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What to do with an associate's degree

Female student taking online class on laptop

By Michael Feder

At a glance

  • An associate degree program generally takes about two years to complete.
  • Students may choose to join the workforce after completing an associate degree or transfer eligible credits to a bachelor’s degree program.
  • University of Phoenix offers associate degree programs in business, technology and criminal justice. 

When students plan their educational future, it can be daunting. From the time spent in class to the cost of the degree program itself, there are many factors to consider. For many students, a four-year bachelor’s degree program may be the best fit for their educational plan.

For others, however, an associate degree program at a community college can be a shorter and lower-cost first step in their educational journey. They might be looking to enter the workforce faster, or they might be planning to transfer their eligible credits to a bachelor’s degree program later on. These reasons (among others!) make an associate degree program a good fit for many.

What is an associate degree?

Speaking in terms of academic attainment, an associate degree is more advanced than a high school diploma or a GED® diploma and less advanced than a bachelor’s degree.

Associate degrees can generally be completed in two years. Some programs focus on general education, while others focus on specific areas of study, such as information technology. Many universities, public and private, in-person and online, offer associate degree programs.  

Most associate degree programs require about 60 credit hours, although some schools offer students the opportunity to have life and work experience evaluated to earn potential college credit, which can help shorten the length of the program.

Types of associate degrees

There are three main associate degrees:

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

Each type corresponds with a different area of study. An AA is likely to focus on the humanities, business and social sciences. An AS or AAS will generally involve something in the realm of STEM, such as computer science or mathematics. 

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Associate degree vs. bachelor's degree

Why do some students pursue an associate degree as opposed to a bachelor’s? There are several reasons. 

Cost and time

As noted earlier, an average bachelor’s degree program takes about four years to complete. An associate degree program may only take half as long.

Less time in school means fewer credit hours to pay for, which may better fit within a student’s budget. Additionally, an associate degree can be a helpful option for students looking to learn entry-level skills and get started working, perhaps to save up for a bachelor’s degree down the line. 

Opportunities to discover

A four-year bachelor’s degree program is a big academic commitment, especially once a student has committed to a major.

An associate degree, on the other hand, lets students invest just enough time to develop a useful understanding of a subject, minus the four-year commitment. This means a student can decide a subject is worthy of further study — or not — without the constraints of changing a major and potentially requiring additional time, credits and cost. 


The course load required by many associate degree programs is relatively light compared with bachelor’s degree programs. For a lot of students, time committed to a more intensive academic program is time taken away from family or work.

An associate degree program can provide college students a path to earning a degree even if they have less time to spend studying. Associate degrees are mainly comprised of general education credits. These credits allow for more options to satisfy prior learning assessments, national testing programs and other means to save time toward earning a degree. 

How can an associate degree pave the way for a bachelor's degree?

While many students pursue associate degrees for their own sake, others see an associate degree as a step toward a more advanced degree. How can an associate degree prepare you for a bachelor’s degree? Here are a few ways:

It builds a strong foundation

It takes time to develop the skills necessary to succeed in a degree program, especially for adults who have been out of school for years.

An associate degree at an online university or community college can provide a strong base for students to build foundational learning skills and common skills employers seek, such as communication, critical thinking and collaboration. Such skills can be crucial for successfully completing a bachelor’s degree program down the line.

In addition, students can gain the foundational learning of their chosen field of study to understand and articulate the principal features of that career path. This learning is aligned to degree rigor and helps prepare students for entry-level jobs. That means they’ll feel more familiar with the subject matter of their bachelor’s degree program when they’re ready to start.

It allows students to gain workforce experience

An associate degree can prepare students with fundamental skills necessary to join the workforce. Though often at entry level, this work can form a strong foundation for more advanced study in a specific field. What’s more, that work experience may not be attainable without an associate degree.

With that experience in tow, students can pursue a bachelor’s degree program with a practical understanding of how their college study connects to the real world. This can help put their learning in context and get them thinking about how they’ll use their degree after graduation.  

It provides transfer credits

One big way an associate degree can pave the way for a bachelor’s is through a credit transfer. While the exact policy varies from college to college, many institutions accept general education credits earned through an associate degree program. This allows students to apply those credits toward the credit requirement of a bachelor’s degree program.

Some students desire to pursue a bachelor’s degree program that’s outside their budget. Completing general education and introductory credits in an associate degree program at a community college and transferring them to a university can save both time and money on their bachelor’s degree program.  

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How long does it take to get an associate degree?

Does your bachelor's degree have to be the same as your associate degree?

No — but it can help!

Let’s say a student who earned an Associate of Arts in Criminal Justice at an online university or community college chooses to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a different subject, say business. Depending on the school they apply to, they may be able to transfer over many of the general education credits they earned in their associate degree program.

At the same time, many of the criminal justice-specific credits earned in the associate degree program may not apply to the business requirements for a bachelor’s degree in an entirely different subject. It all comes down to the specific credit transfer policy laid out by the school. 

Do I need an associate degree to get a bachelor's?

Again, no — but it can help! An associate degree is the first 60 credits of the 120 needed for a bachelor’s degree. An associate degree can be considered as the middle milestone toward earning a bachelor’s.

Many students choose to go directly into pursuing a bachelor’s degree. This is great for students who have committed to a specific path of study and are ready for a four-year program. For students who may not have the means or inclination to pursue a four-year degree, however, associate degree programs provide a useful step to enter the workforce. 

What types of associate degree programs are available through University of Phoenix?

At University of Phoenix (UOPX), associate degree programs take two years to complete. Degree programs range from 60 to 63 credit hours. Students take one course at a time, with each course spanning five weeks. Each year, associate degree students take about 10 courses.

UOPX students are also able to translate their work and life experience into college credit, which can then be applied toward their associate degree. This keeps students from taking classes in subjects they have already mastered through work and life experience. It also lets them complete their degree faster.

The following associate degree programs at University of Phoenix help students build fundamental skills for their educational and employment future:

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