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 engineering schools. Both of these educational paths can prepare students for well-paying careers, but there are differences in both the coursework you will complete and the job opportunities that will be open to you in the future.

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

Types of Associate’s Degrees in Engineering

One important fact that students should know about associate’s degree programs in engineering is that there are two different kinds of 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, are intended as stepping stones to the bachelor’s degree you will need if you want to become a full-fledged engineer. By choosing to start your four-year engineering studies at a community college, you may be able to save money and still graduate on time with the baccalaureate education you need for an engineering career.

Other associate’s degrees are in a related but separate field called engineering technology. 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 assist with implementing and testing an engineer’s designs, rather than developing your own designs and solutions.

Coursework in an engineering technology degree program differs from that of a program that is meant as a stepping stone for four-year studies. If you go back to school to become an engineer, your prior courses may not transfer seamlessly into your new degree program.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Curriculum

A bachelor’s degree program in engineering typically requires four years of full-time coursework, though some programs take longer. Students complete general education requirements as well as 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 he or she chooses to pursue. Some of the most popular branches of engineering include mechanical, electrical, computer and software engineering, according to U.S. News & World Report. Internship or cooperative programs, in which students put their core engineering concepts into practice, are important for aspiring engineers.

An associate’s degree program in engineering that is 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 discipline of engineering, 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 as well as topics such as engineering materials, circuits and techniques for modeling and simulation.

Associate’s degree programs in engineering technology usually take two years to complete. Those offered by community colleges include both technical training and some liberal arts and sciences studies to provide a more well-rounded education, while engineering technology programs at vocational technical schools focus more narrowly 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.

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. In certain states, engineering disciplines and job roles, you may need to attain a Professional Engineering (PE) license. Earning an associate’s degree in engineering or engineering technology is not sufficient to call yourself an engineer.

The biggest distinction between engineers, engineering technicians and engineering technologists is what their work entails. While technicians are more focused on installing, testing and troubleshooting technology, engineering technologists are specialists who work alongside engineers to implement technology. Engineers themselves are the ones who conceptualize and develop new technologies to solve problems.

While engineers have the opportunity to earn higher salaries throughout their careers, engineering technicians can start out with comparably high wages, as well. For example, mechanical engineers earn a median salary of $85,880, while the median wage for mechanical engineering technicians is $55,360. However, in certain 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 work directly with installing and fixing 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, if you know that you want to develop new technology rather than just use existing technology, you might wonder if it is still possible to start out your education at a community college. You can absolutely take this route to earning an engineering degree, and save yourself a great deal of money in doing so, The Washington Post reported. However, you may need to be careful in choosing an associate’s degree program to make sure that you won’t waste time, money and effort taking courses that won’t transfer to a four-year degree program. Look for an engineering program, not an engineering technology program.

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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.