/how-employers-view-an-associate-degree, accessed August 2018
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- O*Net OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/, accessed August 2018
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/, accessed August 2018
- Undergraduate Degree Fields, National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cta.asp, accessed August 2018
- Unemployment rates and earnings by educational attainment, Current Population Survey, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm, accessed October 2018