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Associate & Bachelor's Degrees: Key Differences

Last updated October 30, 2023

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 types of degrees you can receive. All undergraduate college students typically receive either their associate or bachelor’s degrees when they graduate. But what are those degrees and how do they differ? We’ll break down the difference 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?

Associate degrees are undergraduate degrees that are a level above high school diplomas or GEDs and a level below bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor’s degrees are undergraduate degrees that are a level above associate degrees.

Types of associate and bachelor’s degrees

While the types of associate degrees offered will vary from college to 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 from college to 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 and bachelor’s degrees: 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 to students. 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 by state and institution.

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 more inexpensive 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. However, some community colleges now offer bachelor’s degree programs for a much lower cost than at four-year schools, so be sure to check in with your local community colleges to learn what options are available to you.

Here’s a breakdown of average college costs (including tuition, room and board, etc.) for the 2022-2023 school year:

  • Community college: $13,470 per year; $26,940 total (two years)
  • Four-year public college in-state: $23,250 per year; $93,000 total (four years)
  • Four-year public college out-of-state: $40,550 per year; $162,220 total (four years)
  • Four-year private college: $53,430 per year; $213,720 total (four years)

Source: The 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 to students to help them lower the cost of college - in federal aid, scholarships, grants, loans, and more.

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 associate and bachelor’s degrees, 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, you must first attend cosmetology school (a kind of trade school or trade program offered at 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.

Two people sit next to each other in a workspace. One works on a desktop computer, while the other works on a laptop - Associate & Bachelor's Degrees: Key Differences

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!

As you begin to weigh your college options and form a plan that works best for you, remember that you are not alone on your journey! We’re here to answer any questions and support you as you make your choice. Click here to text with one of our college advisors!

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