Earning an online associate degree prepares students for careers in many industries, including healthcare, business, and education. The curricula of online associate degree programs teach essential skills, preparing graduates for the workplace and providing a stepping stone to a four-year degree.
In this guide, readers can learn about different online associate degree options, potential career paths, and how to transfer to a four-year program.
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What Is an Associate Degree?
Many colleges offer online associate programs, which may feature fully online instruction or hybrid learning. On average, programs require about 60 credits and take about two years to complete.
While earning a fully online associate degree, students can take classes, complete coursework, and interact with professors and peers from their homes. An online degree offers plenty of flexibility, particularly for working professionals.
Online associate degree programs teach skills that professionals need in the workplace, such as critical thinking and communication. Many associate programs also offer specialized knowledge, preparing students for their chosen career path.
Types of Associate Degrees
Currently, most students pursuing an associate degree can choose from four different degree options: an associate of arts (AA), an associate of science (AS), an associate of applied science (AAS), and an associate of general studies (AGS). The definitions and distinctions of each of these degree types are outlined below.
true Associate of Arts The AA degree is awarded in fields related to the humanities and social sciences, including education, English, business, and art. AA degrees are designed for students who plan to eventually transfer into a bachelor’s program.
Associate of Science AS degrees are also aimed at students who plan to transfer into a bachelor’s program; however, depending on the field of study, they may also be suitable for learners who wish to enter the workforce without furthering their education beyond a two-year program. AS degrees are largely concentrated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
Associate of Applied Science The AAS degree is exclusively designed for students who plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. These degrees are not suitable for prospective transfer students. Associate in applied science degrees are often concentrated in technical or vocational fields, including automotive technology and medical billing and coding.
Associate of General Studies The AGS degree is ideal for students who do not know what field they would like to focus on. Most Associate in general studies students coordinate their classes with academic advisors to ensure their degree plan is practical and in line with the school’s educational standards.
What Can I Do With an Associate Degree?
Depending on the program type, an associate degree acts as a stepping stone to a four-year degree and/or prepares graduates to enter the workforce.
Many students choose to transfer their associate credits into a bachelor’s program. As such, an associate degree prepares graduates for different career paths and can lead to more advanced degrees.
However, many careers only require an associate degree. Associate programs teach students essential soft skills, such as those related to critical thinking and communication, which translate across industries. Graduates can begin careers in fields like healthcare, business, and information technology.
Most careers for associate degree-holders pay less than positions requiring a higher degree. However, professionals can seek advancement by upgrading their education and gaining work experience.
Careers That May Require an Associate Degree
Below, readers can learn about potential careers for associate degree-holders. While these positions typically only require an associates, readers should keep in mind that educational requirements for jobs vary depending on the location and employer.
Dental Hygienist Dental hygienists need an associate degree. These professionals work directly with patients, checking for signs of oral disease. Dental hygienists offer advice on oral healthcare, take X-rays, and apply sealants. They work under the supervision of a dentist.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 6% growth for this career between 2019 and 2029.
Web Developer Web developers only need an associates to find work. These professionals design and create websites, either as freelancers or as part of an IT department. Most web developers work in an office as part of a development team.
The BLS projects 8% growth for this career between 2019 and 2029.
Paralegal Paralegals assist lawyers in independent practices or law firms. These workers complete research, conduct interviews, and help lawyers prepare for trial. Many paralegals gain experience in a law firm before returning to school to become a lawyer.
The BLS projects 10% growth for this career between 2019 and 2029.
Electrical Engineer Technician These professionals help design and develop engineering equipment. Electrical engineer technicians typically work in manufacturing or engineering services. Most of these jobs take place indoors. Many electrical engineer technicians work as part of a team.
The BLS projects 2% growth for this career between 2019 and 2029.
Air Traffic Controller Air traffic controllers only require an associate degree, but they undergo extensive on-the-job training. These professionals oversee the movement of airplanes. Air traffic controllers often work in control towers at airports.
The BLS projects 1% growth for this career between 2019 and 2029.
