How Long Does it Take to Get an Associate Degree?

While often referred to as a 2-year college degree, there are several factors that determine just how long it will take to get an associate degree. Choosing a program with liberal transfer policies can reduce how many credits you'll need to take, and exploring online options that offer more than two terms each academic year can help you finish faster.
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While an associate degree is often referred to as a 2-year college degree, that doesn’t mean it has to take you that long to graduate. By choosing a university that offers liberal transfer policies, flexible online options and shorter, more frequent semesters, you can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to earn an associate degree. Alternatively, if you need to take fewer classes during the year because of competing work or personal obligations, schools that provide that option can help you earn an associate degree on a timeline that aligns best with your life. 

Whether an online associate degree takes you more or less than 2 years to complete, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that earning this degree leads to higher earnings and lower unemployment.  In 2019, individuals with associate degrees earned a median weekly salary of $887, compared to high school graduates who earned $746. Only 2.7% of associate degree holders were unemployed in 2019 compared to high school graduates, who had a 3.7% unemployment rate.

What is an Associate Degree?

Simply stated, an associate degree requires that you earn 60 credits – half as many college credits as a bachelor’s degree. Not only is it a stepping stone toward a bachelor’s degree, but an associate degree gives you the latitude to either pursue general studies or narrow to a particular career field.  For example, graduates with an associate degree in information technology can apply for jobs such as computer user support specialists, who earned a median salary of $52,270 in 2019, according to the BLS. And, the credits you earn can usually be applied toward a bachelor's degree in information technology. If you aren’t sure what you want to major in, associate degrees can prepare you for entry level jobs, as well as fulfill the general education requirements in bachelor’s degree programs.

Associate Degree Credit Hours

Rather than measuring the time it will take to earn your associate degree by months or years, consider it instead in terms of credit hours. According to the U.S. Department of Education, most American colleges and universities award college credit by the semester hour. In order to receive an associate degree, you must earn at least 60 credits, which typically can be fulfilled by completing 20, 3-credit courses.

While many traditional American higher education institutions follow academic years that are divided into 2 equal semesters of 15 or 16 weeks, others are divided into quarters. And still others, including online universities, may offer up to 6 terms annually. The semester format of the institution you ultimately choose can greatly increase or decrease the number of classes you are able to take each year—thus shortening or lengthening the time it will take for you to earn your 60 credits. For example, universities that offer online courses might also offer you a greater number of opportunities to earn credits throughout the academic year.

How Long Does it Take to Earn an Associate Degree Online?

It's no longer unusual to pursue your associate degree online. In fact, the number of students who have taken online courses has grown over the past 14 consecutive years. Taking courses in an online format can allow you to manage work/life balance and the responsibilities of college courses more effectively, while still maintaining a steady academic pace. For example, at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), you can start new courses every eight weeks, which gives you the flexibility to take classes when it is convenient for you, said Arlenea O’Keefe, an SNHU academic advisor.

Arlenea O'Keefe and the text 'Arlenea O'Keefe'“A student who is taking 2 classes per term and who doesn’t repeat any classes or take any terms off can complete her associate degree in a little more than a year and a half (one year, eight months),” she said. “Without taking summers off and without paying for on campus activities, students can save both time and money.”

Many online programs also accept transfer college credits from other on campus or online institutions. This is particularly helpful if you had to pause your education years ago.

“You could transfer up to 45 credits (equivalent to 15 classes) and still earn your associate degree as long as you complete 15 credits (five classes) and 9 credits (three classes) in your major here,"  O’Keefe said.

There are still other ways to obtain credit and reduce the time it takes to graduate if you haven’t completed any college courses. Criminal justice majors, for example, are often able to receive credit for police academy training, O’Keefe said. You can also choose to take a College Level Equivalency Program (CLEP) exam in a particular subject area to test out of college courses, specifically certain prerequisites, and receive college credit for those classes.

The Bridge Toward a Bachelor’s Degree

Once you’ve earned your associate degree, you are considered a college graduate. While many consider their academic careers complete at this point, you may ultimately wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree.  If this is of interest to you, consider an associate degree program that allows you to seamlessly transfer the credits you've already earned toward your bachelor’s degree. Typically, credits earned in associate degree programs can be applied toward general education requirements.

“Students here may choose to pursue their associate degree in liberal arts to get their general education requirements out of the way for their bachelor’s degree,” said O’Keefe. “This is a great solution for a student who may not know which degree program to choose."

Whether you are looking for a degree that can prepare you for the workforce or to pave the way toward a bachelor’s degree, you can complete your associate degree at the pace you desire in many programs — often in less than 2 years.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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