When you begin investigating educational options in engineering, you might wonder how associate’s degree programs offered at community colleges compare to the bachelor’s degree programs available from four-year colleges or universities. Furthermore, there are differences in the coursework you will take in the two levels and the job opportunities afforded in the future. These educational paths can prepare students for well-paying careers with the advantage of favoring individuals with a bachelor’s degree.
Types of Associate’s Degrees in Engineering
One crucial fact that students should know about associate’s degree programs in engineering is that there are two different programs. Some associate’s degrees offered at community colleges, like the Associate of Science in Engineering Fundamentals degree or an Associate of Science in Engineering degree (A.S.E.), are intended as stepping stones to the bachelor’s degree. By choosing to start your studies at a local community college, you can save money on tuition compared to a four-year program. Depending on your career aspirations, you can continue into a bachelor’s degree on campus or online.
The latter link above refers to the Tidewater Community College’s campuses in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach program. Prospective students must take the Virginia Placement Test that evaluates a student’s readiness to meet the academic challenges of their programs. It is not an admission test but a measure of college-level English and math courses.
The Tidewater associate degree consists of 68 credits covering chemistry, engineering foundations, and calculus in the first semester. Students take another calculus class and electives in engineering, humanities, and social science during the fourth and final semester.
Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, is another A.S.E. degree with Communications, Math, and Science, Social & Behavioral Sciences, Humanities, and Global studies in the General Education Requirements. Their coursework differs from Tidewater in that students study C++ programming, Java, Analytical Mechanics, and Differential Equations. Both the Tidewater and Oakton associate programs are designed as preparation for a baccalaureate in engineering.
The Associate of Science in Engineering Fundamentals link above is the online program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) for students who embrace math and physics. Prospective students must complete the English and Math Skills Assessment to affirm that they are academically qualified. High school students also need a 3.0 GPA, including four years of college-level math and two years of preparatory science.
The sixty-five-hour ERAU curriculum has twelve hours of Calculus and Analytical Geometry and ten hours of Physics. Consequently, graduates will know how to formulate and solve applied problems and use applied engineering principles professionally.
Some Associate of Science degrees offer specializations; for example, Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, has the choice of:
- Civil and Construction Engineering Technology
- Electrical Engineering
- Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Technology
Many of the 63 to 66 hours are the same of all three concentrations- they fall into these categories:
- Communication – 9 hours
- Mathematics – 4 hours
- Natural Sciences – 8 hours
- Humanities and Visual Arts – 6 hours
- Social and Behavioral Sciences – 15 hours
- Kinesiology/Dance – 2 hours
The remainder of the hours is in the respective specialization. Graduates can seek entry-level jobs in civil, electrical, or industrial engineering, depending on the selected concentration.
These education programs prepare you for engineering technician or technologist jobs, not for a career as a licensed engineer. You will learn the technical skills you need to implement and test an engineer’s designs rather than developing your designs and solutions.
Four-Year vs. Two-Year Curricula
The apparent difference between an associate’s and bachelor’s degree is the time it takes to complete: two years versus four years, plus the tuition escalates. The higher number of hours in the latter dictates the additional years of study; it is 60+ hours versus 120+ in a baccalaureate program. As alluded, the tuition differs considerably; it could be as low as $76 per credit hour (in-state tuition at Durham Tech) for an A.S. in engineering.
In contrast, a bachelor’s program can run several hundred dollars per credit hour or more. Tuition alone at Michigan Tech is $626 per credit hour for in-state students. Some schools have a discount after completing a set number of hours; Utah Valley College in Orem, for example, charges $206 per credit hour after completing 25 hours (from the standard $418/hour for in-state students). However, the UVC program is in electrical engineering only.
As stated, the typical bachelor’s degree program in engineering typically requires four years of full-time coursework, though some programs take longer. Students complete general education requirements and introductory through intermediate undergraduate studies in the principles and practices of general engineering. Much of an engineering student’s coursework is determined by the specialization or discipline of engineering they choose to pursue. Some of the most popular branches of engineering include mechanical, electrical, computer, petroleum, civil, and software engineering, according to U.S. News & World Report.
An associate’s degree program in engineering designed for students to continue their studies at a four-year school will include introductory and foundational engineering classes that expose students to both the theory and practice of engineering. Some programs might focus on a single engineering discipline, like civil or mechanical engineering, and cover only or primarily concepts used in that discipline. Other programs offer a broader introduction to engineering that includes coursework in electrical, computer, mechanical, and other branches of engineering.
For example, Lone Star College in The Woodlands, Texas, offers an associate of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Nine of the sixty hours study courses related to mechanics, like dynamics, statics, and materials. (Tuition is $90 per credit hour for in-district students, $202 for out-of-district but within Texas, and $257 for out-of-state residents.).
Associate’s degree programs in engineering technology usually take two years to complete. Community colleges offer technical training and some liberal arts and sciences studies to provide a well-rounded education. In contrast, vocational or technical school engineering technology programs focus more on building technical skills. There is less focus on engineering concepts and theory in an engineering technology program than in an engineering program.