Physical Therapy Assistant Physical therapy assistants help physical therapists create treatment plans for patients as they strengthen their bodies after injury or illness. These professionals work closely with patients of all ages and need excellent communication skills. Physical therapy assistants often work in hospitals.
The BLS projects 33% growth for this career between 2019 and 2029.
Who Should Apply for an Associate Degree?
Professionals looking to advance or switch their careers may be interested in earning an associate degree. Pursuing an online associate degree can help professionals learn new skills and prepare for a new career path.
Students deciding whether they want to earn a bachelor’s should consider earning an associate degree first. It can greatly prepare students for a bachelor’s program, but also offer marketable skills if they decide to enter the workforce after two years of school.
Below, readers can find information about career starters, career switchers, and career accelerators. People in each of these categories can use an online associate degree to advance their career goals.
true Career Starters Career starters are recent high school graduates entering college for the first time, as well as adult learners returning to college for additional education. Pursuing an associate degree can help career starters discover the right career. It can also put them on the path toward a bachelor’s degree.
Career Switcher A career switcher is usually a working professional interested in changing their career to another field or industry. Earning an associate degree helps career switchers learn new skills and techniques, preparing them to meet new professional challenges.
Career Accelerators Career accelerators are generally working professionals — possibly with previous college experience — looking to advance in their current career. Associates degrees may help career accelerators learn new skills, understand emerging technologies, and meet educational requirements set by their employers. Earning a degree may also lead to a pay raise.
Applying to an Online Associate Program
Colleges and universities maintain different application processes. To complete all the necessary steps and ensure good odds of gaining admission, prospective students should spend several months preparing. This section provides important advice about collecting application materials and submitting required forms ahead of deadlines.
Guidelines for High School Juniors and Seniors
Standardized Tests Many community colleges, vocational schools, and technical colleges offer open enrollment, which means that any applicant will be admitted as long as they hold a high school or GED diploma.
However, some online associate degree programs also require students to submit standardized test scores. Test scores may also be required for certain degrees, such as nursing and education, and transfer programs aimed at future bachelor’s students.
In the U.S., high school juniors and seniors often take the SAT and/or ACT.
The SAT features multiple-choice sections in math and reading comprehension. Currently, the maximum SAT score is 2400.
The ACT is slightly different. This test features four required sections: reading, English, math, and scientific reasoning. The ACT also includes an optional essay. Each required section is graded on a scale of 1-36 points. The four scores combine to yield an aggregate score. The optional essay is graded separately on a 12-point scale.
These exams are comparable with one another. However, certain schools may accept one but not the other, so students must make sure they submit the correct scores to each school on their list.
If applying to a diverse pool of schools, students may want to consider sitting for both exams during their junior or senior years. To meet most application deadlines, students should make sure to sit for the SAT and/or ACT prior to January of their senior year of high school.
Application Strategy Regardless of their grades and academic achievements, high school students should err on the side of caution and apply to more than one school.
All schools fall into one of three categories. Safety schools are institutions that are incredibly likely to accept you based on your credentials, but may not be your first choice as an academic destination. Target schools represent institutions that will most likely accept you; these are also institutions you would like to attend.
Finally, reach schools, while less likely to grant you admission, are well-renowned institutions with reputable programs in your desired area of study.
PrepScholar suggests submitting applications to 2-3 target schools, 2-3 reach schools, and two safety schools. Keep in mind that submitting college applications typically costs $30-$90 per school.
Guidelines for Career Switchers and Accelerators
Flexibility Compare schools based on the required time commitment for students. Most programs accept full-time and part-time learners, although some may not. An asynchronous program may appeal to students who are currently employed, such as career accelerators and changers. However, synchronous programs generally feature a more interactive learning experience, allowing students to network and collaborate more often with their peers.
Transfer Credit Opportunities All credits earned at regionally accredited colleges and universities should be transferable to other accredited institutions, although some schools do not accept credits from nationally accredited institutions. As a result, students should ensure credit transferability from all the schools on their list, especially if they intend to go on and pursue a bachelor’s degree.
