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Associate Degree vs Bachelor’s Degree: 4 Key Differences

Last updated April 8, 2024

As you begin to explore your post-high school options and build your college list, you’ll learn a lot about the different types of colleges and the degrees you can receive through them. All undergraduate college students typically receive either their associate or bachelor’s degree when they graduate. But what are those degrees and how do they differ? We’ll break down four key differences between associate and bachelor’s degrees to help you understand your college options and make an informed decision about the type of college you want to attend!

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What is an associate degree? What is a bachelor’s degree?

An associate degree is an undergraduate degree that is a level above a high school diploma or GED and a level below a bachelor’s degree.

A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree that is a level above an associate degree.

Types of associate and bachelor’s degrees

While the types of associate degrees offered will vary by college, the three most common are: 

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

While the types of bachelor’s degrees offered will vary by college, the two most common are: 

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)

Different subjects and majors can fall under different types of degree categories depending on the school (e.g. a psychology degree might be a BA at one school but a BS at others), so be sure to check in with the schools you’re interested in to learn more.

Associate degree vs bachelor’s degree: 4 key differences

Types of colleges and time spent in school

Associate: Students typically receive their associate degree from a two-year college, also known as a community college. Most community colleges only offer associate degree programs. However, students can continue their education by transferring to a four-year college to receive their bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s: Students typically receive their bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. You can earn a bachelor’s degree at some community colleges, but the availability of these programs vary.

Credit requirements

Associate: Associate degrees are awarded to students who have completed anywhere from 60-90 credits, depending on the credit requirements and term structure (quarter or semester) of the college they attend.

Bachelor’s: Bachelor’s degrees are awarded to students who have completed anywhere from 120-180 credits, depending on the credit requirements and term structure (quarter or semester) of the college they attend.

Cost

In general, associate degrees are much less expensive to attain because the cost of tuition at community colleges is typically cheaper than at four-year colleges. Also, because an associate degree usually requires less credits than a bachelor’s degree, it may be a more affordable and efficient option over time. 

Here’s a breakdown of average college costs (including tuition, room and board, etc.) during the 2023-2024 school year:

  • Two-year public college: $13,960
  • Four-year public college in-state: $24,030
  • Four-year public college out-of-state: $41,920 
  • Four-year private college: $56,190

Source: College Board

While it may be overwhelming to read those numbers, don’t panic! They are a rough national average; different schools will cost different amounts. There are also millions of dollars available in financial aid for college students, like scholarships, grants, and loans, to help lower the cost.  

College is expensive, but don’t limit yourself or your academic options if you’re unsure of how to pay for school. We recommend talking to a trusted adult or educator to weigh your college and financial aid options and make a decision that will work best for you long-term.

Career prospects and average earnings

While there are many different career paths a student can take with both an associate and bachelor’s degree, certain professions may require certain types of degrees and certifications.

For example, many community colleges and trade schools offer specialized training to enter into professions such as carpentry, plumbing, cosmetology, and more. In order to start working in one of these professions, workers typically must have formal training and a degree (usually an associate) or certification in those specialized fields. If you want to become a cosmetologist, for example, you must first attend cosmetology school (a kind of trade school or a program offered through a community college), then receive your certification, associate degree, or license, and lastly, find work in your specialized skill.

On the other hand, other professions almost always require a bachelor’s degree. For example, if you want to become a college professor one day, you must first receive your bachelor’s degree so that you can continue on to receive your master’s degree and PhD (the degree usually required for this kind of profession).

Another important consideration is average earnings for both types of degree holders. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Education boosts earnings and reduces unemployment.” Bachelor’s degree holders typically have higher long-term earning potential than associate degree holders in the U.S; in 2021, they on average earned nearly $1,500 more dollars per month. That means at least $18,000 more per year!

Even with all of this in mind, it’s important to know that these processes and statistics are not one-size-fits-all. There may always be some flexibility to attain jobs or high earnings long-term. Just because you receive an associate degree doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to earn less than someone with a bachelor’s degree, or vice versa. When you search for jobs after receiving your degree, there can always be flexibility as long as you have the right skills and experience in the career paths that interest you.

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What’s next?

Regardless of the path you end up on in the future, it’s a good idea to take some time to consider these things now to help you make an informed decision about your college choice and career opportunities. Not sure where or how to start your journey? Explore here!

Have any questions about associate and bachelor's degrees? Text #College to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors. If you're using a mobile device, click here to have the text message set up for you!

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