Which Degree is Better: AA or AS?

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You may also wonder, what are the advantages and disadvantages of earning an associate of arts degree (AA) versus an associate of science degree (AS)?  One may not be better than the other, as it’s a matter of what suits your educational and employment plans. Specific job opportunities vary according to the chosen major in an AA or AS, and both provide the groundwork to advance to a bachelor’s program.

Individuals pursuing a position in the arts, psychology, philosophy, marketing, or accounting are more likely to choose an associate of arts. Those interested in the sciences, math, healthcare, and computer science might look at the associate of science programs. However, these are general statements because schools often use the terms interchangeably. What falls into the arts at one institution might be a science at another.

West Virginia University (WVU) Online has an Associate of Arts in Business Administration that consists of 20 courses or 60 credit hours. The curriculum includes math, English, accounting, macroeconomics, sociology, global studies, psychology, computer applications, and business.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers an online Associate of Science in Business Administration with 60 credits taking two years of study. Similar to WVU, the coursework has English, mathematics, macroeconomics, accounting (financial and managerial), business law, communication, management, and business management.

Comparing WVU and SNHU, the classes are almost identical, except for a greater emphasis on management skills at the latter. But you wouldn’t label that as differentiating art from a science associate’s degree.

Therefore, despite the information to the contrary, some of which we address below – the two degrees are probably interchangeable.

Regardless, interest in the associate degree has remained steady over the past decade, with 1.2 million conferred in the 2011-12 school year. For the current 2021-22 academic year, the figure is 983,000, according to Statista. The number of bachelor’s degrees earned is about 1.8 million for the former and roughly 2 million for 2021-22.

DegreeQuery.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What is the Salary Potential for an Associate’s Degree?

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS 2020), occupations with the lowest income range ($30,000 – $39,999) were forest and veterinary technicians, preschool teachers, and dietetic counselors. There are fifteen jobs in the $60,000 to $79,999 income group, such as dental hygienists, medical sonographers, nuclear medicine technologists, avionics technicians, occupational therapists, and engineering technicians. Some of these are growing faster than average.

Graduates with a master’s degree earned an average of $1,350 per week. Those with a bachelor’s had a median weekly pay of about $1,150 or $59,800 a year, and associate degree holders had an average gross income of roughly $850 per week per the BLS (2020).

Occupations in computer user support offer well-paying jobs for those with an associate’s degree. However, many require a bachelor’s degree; for example, web developers and digital designers earn an average salary of $77,200, according to the BLS. 

Therefore, is it worth the additional cost and time to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree? Statistics furnished by the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities states that 42% of students attending four-year public institutions graduate with no debt. Fifteen percent have between $30,000 and $49,999 debt. If individuals with an undergraduate degree quickly surpass associate degree holders by $25,000 in annual pay, then the bachelor’s degree may be better over time. Presuming this is possible, the more advanced degree translates to about $1 million more money over a lifetime of steady employment.

We encourage you to read the DegreeQuery report on the Highest Paying Associates Degree, which elaborates on the best paying jobs.

The following looks at some of the details involved in earning either an AA or an AS.

What is an Associate’s Degree?

An associate’s degree can be a quick and more cost-effective path to a better-paying career. If four years of school seems daunting, the associate’s degree may be a good fit for you. Two years or 60 credits is the typical associate’s degree divided between the general requirements and the core courses—students who complete 15 credit hours per semester could graduate in four semesters.

Attending a community or junior college with national or regional accreditation will increase the likelihood of transferring credits. The approved credits applied to an undergraduate degree depend on your chosen major and review by admissions. There are exceptions to the accreditation requirement, which the school evaluates on a case-by-case basis.

One of the primary advantages of an associate’s degree is time and money savings. It takes half the time to finish this degree compared to a baccalaureate and considerably less tuition. According to the College Board Research, the average public two-year in-district program costs $3,770 for the 2020-21 school year. In contrast, four-year public in-state institutions cost $10,550, and out-of-state more than doubles to $27,020 average tuition.

These numbers exclude room and board, books, fees, health insurance, and personal expenses. Most students probably attend a local community college, thereby reducing expenses dramatically. Furthermore, many associate degrees are available online that can reduce or eliminate commuting costs and time.

Associate of Arts Degree

There are numerous study areas at this level; examples are:

  • Accounting
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Healthcare or Health Services Administration
  • Public Administration
  • Paralegal Studies
  • Communication
  • Music
  • History
  • Business

This degree is helpful for those who plan to earn a bachelor’s degree focusing on any of those specialties. And it is a relatively inexpensive way to see if your chosen major is what you expected. After graduating from high school, some individuals may be unsure of their career path, which furnishes another reason to start with an associate’s of arts or science degree. However, you will have to wade through the General Education classes before reaching those pertaining to the specific degree.

For example, the 60 credit AA in Criminal Justice at Florida National University (FNU) includes nine credits of Communications (English Composition and Oral Communication- 9), Humanities (6), Social Science (6), Natural Science (7), Mathematics (7), and Computers (4). After completing these 39 credits, students take the core courses (12 credits) and electives (9 credits), both devoted to criminal justice topics.

