A college education can put you on the path to success, but bachelor’s degrees aren’t your only option. If you’re considering other educational paths, you might be wondering, “How long does it take to get an associate degree?“
This undergraduate degree requires less time than a bachelor’s degree. As a result, an associate degree is much more affordable. Of course, you shouldn’t enroll in a degree program without really understanding what to expect. This includes how long to get an associate degree.
What Is an Associate Degree?
An associate degree is a type of undergraduate degree. This degree is generally the lowest level of formal college degree awarded, requiring fewer credits for completion than a bachelor’s degree. High school graduates (and graduating high school seniors), as well as those with a GED, are generally qualified to apply to an associate degree program.
A local community college or junior college may award associate degrees. Technical schools may also award associate degrees. Online colleges often offer online associate degree programs that students complete by taking online courses.
There are a few types of associate degrees students can earn from community colleges, including:
- The Associate of Arts (AA) degree: An Associate of Arts degree consists of a liberal arts curriculum and prepare students for further study at a four-year institution. AA degrees aren’t necessarily focused on the visual or creative arts. Associate of Arts degrees can be awarded in the humanities, the social sciences and other liberal arts fields.
- The Associate of Science (AS) degree: Like AA degrees, AS degrees prepare students to pursue a bachelor’s degree later. Associate of Science programs tend to encompass more science and technical coursework than AA programs. Associate of Science degrees aren’t all science degrees, however. Community colleges also award Associate of Science degrees in areas like business administration and criminal justice as well as computer science, biological sciences and physics.
- The Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree: The Associate of Applied Science degree prepares students to jump right into entry-level careers in areas like tech and business rather than for furthering their education.
- The Associate of Applied Arts (AAA) degree: The Associate of Applied Arts degree is similar to the AAS degree but emphasizes preparation for artistic and design careers rather than business and tech careers.
- The Associate of Fine Arts degree: The Associate of Fine Arts is the associate degree that emphasizes the study of fine arts, including studio arts, visual arts, music and theatre.
Associate degrees are awarded in a wide variety of subject areas. Whether you choose to earn an associate degree in the liberal arts, criminal justice, computer science or another field, you’re advancing your knowledge and skills for the workforce or for further study.
Factors that Affect How Long It Takes to Get an Associate Degree
How long does it take to get an associate’s degree? Although there are some simple answers, like the traditional completion times for full-time and part-time students, the time to associates degree completion isn’t the same for all students.
The time it takes to complete your associate’s degree varies depending on factors like the following:
- What program of study you’re pursuing
- Whether you’re studying full-time or part-time
- Whether you take courses only during fall and spring terms or at other times
- Whether your school offers an accelerated associate degree program
- Whether you have prior college credits to transfer, whether from previous classes you have taken or awarded through College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests
Generally, the more credits you bring to the program with you and the more courses you take in a shorter span of time, the less time it takes to get an associate degree.
How Many Years for an Associate’s Degree
When prospective students ask the question, “How long does it take to get an associate degree?“, they’re usually looking for an answer measured in years.
How many years to get an associate’s degree? An associate’s degree is often referred to as a “two-year” degree. That’s because the number of college courses traditionally required to complete an associate’s degree program can be done in two years.
The two-year associates degree length assumes that you are studying full-time. Two years is the shortest amount of time in which a full-time student of a traditional, non-accelerated associate’s degree program could graduate without transferring prior credits. The term “two-year degree” is not a guarantee that students will graduate within two years.
How Many Credits Do You Need for an Associate Degree?
The reason that associate’s degrees can vary in the amount of time it takes to graduate is that associate’s degrees are awarded based on completing the curriculum, not the amount of years devoted to college study.
As such, progress toward a college degree isn’t measured only in years. Another way to answer the question “how long is an associate degree” is to look at the number of credits required for completion.
How many credits do you need to graduate from traditional or online associate degree programs? A typical associate degree program encompasses at least 60 credits of college study. This is true for most Associate of Arts and Associate of Science programs.
How many credits do students need to earn online associates degrees? Typically, online programs have the same credit requirements as community colleges. The number of credits usually required to earn an associate degree online is also 60.
How do students get credit toward their associate degree? Primarily, students accumulate credits through the college courses they take (and pass). In some situations, students may get college credits through other means, such as:
- CLEP tests
- Advanced Placement (AP) tests accompanying AP courses taken by high school students
- Credits awarded for exam scores or projects in competency-based programs
- Transfer credits from prior semesters at other institutions
At most institutions, undergraduate courses award three credits toward graduation. Some more intensive courses, like laboratory science courses, may be four-credit classes. Other courses, like short modules and seminars, may award only one or two credits upon completion.
