Skip to main content

What is an Associate of Arts Degree?

An Associate of Arts or AA degree is a two-year undergraduate degree program requiring the completion of 60 credit hours. An AA offers a foundation of general education and career skills in areas like social sciences and liberal arts. You can also boost your earning potential while taking a great first step toward a bachelor's degree.
A woman sitting on a couch with her laptop working on her associate of arts degree

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

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?

Calliope Pappadakis with the text Calliope PappadakisAA degree programs are designed for students who have achieved a high school diploma or equivalent and want to advance in their current careers, start new careers or lay a foundation for their future education.

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.

While an associate degree is more affordable than a bachelor's degree, the cost can vary by university and a student’s transfer credits. Financial aid may be available for students working toward an associate degree.

“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 are Needed for an AA Degree?

Infographic with the text most associate programs are 60 credits or about 20 classes.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 is 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

infographic with the text AA in liberal arts topics of study may include: 1. Humanities and history 2. Social and behavioral sciences 3. Technology and mathIn 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

Infographic with the text AA in digital photography topics of study may include: 1. Media communication 2. Visual literacy 3. History of photographyWith 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:

  • History of photography
  • Media communication
  • Visual literacy

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 as a professional photographer 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 wonder about other associate degrees and if some are better than others.

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

An AA degree typically focuses on liberal arts education, 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:

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

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 2021, administrative assistants earned a median annual salary of $39,680, 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 2021 was $17.75 per hour – an annual wage of about $36,920 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 $59,440 in 2021, 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 $37,450 in 2021.
  • 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 other types of photography. According to BLS data, photographers earned a median wage of $19.85 per hour – or about $38,950 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 2021, preschool teachers earned a median salary of $30,210. [Note: some states may require licensure or other credentials for preschool teachers.]
  • 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 2021, social and human service assistants earned a median annual wage of $37,610, according to BLS data.

Is an Associate of Arts Degree Worth It?

An infographic with the text BLS reports those with an associate degree earned 19% more per week in 2021 than those with a high school diplomaIn 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 19% more per week in 2021 than workers with only a high school diploma. Associate degree holders also experienced lower unemployment rates, at 4.6% for associate degree holders compared to 6.2% for high school graduates without any college experience.

An infographic with the text BLS reports jobs requirung at least an associate degree are expected to rise 8.8% by 2031Jobs for associate degree holders are also growing. According to BLS data, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are expected to rise 8.8% from 2021-2031.

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 start 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.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU associate degree that can best help you meet your goals.

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

Explore more content like this article

Two colleagues sitting on an office couch, discussing how to improve communication skills at work.

6 Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills at Work

Financial success doesn't just come from knowledge or technical skills. Your ability to effectively communicate and lead might be even more vital. Whether you want to be in business, information technology or any other field, good communication skills can help you succeed.
Two people on a laptop researching if a communications degree is worth it with an icon of 3 outlined figures talking over a blue background

Is a Communication Degree Worth It?

In the realm of academic majors, communication is one that can cover a wide range of professional fields. From new media and public relations, to advertising and professional writing, to broadcast and other arenas, a degree in communication can launch careers along any number of professional paths.
A curator with a master's in history, gesturing to a sculpture of a head during a museum tour.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in History?

A master's in history allows you to deepen your knowledge of the people, places and events of the past and make meaningful connections to what's happening today. The skills you can gain through advanced study in history can help you open doors to jobs across public, private and nonprofit sectors.

About Southern New Hampshire University

Two students walking in front of Monadnock Hall

SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.