Types of Associate Degrees

An associate degree is a college degree that generally requires 60 credits and usually falls into one of two categories, an Associate or Arts or Associate of Science. An associate degree can boost your earning potential and help you pursue a more advanced degree.
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A man studying for his associate degree and the text BLS expects an 11% increase in jobs requiring an associate degree by 2026*

Whether you’re seeking a new career or are going back to school after years in the workforce, understanding the types of associate degrees available is an important first step on your path to higher education.

Earning an associate degree can boost your earning potential, reduce your risk of unemployment and help you pursue a more advanced degree.

Meleena Eaton and the text Meleena Eaton.“For some students, they are right out of high school, while others are coming back to school after years in the workforce,” said Meleena Eaton, an associate dean of business at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “The shared commonality is that all students who enroll in an associate’s program do so because they see it as a benefit to their career path.”

Keep reading to learn more from SNHU educational leaders about the types of associate degrees available and the benefits of earning a 2-year degree.

How Many Years is an Associate Degree?

You might be surprised how quickly you can earn an associate degree. On average, associate degree programs can be completed in just two years, requiring 60 semester credits of study or about 20 college courses.

What is an Associate Degree?

The majority of associate degree programs fall into two categories – Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) – and can give you a strong foundation of knowledge in your area of study and improve your long-term employment and earning potential.

Associate degree holders earn 17.4% more than workers with only a high school degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Unemployment rates are 2.8% for individuals with an associate degree, compared to 4.1% for those with a high school diploma, according to BLS data.

There are associate degree programs across many fields of study, so it's important to explore your degree options and the careers they can prepare you for before enrolling.

What is an AA Degree?

An Associate of Arts degree can help you develop the soft skills employers seek, including communication, problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Tara Stabile and the text Tara Stabile.“Earning an AA degree can open the door to many professional opportunities and is also a great way to continue to prepare for transfer into a (bachelor's) program,” said Tara Stabile, associate dean of general education.

Core AA degree courses explore a wide range of disciplines and meet many of the general education requirements of most bachelor's degree programs. Many associate degree credits can also transfer directly to a bachelor's degree program, fast-tracking your ability to earn a four-year degree in almost any field of study.

AA in Liberal Arts

An associate degree in liberal arts is a good choice for anyone who wants to earn a college degree but is still determining their ideal career or educational path.

Priscilla Hobbs-Penn and the text Priscilla Hobbs-Penn.“A liberal arts associate degree would give students the opportunity to try out a few different flavors ... ," before choosing a major, said Priscilla Hobbs-Penn, an associate dean of general education.

A liberal arts education will let you explore everything from writing and public speaking to humanities and social sciences. By earning an associate of arts, jobs may be available in customer service, administration, retail and more.

Some of the careers that are possible with a liberal arts associate degree include:

  • Customer Service Representative: With a job as a customer service representative, you could work to support customer needs face-to-face, over the phone or online. Full-time customer service representatives earned a median salary of $33,758 in 2018, according to BLS. Customer service representative jobs are on the rise, especially in telephone call centers where employment is projected to increase 36% from 2016-2026, BLS data predicts.
  • Administrative Assistant: As an administrative assistant you could help manage the day-to-day work of an office. Administrative assistants earned a median salary of $38,880 in 2018, according to BLS data. Employment opportunities are available across many industries and are particularly booming in healthcare, where they're projected to grow 22% from 2016-2026, according to BLS.

AA in Digital Photography

An associate degree in digital photography offers an introduction to the technical skills of digital camera operation, lighting and post-production editing, and can prepare you for entry-level work as a professional photographer.

If you're interested in advancing your photography career, an associate degree can lay a strong foundation for a four-year degree that can advance your professional development skills like branding and social media.

Some of the careers that are possible with a digital photography associate degree include:

  • Portrait Photographer: As a portrait photographer, you could start your own photography business or work for a photography company, capturing everything from family photos to professional headshots. Portrait photographers earned an average salary of $35,726 in 2019, according to Glassdoor. Employment of self-employed photographers is projected to grow 12% from 2016 to 2026, with demand for portrait photographers remaining stable, according to BLS.
  • Aerial Photographer: As an aerial photographer, you can utilize drones and other technology to capture images of land, real estate, new construction projects and even special events. Aerial photographers earned an average salary of $35,726 in 2019, according to Glassdoor. The growth of drone technology may increase demand for aerial photographers over the next several years, according to BLS.

What is an AS Degree?

Mark Hobson and the text Mark Hobson.An Associate of Science degree is a 2-year degree typically focused on business, technology or social and practical sciences. By earning an associate of science, jobs may be available across a variety of industries, including marketing, business administration and information technology.

“An AS degree is a great starting point for those who want to work in a specific field, gain some necessary experience, and continue their education to improve employment longevity,” said Mark Hobson, an associate dean of business.

AS in Nursing

With an associate degree in nursing, you’ll gain the skills you need to get started in the in-demand nursing field and get a jumpstart toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to advance your career.

One of the careers that is possible with a nursing associate degree is as a registered nurse. RNs observe and assess patients’ symptoms, plan patient care and manage medical equipment, testing and medication. Registered nurse jobs are projected to grow by 15% between 2016-2026, with RNs earning a median salary of $71,730 in 2018, according to BLS data.

AS in Business

Whether you’re interested in an associate degree in business administration, associate degree in marketing, associate degree in accounting or even an associate degree in fashion merchandising, earning a 2-year degree is a great way to start or advance a business career.

“I think the biggest benefit is that it allows students to begin working in their field quicker, and getting the real-world experience that in marketing is so valuable,” said Eaton.

With an associate degree in business, jobs in marketing, sales or administration could be available, including:

  • Marketing Assistant: With a job as a marketing assistant, you could help support the efforts of a marketing department, including social media, advertising and content marketing. Marketing assistants earned an average salary of $42,419 in 2019, according to Glassdoor, and jobs in marketing are projected to grow 10% from 2016-2026, according to BLS data.
  • Sales Manager: As a sales manager you could oversee a department or organization's sales representatives. Sales managers earned a median annual wage of $124,220 in 2018, with employment opportunities projected to grow 7% between 2016-2026, according to BLS data.

AS in Information Technology

An associate degree in information technology (IT) is another great way to jumpstart a rewarding career with many opportunities for growth, especially as a tight labor market with low unemployment have made it harder for employers to find skilled IT workers.

Mark LePage and the text Mark LePage."These circumstances are providing opportunity for those with an IT associate degree and some experience to be considered for some positions that just a few years ago would have had a hard requirement for a bachelor's degree," said Mark LePage, senior associate dean of IT.

One of the careers that is possible with an information technology associate degree is work as a computer support specialist. In this role, you could work to maintain computer systems and networks and provide technical support to system users. Jobs for computer support specialists are projected to grow 11% between 2016-2026, earning workers a median salary of $62,770 in 2018, according to BLS.

Get Started with an Associate Degree

No matter what your career goals, earning an associate degree is a great way to get started with higher education and boost your long-term success in education and the workforce.

“In the current employment market, more students are seeking degrees and credentials on a faster pace to meet the needs of employers," said Hobson.

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, "Employment outlook for occupations requiring an associate’s degree, certificate, or some college," viewed online at https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2018/article/postsecondary-outlook.htm on June 14, 2019.


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