On average, a 60-credit associate degree curriculum will require 20 courses. If you complete your associate degree in two years, that averages out to 10 courses per year or five courses during each fall and spring semester.
Comparing Associate Degrees to Bachelor’s Degrees
How long does an associate degree take compared to a bachelor’s degree level?
A bachelor’s degree is commonly called a four-year degree. That’s how long it takes to complete the typical curriculum of a bachelor’s degree program when studying full-time.
A bachelor’s degree program traditionally consists of 120 college credit hours of coursework. Some bachelor’s degrees require additional credits to meet graduation requirements.
In terms of both the number of credits and the number of years required for completion, earning an associate degree takes half as much time as earning a traditional bachelor’s degree.
The number of courses and credits isn’t the only factor that differentiates associate degree programs from bachelor’s degree programs. The content of the courses required for associate degree programs is also different.
Generally, an associates degree curriculum consists primarily of general education courses and lower-division major coursework – the same coursework that typically makes up the first two years of a bachelor’s degree curriculum. Not until later in a bachelor’s program do students take upper-level courses that cover more advanced and specialized content. This is why students can use an associate degree as a launchpad for bachelor’s-level studies.
Because associate’s degrees require far fewer courses, and often less advanced coursework, they’re often considered easier than bachelor’s degree programs. Some of the most popular degrees at the associate’s level are also among the easiest online associate’s degrees to earn.
RELATED: Easiest Online Associate’s Degrees
Why a Two-Year Degree May Take Longer Than Two Years
The reason the answer to the question “how long does it take to get an associate degree” is complicated is that the same answer doesn’t apply to every student.
The associate degree may be a “two-year degree,” but many students take longer than two years to graduate with their associate’s degrees. The reasons that students may take longer to graduate vary.
Some students have to repeat certain courses as they attempt to earn an associate degree. Students may repeat courses either because they didn’t pass the class the first time or because their major requires them to achieve certain grades.
Other times, students seeking associate degrees may switch majors during the course of their studies. It may take students longer to finish all of the courses they are required to take to get an associate degree in their new major.
Running Into Scheduling Conflicts
Sometimes a student’s schedule can’t accommodate the courses they need to take at the time they need to take them.
For example, students may have to take courses in a certain sequence as they pursue their associate degrees. A course they need to take in the fall may be offered only in the spring. This dilemma can affect how long does it take to get a associate degree.
Not Taking a Full Load of Courses Each Semester
Just because students are taking enough courses to technically be considered full-time doesn’t mean they will graduate on time. Community colleges often classify students as attending full-time if they take a smaller course load of 12 credits instead of 15.
However, how many years for associate degree depends on the credits students complete, not the calendar.
Generally, full-time students must complete 30 credits per year, or 15 credits each during the fall and spring semesters, if they’re going to graduate from an associate’s degree program on time.
Taking fewer credits each semester will increase your associate degree length considerably. Instead of four semesters, you will need to complete five semesters of coursework if you are only taking 12 credits each term. This will certainly put your graduation plans behind schedule.
Taking classes during the summer semester between your first and second year of an associate’s degree can help you catch up if you fall behind due to repeating courses, changing majors or running into scheduling conflicts. By taking summer courses if you’re already on schedule, you may even get ahead on your coursework, so you can graduate on time or possibly even early. However, the selection of courses offered during the summer semester is often limited. You might not be able to take the courses you need during the summer term.
Students who go to school part-time take longer to graduate with their associates degrees, as well.
The Most Common Reasons Associate Degree Holders Studied Part-Time
Many students choose to study part-time to balance their academic pursuits with their part-time or full-time work. Other students have personal reasons for pursuing an associate’s degree part-time.
Aside from devoting time to work, some of the more common reasons on-campus or online students opt for part-time associate degree program formats include:
- Raising a family
- Serving as a caretaker for a loved one
- Dealing with a medical condition themselves
- Prioritizing a sport, hobby or other extracurricular activity
The Benefits of Pursuing an Associate Degree Part-Time
Both campus-based programs and online associate degree programs commonly offer part-time study options. Although studying part-time means that it will take you longer to complete your associate degree, there’s nothing wrong with studying part-time.
Part-time formats allow community college students who would otherwise have to put off pursuing their associates degrees at all to gradually make progress toward their degree on their own schedule. If studying part-time allows you to keep working, the additional work experience you gain may make you a stronger job candidate than if you had left your job to go to college full-time.