In some cases, students can qualify for course credits without needing to complete a class. This is known as “experiential credit,” and it is widely available for students who have career and/or military experience related to certain academic fields. Experiential credit is more common in AS and AAS programs, but students should look into experiential opportunities for all programs.
Application Deadline Application deadlines can creep up on students who are not prepared. Some schools only accept applications and grant admission during certain months of the year. The deadline for enrolling in the fall term for these schools usually occurs between January and March.
Other schools accept applications on a rolling basis and enroll new students throughout the year. Most applicants to these schools receive a response within 4-6 weeks.
Technology Requirements Meeting technical requirements is crucial for online students. A reliable computer and high-speed internet connection are essential. Certain programs may also require specific applications and computer programs.
Students who are unsure if they meet technology requirements should reach out to the school’s online programs division for more information.
Requirements To Apply to an Online Associate Program
Letters of recommendation should come from former teachers, employers, coaches, youth leaders, and/or other authoritative figures with knowledge of a student’s academic and extracurricular achievements. However, applicants should not seek letters of recommendation from family members or friends whom they have not worked with in the past.
Obtaining letters may take some time, so applicants should give each recommender at least six weeks notice before they plan to mail their application. Follow up with anyone who appears to be delaying the process.
A resume is a comprehensive summary of an applicant’s employment history, academic achievements, and volunteer experience. Recent high school graduates should include all past jobs. If they haven’t held an official job before, then they should provide details about volunteer work, school leadership projects, and other similar experiences.
For career accelerators and changers who have been out of high school for several years, a resume should focus primarily on work experience and professional recognition.
College applications vary in terms of personal statement and essay requirements. In some cases, applicants must write a summary of their academic and professional goals as they relate to that particular program. Other applications ask students to write an essay in response to a given prompt.
Most accredited public and private colleges and universities ask applicants to provide official high school transcripts that include all course grades and the student’s cumulative GPA. Be careful when requesting transcripts because unofficial transcripts are also widely available, even though they are not deemed acceptable by most admissions departments.
Some community colleges ask students to sit for English and math placement exams to determine their academic aptitude and which courses they should enroll in first.
How To Choose an Online Associate Degree
Readers should consider several factors when choosing an online associate program, including program type, cost, and career opportunities after graduation.
Many colleges offer online and in-person programs. Students should determine how much flexibility they need in their schedule. Working students might prefer an online program, whereas full-time students may prefer fully in-person instruction.
Students looking for an in-person program should also consider their proximity to their chosen school and their plans for attending classes.
In some cases, online programs cost less than on-campus programs. Potential students should look into whether they qualify for in-state tuition.
Students should also think about how their degree will enhance their employment opportunities. Some schools may feature specializations or classes that better align with a student’s academic and career goals.
Associate Program Formats
In addition to considering potential majors, aspiring students should also think about their preferred delivery format. Colleges offer many different options for students beyond in-person learning. Below, readers can learn more about various delivery methods, including evening/weekend classes, hybrid/blended courses, and fully online classes.
true On-Campus and Full-Time Classes An on-campus, full-time associate program requires students to attend classes in person for the duration of their program. This format gives students face-to-face time with instructors and peers, which can improve collaborative efforts and facilitate discussion.
This kind of program does not offer a lot of flexibility or as much time for other pursuits, including a full-time job. Students who choose this option should be prepared to focus almost exclusively on their studies.
Evening/Weekend Classes Evening/weekend classes can take place either online or in person. Students typically attend courses at a set time during the evening or over the weekend throughout the semester. Most evening/weekend schedules feature fewer credits per semester than full-time, in-person programs. As a result, students in these programs may complete their degree at a slower rate than they would in a full-time program.
Hybrid/Blended Classes A hybrid or blended program combines in-person learning with online courses. Students take some classes fully online, but they must attend some classes on campus. A hybrid program offers more flexibility than a fully in-person program, but it also requires the ability to get to campus regularly and attend courses at a set time each week.
Online Classes Online programs may offer synchronous and/or asynchronous learning, meaning students can choose to learn on a fixed schedule or a more flexible schedule. Fully online programs do not require any time spent on campus. All learning takes place virtually, as students meet with instructors and peers through online learning platforms.
