If you are thinking about earning an associate degree instead of a baccalaureate, you should know the differences between the A.A., the A.S. and the A.A.S. Associate degrees vary according to their intended use and their focus. They are usually offered at community colleges or online, and can lead to further study, or directly to an occupation. Your choice of degree may differ if you’re thinking about pursuing a full bachelor’s degree or are focused on getting into the workforce as quickly. Some degrees are highly technical and offer real-world skills, and other degrees are focused more on theoretical learning and the subjects you might study at a four-year college. There is no wrong answer to the question, “which associate degree should I pursue,” but you may find it beneficial to learn about the differences in these degrees, so you can best prepare yourself for your future education and career.
The Associate of Science and the Associate of Arts
Both of these degree programs are intended to lead to further study. Because of that, the courses you will take in either degree usually interface with courses required in four-year programs. That means you can transfer into a baccalaureate degree at the junior level upon completion of the associate degree program. Both programs contain 60 credits, or 20 courses. They have three elements: a general education component, courses in your major and electives. They can also offer internships at an earlier stage than the typical bachelor’s program. These programs are becoming more popular with high school graduates for several reasons. You will learn how to study in a college atmosphere and manage your time. You will also have smaller classes and your transition from high school will be easier. The top reason many parents say they are enrolling their kids in associate degree programs, though, is that they save money. The programs, offered in community colleges or online, are less expensive than those in universities. In fact, a student who earns the associate degree and then transfers to a four-year program can save $20,000 in tuition and other costs. Those are the similarities in the two degrees. The difference is in the focus of the programs. Associate of science degrees usually have a scientific or math focus while the associate of arts programs teach courses found in culinary schools, design or preforming arts and in human services degrees.
A phrase that is commonly used to describe AS and AA degrees is “liberal arts,” which isn’t a reference to a part of the political spectrum but a reference to the interdisciplinary nature of the Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degree. Liberal arts is a style of education where students are required to take classes in areas that might not be directly related to their major.
For example, a chemistry major in an AS degree program might have to take a class in English and another in history. Similarly, an English major in an AA program might need to complete a basic mathematics class even though they might not need to know much about math for their future writing career.
This interdisciplinary focus within an AS or AA degree program is different from the standard curriculum of an AAA or AAS degree because the latter are usually more laser-focused with their curriculum requirements. While a student in an AS or AA degree program will get all their general curriculum classes “out of the way” before they enter their bachelor’s degree program, the typical AAA or AAS student will earn a degree with a narrower range of classes that directly support their major.
The Associate of Applied Science
This is the associate degree you would earn if you want to go directly into a job after graduation. Like the other degrees, these are 60-credit programs. They do not emphasize the general education courses, however. They are intended to be no-frills pathways to a career. They teach specific skills and knowledge. There is also an associate of applied arts degree that leads directly to an assistant or entry-level position in design, human services and other arts and humanities fields. While the A.A.S. degree is sometimes devalued by educators, it can lead to lucrative jobs. Most graduates earn twice what they would have made with only a high school diploma. The BLS lists these surprising median wages for people with an associate degree level:
• Mechanical drafter, $50,360
• Cardiovascular technician, $52,070
• Physical therapist assistant, $52,160
• Radiology technician, $54,620
• Respiratory therapist, $55,870
• Registered nurse, $65,470
• Dental hygienist, $70,210
These careers are mainly in the high-demand medical field, but there are many other jobs that pay well after earning an associate of applied science or associate of applied art. Air traffic controllers, for instance, can earn $122, 530 with experience.
One of the differences you may see in an AS vs AAS program is the number of credits for different classes. Associate of Applied Arts and Associate of Applied Science degrees often have classes known as “laboratory” classes, and they usually require a weekly commitment of classroom time, laboratory time, and home study. They will usually reward four credits at the end of the semester rather than the traditional three credits earned from non-laboratory classes.
The reason AAA and AAS degrees have laboratory classes is that they’re often styled as workforce-ready degrees where you engage in hands-on learning. The skills you learn in a laboratory class will often translate completely into the actual work you might do when you finish your degree, exit college, and begin your career. Degrees in chemistry, biology, and computer science often require laboratory classes that are four or five credits each.
An example of the first-semester curriculum of an Associate of Applied Science in Chemistry degree could include the following classes.
- Chemistry I
- First-Year Composition
- Physics I
The chemistry class might require laboratory time and reward four credits at the end of the semester, but the First-Year Composition might only require three credits as a non-laboratory class. In all, the semester in an AAS or AAA degree plan might require enrollment in a total of 15 or 16 credits, while a similar semester for a standard AS degree might only require 12 or 13 credits and no laboratory work.
Some AA and AS degrees do require laboratory classes, but they’re generally more common for the curriculums of AAA and AAS degrees. Sometimes, you might take a three-credit class as a standalone course in an AS degree program, while students in an AAS program in the same topic of study would be required to add a one-credit laboratory class to their curriculum.