How Does Part-Time Study Affect the Cost of Earning an Associate Degree?
Financially, studying part-time has both advantages and drawbacks.
On the one hand, dragging out your education longer may mean the total cost of earning your associate degree is higher than if you had finished all of your classes within two years. At schools that offer full-time tuition rates instead of charging full-time students per credit, part-time students may miss out on savings that full-time students (especially those taking at least 15 credits per term) enjoy.
Further, tuition rates at most schools increase each year. The more years it takes you to graduate, the more tuition cost increases you’re exposed to.
However, for students who can’t afford to drop several thousands of dollars each term for full-time study – and who don’t want to take out student loans – paying incrementally for a couple of courses at a time may be more manageable. If the part-time schedule also allows students to generate money by working or even just save money (such as by reducing the need for paid childcare services), that’s another financial benefit.
Increasing Associate Degree Completion Times
In recent years, the answer to the question “how long does it take to get associate degree” has increased. Factors like more extensive credit requirements to graduate have made it more common for students intending to graduate within two years to fail to do so.
Despite the two-year nickname, schools have been increasingly requiring students in associate degree programs to earn more than 60 credits in order to graduate, Inside Higher Ed reported in 2013. When students have to complete 64, 70 or more credits to attain their degree, tacking on those extra credits can translate to having to spend another semester or even another full year working toward an associate’s degree.
Some colleges have since made efforts to reduce the number of credit hours required for associate degree programs back down to the traditional 60 credits. Pressure from state lawmakers is partially responsible for this change.
However, overzealous credit requirements remain a concern. Requiring too many credits for associate degree programs can hold students back from graduating within the timeframe they had planned. In some instances, students get discouraged at having to devote more time and money to their community college education and end up never graduating at all.
Earning an Associate’s Degree Faster or Slower Than the Two-Year Average
It isn’t just up to the individual student how long their studies take. Your program of study may also affect how long it takes to graduate. Certain associate degrees require more or less time to complete. This difference in completion time may be either due to the structure of the program itself or to the need to complete extra requirements, such as clinical or fieldwork experiences.
Accelerated Associate’s Degrees
If you’re eager to avoid spending extra time on your associate’s degree, accelerated associate degree programs might interest you. Accelerated associate degree programs can allow students to finish their community college education much quicker through a combination of methods such as:
- Offering intensive condensed courses
- Structuring a program for year-round study with multiple terms
- Allowing students to gain college credit for life and work experience
An associate’s degree curriculum that is offered in an accelerated format may take as little as 12 months to finish.
Accelerated Online Associate Degrees
Many accelerated associate’s degree programs are online degree programs. Students should be aware that not all online colleges offer accelerated degree options. Even at those schools that do, not all online associate degrees can be completed in an accelerated format.
Still, online learning lends itself well to accelerated formats. Online students often complete their coursework at their own pace over the course of the semester. Many associate’s degree programs that offer online degrees allow for accelerated completion times by structuring courses in shorter, condensed terms. Students of these online colleges may take only one or two courses per term, which allows them to concentrate more on each course.
Associate Degree Completion Programs
Another option you may have for earning your associate’s degree faster is by enrolling in a degree completion program.
If you previously completed some college coursework but didn’t graduate with a degree, you may be able to transfer some of the credits and courses you have already taken to your new degree program. Although you will still need to meet your new school’s general education requirements and all of your mandatory major coursework, you don’t have to start from scratch.
There may be limits on the number of credits you can transfer. Students interested in transferring from one local community college or online associate’s degree program to another should review their transcripts and work with an admissions coordinator or an advisor. Consulting an advisor can help community college students determine what will be required to complete their new degree at their new school.
RELATED: What Is a Degree Completion Program?
Longer Associate Degree Programs
Associate degrees in most fields are two-year programs. Computer science, criminal justice, and human resources are a few of the many examples of associate degrees that students can complete in as little as two years.
However, some associate’s degree programs will almost always take longer than two years. This happens because these programs were never intended as two-year programs, to begin with.
These lengthy associate’s degrees are often worth the wait and the extra work. They prepare students for well-paid careers without requiring further studies at the bachelor’s level. Ultimately, how long it takes you to earn an associate’s degree matters less than how well that degree helps you to achieve your personal and professional goals.
Associate of Applied Science Degrees in Dental Hygiene
One example of an associate degree that takes more than two years is an Associate in Applied Science degree in dental hygiene. These degree programs typically do take three years of work to complete, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.