Discover the Best Online Associate Programs
Below, readers can discover information about common online associate programs. This section describes potential courses and typical career paths for graduates.
Students in an online associate in computer science program take classes like introduction to computer applications, computer networks, and program essentials. This program teaches foundational skills in tech applications and software design.
Graduates can pursue careers like data entry clerk and IT specialist.
This online program explores business fundamentals and teaches organization and analytical thinking. Students take courses in desktop publishing, database concepts and applications, and word processing.
Almost every industry offers positions for administrative assistants. Graduates can find work in fields like business and healthcare.
This degree combines basic business skills, such as organization and communication, with fundamental accounting knowledge. Students take classes in areas like statistics and budget analysis.
Graduates with an online associate degree in accounting can pursue careers as management analysts, accountants, and auditors.
An online associate degree in criminal justice prepares graduates for careers as corrections officers, law enforcement officers, and forensic science specialists.
Students learn about the U.S. criminal justice system and how to process evidence. Required courses include quantitative methods in criminal justice and criminal justice ethics.
Graduates with an online associate degree in medical assistance can begin careers as medical laboratory technicians, medical office administrators, medical billing and coding specialists, and certified medical assistants.
Students in this program learn about healthcare technology and maintaining patient records. Some programs prepare students for professional certification after graduation.
An online associate degree in computer programming teaches students the basics of programming languages and software development. Students learn how to build and manage computer systems and develop critical IT support skills.
Graduates can begin careers as computer programmers, web developers, network administrators, and software developers.
How Long Does It Take To Get an Associate Degree Online?
On average, a full-time student can earn an online associate degree in two years. Most associate programs include 60 required credits.
Many colleges accept transfer credits from other schools and award credits for relevant work experience. Students with transfer credit can complete their online degree more quickly. Readers should research individual transfer credit policies for different colleges.
Enrollment status can also affect the length of a program. Part-time students need additional months or even years to earn their degree.
How Much Does an Online Associate Degree Cost?
Tuition costs vary depending on many factors, including the type of school, a student’s residency status, and the school’s location. Most public schools charge lower tuition rates than private schools, especially if a student qualifies for in-state tuition. Likewise, many two-year and community colleges offer lower tuition rates than four-year universities.
During the school year, public two-year institutions charged an average of $10,950 for tuition, room, and board. In the same year, private two-year institutions charged an average of $28,630. Four-year public institutions charged an average of $20,600, while private four-year institutions charged $44,630.
Readers should keep in mind that some online associate degrees may cost less than those offered by in-person programs. Financial aid, scholarships, and grants can further defray tuition costs.
Average Cost of Attendance Type of School Average Total Cost of Attendance Public Institutions $24,900 Private Nonprofit $51,900 Private For-Profit $33,200 Source: NCES
Online students can find many financial aid options to help cover tuition costs. The federal government and many colleges offer tuition assistance to low-income students. Readers can also look into student loans, scholarships, and grants.
Many students use student loans to cover tuition costs. However, readers should keep in mind that they must repay their loans after graduation.
Scholarships and grants offer financial aid that students do not need to repay after graduation. This form of tuition aid can come from the government, schools, and independent agencies. Most organizations award scholarships based on academic merit, evaluating factors like GPA. Grants typically consider candidates based on need alone.
Readers can contact the financial aid department of their school to learn more about college-specific tuition assistance.
Transferring to a Four-Year Program
While some graduates enter the workforce immediately after earning their associate degree, others transfer into a four-year program. Most associate programs help students transfer into a bachelor’s program within their college or at a new university.
In many cases, colleges allow students to apply all 60 credits of their associate degree toward their new bachelor’s program. However, readers should always research credit transfer policies, particularly between different universities.
Associate programs usually cover many of the general education requirements found in a bachelor’s program, allowing students to dive into more advanced classes related to their major. Associate degree-holders can often earn a bachelor’s degree after two more years of study.
While many students pursue a bachelor’s degree in the same area as their associates, some students choose a new major when they enroll in a four-year program. Readers should note that colleges may accept fewer transfer credits if students are switching majors.