What is an Associate of Arts Degree?

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A woman sitting on a couch with her laptop working on her associate of arts degree

If you’re ready to start a new career or want to advance in your current field, gaining a broad-based education through an Associate of Arts program could help you reach your goals. But what is an Associate of Arts degree, and what can you do with one?

An Associate of Arts (AA) degree is one of the most common types of two-year degree programs. It offers a strong foundation of general education courses in subjects like writing, humanities and social science and also provides key career skills.

“The AA degree prepares students with skills that 21st-century employers seek in job candidates, like communication, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and technological literacy,” said Calliope Pappadakis, a general education instructor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Earning an AA degree can give you the boost you need to start an exciting career across many fields, including social services, business, retail and more. If you’re ready to kickstart your career, an Associate of Arts degree could help you reach your goals.

What is an Associate of Arts Degree Program Really Like?

AA degree programs are designed for students who want to advance in their current careers, start new careers or lay a foundation for their future education.

Calliope Pappadakis with the text Calliope Pappadakis

Because associate degrees are typically two-year programs, they can help you get the knowledge and skills you need to start your career faster than a bachelor’s degree program.

“The AA degree might be a better choice for someone who is not ready to commit to the four-year degree, even if they are considering it in their long-term goals,” said Pappadakis. “The AA degree helps you get your foot in the door, both professionally and educationally.”

How Many Credit Hours Do You Need for an AA Degree?

Associate degree programs typically require 60 total credits. Since an undergraduate course is usually worth three credits, a 60-credit degree program translates into 20 courses. These courses are traditionally completed over the span of two years.

So, what is an Associate of Arts degree program really going to take to complete? The actual number of courses required and the time it takes to finish an AA degree can vary significantly from student to student.

Because more students are balancing work and family obligations with their education, a growing number of online associate degree programs offer more flexibility to earn a degree at your own pace.

If you're working full-time while pursuing your degree, it may take you longer than two years to complete the program. While not typically required for AA degree programs, gaining real-world learning experience through internships may also add additional credit hours to your degree.

But while some students may take longer than two years to complete an AA program, others can earn their degree even faster. Because general education courses make up a large portion of the Associate of Arts program, students with past educational experience can often apply transfer credits toward their program requirements. Some degree programs may even offer credit for professional experience, said Pappadakis.

What Can You Study in an AA Degree Program?

A wide variety of Associate of Arts degree programs are available to help you reach your personal career goals. Two examples of AA degree programs include liberal arts and digital photography.

AA in Liberal Arts

In a liberal arts associate degree program, you can get the general education and career skills you need to seek entry-level jobs in business, social services, administration or management positions. You’ll get an introduction to arts and culture and begin to better understand your place in the world around you.

This broad-based degree program can help you gain valuable writing, computational and technical skills as you explore a variety of subject areas, including:

  • Humanities and history
  • Social and behavioral sciences
  • Technology and math

You can also gain important critical thinking and problem-solving skills as you learn to analyze issues from all angles, research solutions and communicate your findings to a variety of audiences.

AA in Digital Photography

With a digital photography associate degree, you can combine the benefits of a liberal arts education with essential technical and artistic photography skills.

Along with general education courses in writing, communication and social sciences, you can explore design theory, learn how to use light and color and gain key post-production editing skills to process digital images.

Other topics of study may include:

  • Media communication
  • Visual literacy
  • History of photography

If you dream of running your own photography studio, an Associate of Arts degree can also provide you with business knowledge to help you get your career up and running after graduation.

No matter what you choose to study in an AA degree program, you’ll have the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics and gain valuable skills through general education courses.

Associate of Arts degree programs also typically include several elective courses. This means you can tailor your degree to your particular interests and career goals and graduate with the knowledge and skills you need to seek your dream job.

Which is Better, an AA or an AS Degree?

If you’re considering an AA degree, you may be wondering about other associate degrees and if some are better than others.

There are two primary types of associate degrees available: an Associate of Arts (AA) and an Associate of Science (AS).

An AA degree typically focuses on liberal arts subjects, including social sciences, humanities, design and more. Developing career skills is a focus of AA degree programs, and students can go on to many entry-level positions in human services, communications and administrative roles.

An AS degree is also a two-year program. While there is still a focus on liberal arts subjects through general education courses, degree-specific courses typically focus on business, technology or practical sciences, depending on the specific program.

Deciding which type of associate degree is right for you is less about one program being better than the other and more about how they each prepare you to reach your personal and professional goals, said Pappadakis.

“The AA and AS are both valuable degrees as they strengthen students’ real-world skills and prepare students for both personal and professional success,” she said. “Both degrees offer students the opportunity to gain skills that are valuable in today’s workforce, and both prepare students for a new career or job advancement.”

It’s important to explore the types of jobs you can get with an associate degree and how they align with your professional goals to determine which program is right for you.

What is an Associate of Arts Degree Used For?