Students need that extra time to finish coursework in head and neck anatomy, radiography, pathology, periodontics and other laboratory courses, as well as meet in-person clinical experience requirements. Fortunately, dental hygienists are well paid for their extra year of school, earning a median wage of $77,090 as of 2020, according to the BLS. In fact, dental hygiene is one degree that students are better off earning at a community college, according to U.S. News & World Report.
The Benefits of Earning an Associate’s Degree
If you want to quickly attain an education that will prepare you for a better career, an associate’s degree could be your best bet. Students can complete this degree in a fraction of the time it would take to earn a bachelor’s degree.
This short duration of schooling is a benefit in and of itself. After all, for many students, the main driving factor behind going to college is preparing for their future careers. Staying in school longer than needed doesn’t make sense for most students.
The Lower Tuition Costs for Associate’s Degrees
Earning your degree quickly offers other benefits, too, including financial benefits. Spending more time in school imposes an opportunity cost. If you’re a full-time student, you probably aren’t able to work full-time, too. In addition to the tuition costs you’re paying during your studies, you’re also losing out on potential income for each extra year you’re in school. As such, cutting the time it takes to earn your degree in half also means decreasing this opportunity cost considerably.
As tuition costs go, there’s another reason that earning an associate’s degree is more affordable than earning a bachelor’s degree. The tuition at community colleges that offer associate’s degrees is often far more affordable than tuition at a four-year college or university. High school graduates who go to community college first and pursue associate degrees are actually cutting the cost of their undergraduate education by well over half.
To fully grasp the difference in costs between community colleges and four-year colleges, it helps to look at the data.
The College Board reported that the average published yearly tuition and fees cost for public two-year colleges was an affordable $3,440 for in-district students. In comparison, public four-year colleges charge in-state students an average amount of $9,410. That’s more than 2.7 times what they would pay, on average, at a two-year school.
Out-of-state students pay even more for a year of education at a public four-year college. The average published yearly tuition and fees for out-of-state students at public four-year colleges amounted to $23,890. That’s nearly seven times the tuition cost at a two-year school.
Finally, private four-year colleges charge the highest average tuition costs. The average published yearly tuition and fees at private four-year colleges amounted to $32,410. That’s nearly 9.5 times what you would encounter at a public two-year college.
A Greater Likelihood of Graduating
Aside from the cost, an associate’s degree is a good choice for other reasons. Pursuing an associate degree can help ensure that you don’t end up with no degree if you’re not totally sure about going to college.
If you go straight for a four-year degree, you could spend two, three or even four years working toward graduation. If you don’t take the right courses to fulfill your bachelor’s degree curriculum, however, you could still end up with no degree. Even if you completed enough coursework to be the equivalent of an associate’s degree at a two-year school, your four-year school is unlikely to award this credential.
If you decide to start working toward an associate’s degree first and then transfer those credits to a bachelor’s degree program, you’re more likely to at least walk away with an associate’s degree.
The Pay Bump From Going to College
How much is an associate degree worth? Having a college education generally improves your earning potential, even if an associate’s degree typically doesn’t increase your earning potential as much as a bachelor’s degree would.
The BLS reported median usual weekly earnings of $938 for workers with an associate’s degree as of 2020. This translated to $48,776 over the course of a year. Workers with a bachelor’s degree, instead, made a median weekly wage of $1,305, which added up to $67,860 per year.
That difference of nearly $20,000 is significant. Still, workers with an associate’s degree fare considerably better than those without.
Workers who have taken some college classes but did not earn a degree reported a median weekly wage of $877 for 2020, which added up to $45,604 per year. Considering the low cost of earning an associate’s degree at a two-year college, it only takes a couple of years, on average, for an associate’s degree to pay for itself. After that, you have a lifetime of increased earnings to enjoy.
Compared to workers with no education beyond a high school diploma, an associate’s degree offers a great deal of value. Workers with only a high school diploma reported earning median wages of just $781 per week, or $40,612. Within the first year of work with an associate’s degree, the average employee has already earned enough additional money to recoup the average cost of tuition and fees for their associate’s degree.
Another $8,000 per year is a significant amount of extra money, amounting to a pay bump of almost 20% above the median wage with only a high school diploma.
Additionally, the higher your level of education, the lower your chances of being unemployed are. Among workers with an associate’s degree, the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, compared to 8.3 percent for those with some college coursework but no degree and 9.0 percent for those with only a high school diploma.