Written by Ashley Murphy

Are you interested in higher education but not particularly thrilled about the prospect of spending three to four years at uni? Are you worried about stacking up some pretty hefty student debt? Or are just keen to get out into the 'real world' as quickly as possible? Or maybe you've looked at the bachelor’s options, but there's nothing to cater for your unique area of interest? If so, an associate degree might be the perfect option. You will graduate up to a year sooner while still having the opportunity to transfer onto a bachelor’s programs if you catch the college bug. And with a wide range of courses to choose from, you'll definitely find something to match your interests and goals. So here's everything else you need to know about associate degrees.

What is an associate degree? 

An associate degree is an undergraduate course of study that lasts for two years, although some programs require an extra 12 months to complete. They are especially popular in the USA, where they work as a kind of bridging qualification between a high school diploma and a bachelor degree. Students moving on to a BA or a BSc after their associate degree can transfer straight into the third or fourth year and still graduate with full honors.

The University of Durham in northeast England was the first university to award an associate degree way back in 1870, but these programs are no longer available in any UK academies. They are still, however, widely available in Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong, as well as several European countries including the Netherlands, Norway, and the Republic of Ireland.

Are there different types of associate degrees? 

'Associate degree' is a broad term that covers a range of different specific degrees, which are usually grouped together by their subjects. For example, and much like three-year bachelor programs, the arts and the sciences come under separate awards. Anyone opting to study English, art foundation, or more creative subjects will find themselves on the associate of arts (AA) side, while budding engineers and tech innovators will graduate with an associate of science (AS) degree. But it doesn't stop there. One of the best things about associate degrees is the way many of them are tailored to specific jobs or industries. These include an associate of forestry (AF), an associate of applied arts (AAA), an associate of arts in teaching (AAT) and associate of occupational health studies (AOS).

What subjects can I study? 

Most associate degrees are awarded in business, health, engineering, information technology, and early childhood education, while other students opt for courses in more specialized areas like forestry, electronics, and applied design. In other words, whatever your interests, or whatever door you are trying to squeeze into, an associate degree is a great place to start your journey. 

Do I have to do a bachelor’s degree after an associate degree? 

You can always go on to a bachelor’s program, but there's a good chance you won't need to! Many professions, especially in the healthcare sector, only require a two-year associate degree. This is excellent news for anyone who wants to begin a 'real-world' career as quickly as possible. And less time at college mean fewer chances to accumulate extra student debt, as well as more time to earn some professional wages and gain some all-important practical experience. Plus, after a few years as a full-time member of the workforce, you can return to your studies to help expand your current skill set or begin a completely different career path. 

What do employers think about an associate degree? 

Views on associate degrees vary from employer to employer, and your decision to start a program should always consider the industry or industries you want to work in the future. As mentioned, an associate degree can be the perfect qualification for a career in the community healthcare industry, namely in areas such as outpatient drug and alcohol abuse treatment, child services, and many nursing jobs. Showing up to an interview with an associate degree shows employers you've done your research and that you already have a theoretical (and sometimes even a little practical) understanding of the role. 

It's important to note many community colleges run associate programs. Unfortunately, and despite much of the excellent work they do, community colleges still carry a certain stigma, to a degree. This shouldn't deter you from applying (it's certainly no slight on the majority of excellent community schools), but make sure you understand what any future employer or admissions officers are looking for before making a two-year commitment. 

Secure a remote role with an associate degree

The world of work is changing. New technologies, faster connections, and emerging global markets that service customers 24/7 have created new and exciting opportunities for anyone looking for an alternative to the 9-5 life. More and more companies are looking for flexible, dynamic, and tech-savvy self-starters who can work from anywhere at any time. And while the freelance life comes with a few risks, such as reduced job security and less employee protection, it offers things that are much rarer in traditional business environments, including the freedom to set your own hours and work in the style that suits you. For many people, this liberating approach to work inspires them to reach their full potential. For others, freelance remote working is the perfect way to balance professional commitments with personal responsibilities or interests, like raising a family or pursuing some artistic ambitions.

But whatever attracts you to the freelance lifestyle, there are loads of potential career paths for graduates with a two-year associate degree. You can find well-paid work in future proof jobs in IT and computing, as well as accounting and finance roles. More and more mortgage underwriters are working from remote locations on a self-employed basis. And you certainly will not be sacrificing your earning potential. Remote mortgage and insurance advisers can earn over $60K a year. That's not bad considering you can do much of your work sitting on your sofa while wearing your favorite PJs!

There's also a rising demand for remote admin jobs, and graduates with an associate degree are in a prime position to snap up a role as an enrollment application specialist, a virtual office assistant or manager, and order processing and communication jobs. Again, many people make very lucrative salaries from this kind of work -- remote medical billers earn just under $40k a year. For others, remote admin work is another flexible option that provides financial security along with a sense of personal independence. 

Some real-world examples

31-year-old Ian Nancarrow earned his associate degree in interactive media while simultaneously working three jobs -  package delivery, fast food service, and remote beta-testing of electronic products. And now all that hard work is finally paying off! With his associate degree and will-do attitude, Ian secured an account support associate role for EY, a professional services firm. Ian now puts his programming skills to good use to write algorithms to monitor the company's compliance procedures. 

In Philadelphia, 16-year-old Donald Pressley Jr. is well on track to graduate with an associate degree in 2021 thanks to an innovative new program at Parkway Center City Middle College. Along with his classmates, Donald is taking part in Philadelphia's first combined high school and community college initiative, which means every young person will graduate with a degree. This sets them up to apply for professional jobs right out of school or to pursue their academic interests even further. And it's estimated to save families and students between $50,000 to $100,000 in college fees and costs. William R. Hite Jr. is the school superintendent. He said, "These students are far ahead of the pack."

An associate degree is an extremely valuable qualification that can open up many doors. You'll save money on tuition fees and study costs, and because they only take two years to complete, you can start earning a whole 12 months sooner than students who opted for a bachelor’s degree. So never look down on the idea of enrolling in an associate program -- it could be the start of a successful professional or academic career that takes you right to the very top! 

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