Cost of an Associate Degree
An associate degree program at a community college can cost less than $10,000. Online programs may cost more because they require more credits, and their tuition is based on credit hours taken. One program, with a requisite 90 credit hours, costs more than $35,000. If you intend to pursue an associate degree, cost is important, but so is accreditation. Employers are increasingly willing to hire applicants with associate degrees, but are paying attention to where the degree was earned.
How to Choose Your Degree Path After You Start College
There are a lot of decisions to make when you enter college, and your degree path is one of them. You might understand the difference between an AS vs AAS, but you might not be able to make a decision on one or the other. The good news is that you can actually enroll in college and change your degree after a semester. For example, you might enter college in an Associate of Science in Biology program but decide that you want to pursue an Associate of Applied Science in Biology program.
If you want the freedom to change your degree plan, the easiest way to make sure you don’t have to take any extra classes is to find the classes that the two degrees have in common and enroll in those classes at the start. For example, if Biology I is a requirement of both degrees, you can enter your first semester with that class on your schedule and switch your degree plan at the end of the semester if you wish without the need to take an extra class that is required for one degree but not the other.
You may find it helpful to meet with one of your college’s student advisors or a counselor at your high school to talk about your degree choices before you graduate from high school. Your advisor or counselor may have some helpful advice for you based on your future career goals and the major you want to pursue. They can guide you toward enrollment at a community college, assist with degree choice, and they can also help you enroll in the best high school classes that will help you get accepted to college.
Is There a Difference in Cost Between an AS and an AAS. Degree?
The cost of an education is one of the primary factors for many future students. Enrolling in a bachelor’s degree immediately after exiting high school is an exciting step, but it might not be the most economical decision a new college student can make. One of the benefits of the average associate degree program is that it can help a student earn half of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree at a lower tuition rate at a community college than what might be required at a traditional university.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost for a year of study at a public university or public four-year college was $20,598 for the 2018 to 2019 school year. The cost for a year of study at a public community college was $10,950. Enrolling in an AS or AA degree program at a community college might be the best way to save money on a bachelor’s degree because the first few years of study would cost an average of half of what a four-year college might cost.
Anyone interested in earning their degree in just two years and being ready to begin a career would probably do best in an AAA or AAS program, while anyone interested in saving money on a bachelor’s degree might want to start with an AS or AA program. Many of the classes in an AS or AA program are designed to transfer to nearby universities.
In fact, many community colleges have partnerships with four-year colleges in the same state where transfers are all but guaranteed for graduates who earn an AS or AA degree with passing grades. In either case, whether a student enters an AS or an AAS program, the end result will cost less than a bachelor’s degree earned wholly within a four-year university environment.
Associates Degrees for Older Adults
According to an article from U.S. News & World Report, the average age of a college student today is more than 25-years-old, which means many students enter the workforce immediately after exiting high school or even before they graduate. The good news for older adults is that the associate degree offers an ideal way for older adults to transition to a new career or augment their current skills. An older adult might be a twentysomething who wants to return to school after working for a few years, or they might be someone in their fifties who is finally ready to follow their dreams and earn a degree in a fascinating subject.
Older adults who want to change their career and reenter the workforce a soon as possible may want to explore the benefits of the AAS or AAA degree, and others who want to earn an advanced degree or eventually complete a bachelor’s degree may want to enroll in an AS or AA program.
Your Future After an Associate’s Degree
Virtually everyone knows that a college degree can augment your future earnings, but how do you decide whether to enter the workforce or pursue a bachelor’s degree after you finish your associate program? One important distinction for some professions is the fact that an associate’s degree will usually qualify you for an entry-level job, but a bachelor’s degree may help you jump into your career at a higher level than you might experience with an associate’s degree.
A quick calculation may help you make a choice. Take a look at a bachelor’s degree program where you might continue your education. Will your future job pay enough to warrant the extra few years in school, or might you be better served by starting the job hunt immediately after you receive your associate’s degree? The answer may vary based on your industry, as well as your personal feelings about taking more classes.
You don’t have to earn a four-year degree to have a good career. Many exciting and well-paying jobs are available to people with the right skills and knowledge set. You can prepare for these positions by earning an associate degree. The two-year program may be just what you need whether you pursue an associate of science or associate of arts and transfer on to a four-year school, or get your associate of applied science or art and start your career immediately after graduation.
- Top 10 Online Associates Degrees
- 5 Fields of Study for those Wanting an Associate Degree
- 5 Great Jobs That Only Need an Associate Degree
- 5 High-Paying Jobs for Those with an Associate Degree
- 5 Popular Online Associate Degrees
- Are Online Associates Degrees Transferable to Traditional Universities?
- How Long Does it Take to Earn an Associate Degree Online?
- What Do Employers Think about an Associate’s Degree?
- What Kind of Job Can I Get With an Associate’s in Nursing?
- What Type of Job Can I Get with an Associate’s in IT?