An associate degree is defined by the National Center for Education Statistics as an award that normally requires at least two but less than four years of full-time equivalent college work — or about 60 to 120 semester credit hours. Though for the many students who go the associate degree route to jumpstart their education or careers, another way to see it is as a stepping stone to a more advanced degree, or a fast-track to a technical job.
Courses in an associate degree generally consist of basic math, such as algebra and trigonometry; composition, such literature and writing; basic sciences like biology and chemistry; and humanities, including art and history. These courses are especially typical of what students looking to go on to earn their bachelor's degree — also known as a transfer degree track — would take. This degree would either be an Associate of Arts or an Associate of Science and would usually fulfill all of the general education requirements of a bachelor's degree, as long as it's from an accredited institution. For students who looking to enter the workforce upon graduation — or are on an occupational degree track — these degrees tend to be an Associate of Science degree and are tailored to teach certain technical skills so that when they graduate, students are prepared for entry-level work in their field. Common professions include nurse, medical assistant, dental hygienist, veterinary technician, or legal secretary.
Associate degrees can be earned through public community colleges, private two-year colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and technical institutions, either online, at a campus, or a combination of both. The availability of online courses will greatly depend on the specialty. Areas such as nursing, dentistry, and veterinary practices, for instance, are very hands-on and often require clinical training or work experience, so they wouldn't be available strictly through an online program. When students do take an online course, they can expect it to be of the same caliber and material as an on-campus course. They may even receive more personal attention in a two-year program, as opposed to a four-year, because class sizes are smaller in most associate degree programs, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also notes that students with an associate degree are more likely to complete bachelor's degree successfully.
Cost of an Online Associate Degree
The cost of an associate degree, online or otherwise, can vary depending on several factors, including the school, program, and region. Though according to CollegeBoard, the average yearly cost of two-year colleges is $2,963, including tuition and fees. Applicants also can get a general idea of program costs for two-year public, private for-profit, and private not-for-profit schools through the U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center. Online programs may not necessarily be cheaper than traditional, on-campus programs, though students will save on room and board fees, relocation costs, and any gas or other transportation costs that would otherwise have been spent on getting to class.
Most Popular Associate Degree Programs
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a little more than half of all associate degrees awarded in 2008-09 were in two broad areas — liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities, with 34%, and health professions and related clinical sciences, with 21%. Over the course of a 10-year period, psychology saw the largest increase in degrees awarded, jumping 143%, while engineering and engineering technologies dropped in degree earners by 8%.
An associate degree can open the door to any number of fields, whether it's through a technical school, or as a stepping stone to a bachelor's degree. The options are seemingly limitless, though on its own, associate degree earners can go into health care, liberal arts, social work, business administration, or even agriculture, depending on the specialization, of course. Additionally, an associate degree is the main source of training for a number of professions, including for computer support technicians, engineering technicians, funeral directors, and paralegals. Job prospects are promising, too; according to the BLS, occupations that require an associate degree are growing faster than occupations that require other types of training.
There also may be a monetary advantage to obtaining a two-year degree, as associate degree holders tend to make more money than those who only have a high school diploma. According to CollegeBoard, the median earnings of associate degree recipients working full-time year-round in 2008 was $42,000, compared to $33,800 for high school graduates. Exact pay for associate degree earners, however, will vary greatly by occupation. Some of the top-earning associate degree holder occupations, according to the most-recent figures from the BLS, from May 2010, include dental hygienists ($68,680 a year); nurses ($67,720); police officers ($55,620); and electricians ($51,810).
Evaluating Online Colleges
When you're looking into comparing online colleges, one thing to consider is the accreditation status of your school. Schools can choose to have their faculty, curricula, and degree requirements looked over by a private accrediting agency, which then evaluates the school's programs to determine if it meets the agency's minimum standards. If the school does meet these standards, then they are given accreditation. However, not all accrediting agencies are created equal, so be sure to look into whether or not the agency that accredited your school has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education as being reputable.
Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that accreditation is not the only way to tell if a school will offer high-quality degree programs. In fact, some faith-based schools and newer programs may not have any accreditation, but may still offer an excellent learning experience. So rather than relying on accreditation alone, do more research into the school, looking at things like the faculty's credentials, the experiences of graduates, and the school's overall reputation.