AA degrees provide a strong foundation of career skills that employers are looking for across many industries. Earning an associate degree could help boost your lifetime earnings and employment prospects.

“The AA degree is a stepping stone for students looking to grow in a career where their current employer requires some postsecondary education,” said Pappadakis.

Through the broad-based education of an AA program, you can develop skills such as:

  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Decision making
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

While the specific jobs you can get with an AA degree will vary depending on your particular area of study, these skills can help you stand out to employers and get a rewarding job across many industries.

What Jobs Can You Get With an Associate of Arts Degree?

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), possible jobs for AA degree holders include:

  • Administrative assistant: Manage business operations and keep an office running smoothly by assisting with paperwork, scheduling meetings and being the office's first point of contact. In 2020, administrative assistants earned a median annual salary of $40,990, according to BLS data.
  • Customer service representative: Help customers online, over the phone or in person by answering questions and responding to complaints about a business and its products or services. According to BLS, the median wage for customer service representatives in 2020 was $17.23 per hour – an annual wage of about $35,000 for full-time employees.
  • Food service manager: Oversee the daily operations of a bar, restaurant, hotel or cafeteria. If you've worked in the service industry before, management positions can help you advance your career. Food service managers earned a median annual wage of $56,590 in 2020, according to BLS data.
  • Information clerk: Perform clerical tasks such as preparing routine reports, bills, claims, payments or orders for an organization. Manage records for a business and provide information to company employees and customers. According to BLS, information clerks earned a median annual salary of $36,920 in 2020.
  • Social and human service assistant: Provide services to individuals and families, assist social workers and other human service professionals and connect clients with community services. In 2020, social and human service assistants earned a median annual wage of $35,960, according to BLS data.
  • Photographer: Use your technical expertise and creativity to produce, edit and preserve images that tell a story or record an event. Jobs are available in aerial photography, commercial photography, portrait photography, event photography and more. According to BLS data, photographers earned a median wage of $19.85 per hour – or about $41,288 annually for full-time workers.
  • Preschool teacher: Educate and care for children in preschools, daycare centers and other similar settings. Teach language, motor and social skills and provide for children's health and safety. In 2020, preschool teachers earned a median salary of $31,930. [Note: some states may require licensure or other credentials for preschool teachers.]

Is an Associate of Arts Degree Worth It?

In many fields, an associate degree is enough to get started in entry-level positions. If you already have professional experience in your chosen field, earning an AA degree may also be enough to pursue higher-level leadership positions and advance your career.

“More and more employers are requiring some form of postsecondary education, and in many cases, a two-year degree is sufficient and offers graduates an opportunity to advance in their career or launch into a new one,” said Pappadakis.

According to the BLS, associate degree holders earned about 20% more per week in 2020 than workers with only a high school diploma. Associate degree holders also experienced lower unemployment rates, at 7.1% for associate degree holders compared to 9% for high school graduates without any college experience.

Jobs for associate degree holders are also growing. According to BLS data, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are expected to rise 6.2% from 2019-2029.

An AA degree can also set you up for success in a four-year bachelor’s degree program, which can help you advance your education and career even further. 

“The AA degree can serve as a meaningful milestone to someone who is considering a bachelor’s degree, as it is the equivalent to the first two years of the four-year degree,” said Pappadakis.

What Bachelor’s Degree Can I Get With an Associate in Arts?

An AA degree is a great first step toward almost any bachelor’s degree. Because a large portion of the AA degree consists of general education courses, you’ll likely be able to transfer those credits to a bachelor’s degree program.

“Students can transfer quite easily into bachelor’s programs should they decide to in the future,” said Pappadakis.

Depending on the bachelor’s program you’re seeking, you may need to take some prerequisite classes before officially beginning to work toward your degree. But in most cases, you’ll be able to start your bachelor’s degree with your general education courses already completed. This means you can get started on your program courses faster and graduate with your four-year degree sooner.

And if you end up pausing your education before completing the four-year degree, you’ll still have your Associate of Arts credential to support your career. According to BLS data, people with an associate degree have better earning and professional potential than workers who have taken some college courses without completing any degree.

Why Earn an Associate of Arts Degree?

Now that you've explored the ins and outs of an AA degree, you may still be wondering if this educational path is right for you. So, what is an Associate of Arts degree really good for?

According to Pappadakis, there are many direct career benefits for students.

“Many jobs today require an associate degree, so for someone looking to join the workforce, the AA degree can increase their marketability and job candidacy,” said Pappadakis.

Perhaps you don’t need a four-year degree to advance your career in your chosen field. Or maybe you’re just not sure what your calling is and aren’t ready to commit to a four-year degree.

No matter your reasons for pursuing a two-year degree program, an AA degree is a credential that can open many doors.

“Students gain skills that are in high demand today, like communication, intercultural knowledge and skills that are part of lifelong learning and empower students to take control of their own learning and explore the world with curiosity and reflection,” said Pappadakis.

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

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