Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree: What’s the Difference?

Not all education systems are the same. For those studying in the US, higher learning exists at several different levels. At the undergraduate level, there are two different degrees offered: an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. But what are the key differences between the two, and how can you decide which works best for you?

1. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: Time to Complete

This difference is the most basic and obvious. It takes around four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, and only two to complete an associate degree. To learn why keep reading!

2. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: Coursework

A bachelor’s degree requires the completion of approximately 40 courses, whereas an associate degree requires the completion of approximately 20. So it stands to reason that an associate degree can be earned in half the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree.

3. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: Depth of Studies

Since a bachelor’s degree means taking more courses and spending more time studying, there is greater opportunity to engage with course content more deeply.

For example, when we compare a diploma, an associate degree, and a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences, we point out that an associate degree allows you to learn basic tools, methods and principles that will help you get started in the industry, whereas a bachelor’s degree gives you a much deeper understanding of the field – including design, development, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

4. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: The Job Market

According to a 2016 study by Georgetown University – the majority of the jobs still go to bachelor’s degree graduates. Reporting on the study, CNN Money noted that “of the 11.6 million jobs created after the Great Recession, 8.4 million went to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.” This is a big difference in proportional terms: Only 36% of Americans earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30% of Americans holding an associate degree and 34% with a high-school diploma or less. As US News points out, it’s getting harder and harder in some sectors to rely on an associate degree to get a job or advance in your career.

Yet US News also points out that, as the younger generation climbs up the corporate ladder, it could potentially become easier for people with specialized knowledge and skills, or the right experience to compete with bachelor’s degree graduates who haven’t invested as heavily in developing their work skills.

The emphasis here is on specialized knowledge and the ability to keep up with innovative trends – in industries like technology – faster than what bachelor’s degree programs offer.

But either way, an associate degree still gives you an advantage in the job market. As shown in the Georgetown study, 3.1 million of those new jobs went to people with an associate degree – no small number, considering that people with a high school diploma, but no higher education, only landed 80,000 of the 11.6 million new jobs.

5. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: Your Salary

The statistics here have been pretty consistent over the years. A 2009 PayScale survey discovered that “the bachelor’s degree worker earns at least 20% more than the associate degree worker” in the first five years of their careers, and continues earning more well into the first ten to fifteen years of work.

A 2014 PayScale survey discovered something similar. As MarketWatch explains it, the average bachelor’s degree graduate with little work experience makes 26% more (almost $10,000 a year more) than the average associate degree graduate with the same experience. “But fast-forward down the road a few years when that worker has 10 or more years of experience, and the discrepancy between what the average worker with an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree earns is nearly $30,000 per year – a difference of more than 50%,” emphasizes MarketWatch.

6. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: The American Market vs. the International Market

While most countries value a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree is not common in most of the world. The first associate degree program started in the UK in the 19th century, then spread to the US. Other associate programs were introduced in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Norway.

If you’re looking for a job in one of these countries, do your research to find out how competitive your associate degree might be in these non-US countries. If you’re looking to get a job in a country that does not offer or accept associate degrees, you might be better off considering a bachelor’s degree.

7. Associate vs. Bachelor’s: Financial Aid

You can get financial aid to pursue either an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. If you’re thinking of doing your associate degree first, and then transferring your credits and completing a bachelor’s degree as well, it’s important to note that there might be some limits to the financial aid you can get. This might be mostly true for federal financial aid, which limits the number of semesters for which you can get supportThis may also be the case for student loans you can borrow from the government.

That said, some associate degree graduates land jobs with companies that invest in employee development, and pay for these employees’ bachelor’s degree tuition when the time comes to promote them.

To be financially savvy, don’t count on that happening in advance. See it as a wonderful bonus if it ends up happening to you. But first, if you plan to begin with an associate degree and perhaps continue to a bachelor’s degree later on, sit down with the relevant office at your university, and figure out a financial plan that can work for you.

Associate’s vs. Bachelor’s: How to Decide

The best way to decide is to figure out your end goal first. Think about the direction you want your life and career to take, and then find out what academic options are out there. Some programs offer both an associate and a bachelor’s degree, and some only offer one of them. If your dream industry is open to both options, get in touch with a few universities and make sure that their bachelor’s degree is indeed a continuation of the associate degrees in the field.

If it is, and you’re still unsure which path is best for you – for example, you like the idea of a certain profession, but you’re not 100% sure – remember that, in the US, you likely won’t need to complete additional courses to transition from an associate to a bachelor’s degree. You can get started with the lower-risk associate degree, get a foot in the industry door after two years, and continue gaining work experience while you complete a bachelor’s degree. Or maybe you’ll find out this field isn’t for you, and could spend the next two years trying another associate degree.

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