Like engineering degrees, engineering technology degrees are offered in specialized branches of engineering, and core courses vary from one engineering discipline to another.
DeVry University, for example, has an Associate in Engineering Technology online with a choice of four specializations:
- Machine Learning and Design Techniques
- Medical Technology and Healthcare Systems
- Renewable Energy and Sustainable Power
- General Option
The bottom option allows students to select courses from the College of Engineering and Information Sciences and the College of Business and Management. Each program is a minimum of 64 credit hours, inclusive of 26 hours of General Education in each concentration.
Engineer vs. Engineering Technician Roles
The work of an engineer is quite different from that of an engineering technician or technologist. To use the title of engineer, you must have a bachelor’s degree. You may need to attain a Professional Engineering (PE) license in certain states, engineering disciplines, and job roles. Qualification for the PE sets a difference between the bachelor’s and associate’s degree – the latter is in engineering or engineering technology is not sufficient to earn the designation.
ABET or Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology recognizes 4,361 programs at 850 colleges and universities in 41 countries. The organization’s endorsement assures students that the learning institution’s STEM program meets its educational standards and establishes eligibility for federal loans, grants, and scholarships. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-approved program require four years of supervised work under a licensed engineer before being eligible to take the two competency exams.
The most significant distinction between engineers, engineering technicians, and engineering technologists is what their work entails. Technicians are more focused on installing, testing, measuring, and troubleshooting technology; they may find employment with an associate degree. Typically, technicians work on a specific problem, such as a repair or installation – it is more of a hands-on role.
Engineering technologists work alongside engineers to implement technology – the minimal education for these jobs is a high school diploma. Although, at least an associate degree would be beneficial.
Engineers are generally in a class above the technician or technologists as they might have a baccalaureate, master’s, or doctorate, as well as the P.E. credential. According to ABET, technologists focus on applying basic engineering principles; in contrast, engineers use complex math and theory in their practice. Consequently, an associate-level program has less calculus and sciences than a bachelor’s degree.
For example, the B.S. in Engineering at Grand Canyon University has 88 of the total 128 credits in the Major courses, including 12 hours of calculus, 4 hours each in physics and chemistry, and 20 hours covering topics like thermodynamics, mechanics, and heat transfer, and materials.
Another difference between an associate’s and bachelor’s degree is that the latter might offer more specialties. The many branches of engineering include:
The above list is incomplete as some sources list over 50 types of engineering.
Each institution sets the minimum GPA and other requirements for applicants. For example, a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering may require students to have a bachelor’s degree in this discipline or satisfy particular conditions related to chemistry before entering the program. Individuals who aspire to earn a master’s degree eventually will need an undergraduate degree – an associate’s degree will not meet graduate school eligibility.
While engineers have the opportunity to earn higher salaries throughout their careers, engineering technicians can start with comparably high wages, as well. For example, mechanical engineers earn a median salary of $90,160 with a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, the median salary for mechanical engineering technicians is $58,230 with an associate’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A salary difference of $32,000 between the two degrees.
According to the BLS, Salaries in engineering are predicated on individuals with a bachelor’s degree. The job category of Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technologist and Technicians has average pay of $68,570 (BLS May 2020) – a $50,000 difference between the two positions. Another example is the aeronautical engineer occupation with a median wage of $118,610 with a baccalaureate.
However, in specific disciplines, such as aerospace and electrical engineering, a two-year engineering technology degree can allow graduates to earn nearly as much money as a bachelor’s degree, provided that they have the skills that high-tech employers are looking for, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Engineers are the innovators, while technologists assist engineers with implementing their ideas, and technicians generally work directly with installing and repairing existing technology.
Can Aspiring Engineers Start Their Education With an Associate’s Degree?
It’s a personal choice whether you want to invest the time and effort needed to earn a four-year engineering program or skip two extra years of study and the rigorous theory-based coursework and pursue engineering technology instead. However, suppose you know you want to develop new technology rather than use existing technology. In that case, you might wonder if it is still possible to start your education at a community college. The Washington Post reported that students could earn a two-year engineering degree, saving time and money. However, you may need to be careful in choosing an associate’s degree program to ensure that you won’t waste time, money, and effort taking courses that won’t transfer to a four-year degree program. If this plan is preferable, concentrate on searching for an engineering program, not engineering technology.
As noted, engineering is like medicine – so many specializations from which to choose. NewEngineer, a career site for engineers, stated in June 2021 that these are the most in-demand jobs:
- Data Science and Machine Learning
- Automation and Robotics
There are contrasting opinions on the best fields for future employment. The well-known site Indeed reports that these jobs are on the Best list of 2021:
- Civil Engineering Technician
- Aerospace Technician
- Biomedical Engineer
- Industrial Engineer
- Marine Engineer
- Environmental Engineer
- Civil Engineer
Including two technician positions gives credence to those who believe an associate degree is adequate to earn a living and those who wish to make it a terminal degree.
One way to ensure a smoother transfer to a four-year university is to compare your associate’s degree requirements to the freshman and sophomore curricula at four-year colleges you would want to attend in the future.