FNU offers a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice that allows students to transfer up to 60 credits from General education and/or Electives. The transferable credits could be an incentive to continue your education at FNU, particularly opting for distance learning. 

The differences between an AA and AS fade when a major as criminal justice is available in either degree. As highlighted above, FNU has an AA in the discipline, whereas California Coast University in Santa Ana has an online AS with a similar curriculum. Ten General Education courses cover the Natural Sciences, English, Humanities, Sociology, and History, followed by four elective classes in various subjects: Human Resource Management, Project Management, Medical Law, Managed Healthcare, development Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and more. There are only six courses related to criminal justice.

It is common to get an associate of arts degree from a community college. Other schools that offer an AA include:

Keiser has over 40 associate’s degrees in arts or science – from applied engineering to video game design. The list is too numerous to name them all. Interestingly, the AA in Homeland Security and Health Services Administration has six hours of Natural Science, all in biology. In comparison, the AS in Culinary Arts has six credit hours in Natural Science, consisting of biology and chemistry. Whether the degree is in the arts or sciences seems discretionary– not a matter of what is better.

Associate of Science Degree

Someone who spends two years earning an associate of science degree may have more career options open after graduation, particularly when the discipline is in the technology field. For instance, radiology technicians should have an associate’s degree from a school accredited by The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). RadiologyEd has an extensive directory of AART-certified programs in the United States. Again, community colleges are where to begin searching for a degree in this field. Because of the hands-on training needed, radiology is not conducive to distance learning.

Radiology and MRI Technologists earn a median salary of $63,710 or $30.60 per hour with an associate degree, according to the BLS (2020). The ten-year job outlook is 9% or a change in 21,600 positions through 2030. California employs the most at 16,670, and it pays the best at $95,010 on average per year. Hawaii is second in salary at $82,990 – but it only has 620 technologists, and the cost of living would offset the higher income.

The DegreeQuery report mentioned above refers to respiratory therapists who work in various healthcare settings, like clinics, hospitals, and emergency departments. The BLS states that they have a median wage of $62,810 with a projected growth of 23% or a turnover of 31,100 jobs through 2030. Although almost half work as respiratory therapists (135,000) as Radiology technologists (254,000), there will be more job openings in the former.

Another term you will encounter in the healthcare arena is an Associate in Applied Science (AAS), typically applied to technology. For example, Concorde Career Colleges offers an AAS in cardiovascular sonography, also known as Echocardiography. Cardiac sonographers capture images of the heart’s chambers and blood vessels using different ultrasound equipment.

While an AS degree focuses on careers in the math and sciences fields. Other occupations in the healthcare field are open to people who have an associate of science degree. Some examples include:

  • Medical assistant
  • Dental hygienist
  • Caregiver
  • Administrative assistant in a physician’s office
  • Social worker
  • Computer programmer
  • Finance
  • Air traffic controller
  • Physical Therapist Assistant

Many earn their associate of science degree from a community college; however, universities also offer AS degrees, for example:

Quick Comparison of an AA versus an AS


   Associate of Arts

   Associate of Science

Available Online





   Science and Math


   Graphic Design
   Criminal Justice

   Health Information Technology
   Construction Project Management

Typical Careers

   Preschool Teacher
   Occupational Therapy Assistant
   Dental Hygienist

   Web Developer
   Registered Nurse
   Mechanical Engineer Technician 

What is the difference between an AA and an AS?

Finally, the most significant difference between having an AA or an AS degree is that an associate of science degree can lead to more specific occupations – especially in a program, such as radiology, that you apply directly to the profession. In comparison, an AA degree may lead to jobs in several career fields, like counseling or psychology.

An AA in psychology, for example, at the community college level affords a sound liberal arts education by studying English, communications, fine arts, behavioral sciences, natural sciences, and math. In addition, students receive an introduction to personality, cognition, and cognitive therapy theories. Applying AA credits to a bachelor’s degree will undoubtedly increase job opportunities, in most instances, and income.

Therefore, one degree is not better because some disciplines, criminal justice, offer it as an AA degree and another school as an AS degree. What makes one better than the other is a personal choice based on career objectives and financial considerations. The data referenced above compares salaries and job projections, which are worth scrutinizing. Ideally, you want a job you enjoy with adequate compensation and benefits. Furthermore, you are not locked into one career based on an AA or AS degree – you can always return to school online to pursue other avenues.

If you are a high school graduate wondering where to start a career, earning an associate’s degree is a good choice for you. If you are good at science and math, you might go the associate of science route. If you want a more general education to get a feel for what you might study later, an associate of arts would be the best choice.

Related Resources:

Top 10 Paying Jobs With an Associate’s Degree

What Can I Do With an Associate’s Degree?

24 Fastest Online Associate’s Degrees 2020

50 Top Scholarships For Associates Degrees

The 20 Best Online Associates Degrees in Nursing

What Is the Difference Between an Associate’s Degree in Accounting and a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting?

For Further Reading: 

50 Highest Paying Associate Degree Jobs

Top 10 Graduate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

20 Non-Law Firm Jobs with a Law Degree

How Much Can I Make With a Degree in Digital Marketing?