Getting Started: Associate vs. Bachelor’s

When going off to college, whether right after high school or later on in life, some prospective students know what career they want to pursue, while others aren’t too sure, hoping to figure it out along the way. Whichever of these you might be, one of the first things to consider is what degree level you should go for: an associate or a bachelor’s.

Associate Degree

An associate degree is the lowest degree level you can earn after high school, in that it requires the lowest number of total credit hours — usually around 60. In most cases, an associate degree, whether earned from a traditional or online accredited university or college, can be earned in around two years if you attend full time, though program length may vary by institution. Many of the top online colleges offer accelerated associate degree programs that allow you to earn your degree in as little as one year, though you will be required to work at a faster-than-normal rate.

An associate degree is going to consist primarily of general education courses, along with foundational and introductory courses related to your chosen major, giving you a basic understanding of the subject. There is a wide range of majors you can choose from, such as business, nursing, and information technology. An associate degree may qualify you for numerous entry-level positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides a list of careers requiring an associate degree, which includes radiation therapist, mechanical engineering technician, dental hygienist, and registered nurse.

The advantage of earning an associate degree over a bachelor’s degree is that it will take less time to earn, and therefore could potentially cost less, since you will be signing up for fewer classes and taking fewer sessions in general. It will also allow students to enter the workforce sooner due to the shorter program completion time. This means if your career goal is in line with one where only an associate degree is required, you can earn your degree and start working right away. Then, if you decide later on to pursue a bachelor’s degree, you can do so and take fewer courses since you already have an associate degree, though this will depend on your school and program of choice.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is commonly referred to as a four-year degree, requiring, on average, around 120 credit hours. However, some programs, such as architecture and engineering, may require more credits to be completed and can take as long as five years. A large number of the top online universities in the USA are offering bachelor’s degrees, which can be earned without ever having to attend a physical campus. In fact, earning a bachelor’s degree from any one of the top accredited online universities will give you a thorough understanding of your chosen major, preparing you for a career, just as a degree from a traditional, campus-based college would.

In most cases, the first year or two of an online bachelor’s degree program will consist of general education courses, such as basic science, math, English, and history. The final two or three years of the program will consist of courses focusing on your major. A wide range of majors are available at the bachelor’s degree level. Many students will earn a bachelor’s degree and use it toward a graduate degree, since having a bachelor’s degree is often required for enrollment into a graduate program. Others will use their bachelor’s degree toward a career. A large number of positions are available for individuals holding a bachelor’s degree, such as these provided by the BLS, which includes careers as a zoologist, personal financial advisor, survey researcher, secondary school teacher, and several engineering positions.

The advantage of earning a bachelor’s degree over earning an associate-level one is that those with bachelor’s degrees tend to qualify for more career positions. In fact, those with a bachelor’s-level education also qualify for positions at the associate level, so earning a higher degree will typically make you a more marketable job candidate. Bachelor’s degree holders typically earn more than associate degree holders as well, as the BLS reports that bachelor’s degree graduates earned an average weekly salary of $1,053 in 2011, as opposed to the weekly $768 earned by associate degree graduates. In addition, bachelor’s degree holders enjoyed a lower unemployment rate at 4.9%, rather than the associate degree unemployment rate of 6.8%. However, overall, choosing between an associate and bachelor’s degree will depend on your career goals and availability of funds.

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