Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degree: Does Leveling Up Pay Off?

Associate vs. Bachelor's Degree: Does Leveling Up Pay Off?

Choosing between an associate and bachelor’s degree isn’t always straightforward. Whether you’re considering a liberal arts education at either level, thinking about a bachelor’s degree in business, or mulling over professional certifications or other career advancement opportunities, it helps to understand the differences between associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Both degree types offer perks, but the benefits of an associate degree differ from some bachelor’s degree advantages. It’s important to ponder them in terms of time, cost, and potential payoff so you can make the right choice.

Below, we consider the main differences between the two, then look specifically at costs and financial investment, time commitment and flexibility, career opportunities and earning potential, and the long-term prospects and advancement potential of each. We also discuss online associate degree programs versus online bachelor’s degree programs so you get a comprehensive insight into the options.

What Is an Associate Degree?

An associate degree is one generally awarded by a community college, junior college, technical school, or trade school. It typically takes two years to complete—though some can earn them in fewer terms, while others take three years to get their degree.

To get an associate degree, you must have a high school diploma or equivalent (i.e., a GED or the same amount of secondary school education from another country). As such, the associate sits above high school and below the bachelor’s degree, which usually requires four years, more or less.

There are several types of associate degrees: Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Arts, and Associate of Applied Science. You can also get an associate degree for transfer, which is what some students choose to do when they’re pursuing a four-year science or liberal arts education but want to save money on the first few years.

Can you get an associate degree online, you may ask? Yes; there are plenty of associate degrees available online. For instance, many people opt to get an associate degree in nursing via a largely online model, coming to campus or hospitals only for hands-on training.

Other degrees such as business, communications, or finance may be available completely online, depending on the institution offering them. Those who earn associate degrees are often qualified for trades, medical jobs, data entry, architectural drafting, physical and occupational therapy, engineering, and much more.

Before deciding on community college versus university for your career path, it’s also essential to understand what a bachelor’s degree is and what it could offer you.

What Is a Bachelor’s Degree?

A bachelor’s degree is awarded by a college or university after four years of study. As stated above, not all of this study has to take place at that institution; many students enroll in more affordable community college courses and then transfer later on.

To get a bachelor’s degree, you must fulfill a range of requirements. First, you must select a major, which is the core area of focus for your study. Examples include education, pre-med, theology, physics, and ceramics, along with hundreds more. Most bachelor’s degrees have writing, science, and math requirements as well, but if you’re getting a liberal arts degree, they tend to be pretty minimal.

Although a bachelor’s degree typically requires four years of study, motivated students can sometimes get one in three years, whereas working individuals or those caring for families may take five or six years to finish their degree. Your credits are good for 10 years at most universities, so you can proceed on your timeline with ease.

Now, how about a bachelor’s degree—can you get that online? As it turns out, there exists a wealth of online bachelor’s degree programs from which to choose that enable you to maximize flexibility and cost savings. Make sure to explore your options thoroughly before selecting one. (More on that below!)

Let’s take a look at a few other areas to explore before enrolling in one program or another.

Comparing Costs and Financial Investment

There are various pros and cons of an associate degree, but hands-down one of the biggest pros is affordability. Community college classes are generally much cheaper than those at universities.

According to, “For the 2021-2022 school year, public community colleges charge approximately $5,155 per year for in-state students and $8,835 for out-of-state students. The average yearly tuition for private community colleges is roughly $15,477 per year.”

On the other hand, Best Colleges says, “In 2020-2021, the average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges was $9,375 … At four-year private nonprofit schools, the average college tuition was about $35,850.”

Thus, a private community college costs more than a public university, so where you go has a lot to do with it. Many students try and choose the most affordable associate degree path, then if they’re going to continue, they transfer credits from associate to bachelor’s degree.

Financial aid options are available for both associate and bachelor’s degree programs. These include:

  • Scholarships This consists of money you are given and don’t have to pay back, for either a merit-based or need-based reason.
  • Grants Grants are money you are given and don’t have to pay back, typically because you are doing work in which the grantor is interested or because you belong to a group the grantor represents (e.g., Asian-Americans, Jewish people, Indigenous peoples, etc.).
  • Loans This money is lent to help you attend school, but you do have to pay it back.

To minimize your debt, it can be key to live frugally. Attending school from home while sharing living expenses with friends or family is one of the best ways to minimize costs, as well as eating on a budget or buying books secondhand.

Note: In addition, you may apply for scholarships and grants every year, not just at the beginning of your associate or bachelor’s program.

Time Commitment and Flexibility

In general, the time to complete a bachelor’s degree is about four years, while an associate degree takes roughly two years. Of course, you can take more or less time to complete each, depending on your needs—but simply put, an associate degree requires about half the time a bachelor’s degree does.

On the list of pros and cons of a bachelor’s degree, one of the biggest cons is having to spend considerably more time in school. However, the wealth of part-time degree programs available today does help minimize full-time study commitments, so you can continue to work or care for a family at the same time.

This is also true for associate degree programs, which offer great flexibility, too. In either case, it’s crucial to ask yourself, “How much will I get out of this program versus simply entering the workforce?”

Career Opportunities and Earning Potential

Some students today are skeptical about the worth of earning a college degree in the face of how much debt they might accrue. Despite the fact that student loan figures are indeed rising, education does still clearly correlate with earnings. 

If you’re doing a cost comparison of degrees and examining salary difference between degrees, this is worth knowing: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average earnings of an individual holding an associate degree is $45,000 a year, while someone with a bachelor’s degree makes an average salary of $61,600.

Naturally, potential salary differences don’t make for a complete picture. How much you owe in student loans also factors in, as does what you want to do with your degree. For example, anyone wanting to enter a trade—plumbing, pipe-fitting, mechanics, electrical, and so forth—could do just fine with an associate degree.

However, if you are interested in certain professions (like accounting, marketing, or education), you likely need a bachelor’s degree in order to truly break into your industry and succeed.

Long-Term Prospects and Advancement

Lastly, it’s worth exploring the long-term career prospects and potential for advancement with each type of degree. As discussed, technical skills training sets you up nicely for the trades, so if that’s what you want to do, the decision between trade school versus college is a simpler one.

The job prospects with an associate degree are also strong if you want to work in solid entry-level positions at medical clinics, hospitals, architectural firms, or data centers.

On the other hand, it’s best to get a bachelor’s degree if you want to work in a professional field. Not only will this qualify you for better jobs and higher salaries, but it also sets you up well for post-graduate opportunities that require a bachelor’s degree.

Not sure what you want to do after school yet? In that case, it might be wise to get an associate degree and go into the workforce. There are numerous paths for continuing education after an associate degree, and you can take time to explore what you want without accruing debt.

Learn More!

Ready to explore your options? It’s time to connect with Carson-Newman University to learn more. We’ll help you prepare for a rewarding and dynamic career with our many online programs.. programs for professional studies. Don’t wait any longer for the career of your dreams!

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