Associate Degree vs Bachelor’s Degree: What Is the Difference?

a college student on graduation day wearing a cap and gown

As you begin the process of deciding to attend college, you may see information about associate degrees and bachelor's degrees. At around two years long, an associate degree may look like a good option if you are in a hurry to get started in your career. But a bachelor's degree is a common requirement in a lot of job listings, so it can be tough to decide which type of degree to earn.

What Is an Associate Degree?

Associate degree programs generally last two years, preparing students for a specific career while helping them transfer credit into a bachelor's degree program. The credits that students earn during an associate degree can be counted toward a bachelor's degree, meaning you can begin taking classes at an accredited or approved community college or university and earn an associate degree, then use those credits to continue your education and earn a bachelor's degree.

Types of Associate Degrees

One type of associate degree, a transfer degree, is completed with the goal of transferring to a four-year college or university. The coursework completed in a transfer associate degree may help you get into any university that accepts that earned credit. Students who earn an Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS) or an Associate of Fine Art (AFA) generally use those degrees to transfer to four-year institutions.

Courses of Study in Associate Degrees

Associate degrees cover a wide range of topics. Because they can lead directly to careers or to other university systems, students who want to earn an associate degree can study just about anything including art, business, communication, dental hygiene, automotive repair, electronics, education and culinary art.

What Is a Bachelor's Degree?

Bachelor's degree programs are generally completed over four years and are available at colleges and universities. A bachelor's degree provides more advanced study in a particular academic area than an associate degree. A bachelor's degree takes 120 credits of coursework to complete. For many industries, a bachelor's degree is the minimum level of education needed to find work, making it the industry standard for most fields. 

Types of Bachelor's Degrees

Bachelor's degrees are available in just about every subject area. Therefore you can earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) in many subjects such as science, education and the humanities. You can also earn a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch) and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA).

Coursework in a Bachelor's Degree Program

Students often begin a bachelor's degree by completing the general education courses. These courses are considered the core curriculum and often include subjects such as languages, math, English, science and history. Students earning a bachelor’s degree are able to take electives, which are courses in specific areas of interest that may or may not apply directly to the degree program. Students also take courses specifically within their academic program that are required to earn their degrees.

A student in a bachelor's degree program can also earn a minor or emphasis in a certain area. This is a way to take a set of classes together that amounts to an emphasis or specialty that complements the major. For example, some people may earn a bachelor's degree in business administration with a minor in accounting.

How to Decide Between an Associate Degree and a Bachelor's Degree

Now that you understand each type of degree, it is good to know about the differences between the two. There are many different things to consider when deciding which path to take on your college journey. These include:

Time

The most basic difference between an associate degree and a bachelor's degree is the time that it takes to finish your coursework. As noted, an associate degree can generally be completed in two years whereas a bachelor's degree takes around four years to complete. In both cases, part-time students would take longer to earn their degree. The extra time required to complete a bachelor’s degree serves as a chance for students to expand their expertise in their field of study and gain additional skills and experience for their future career.

Cost

Because an associate degree is a shorter college experience, it generally costs less. Exact cost per credit will vary from school to school, but in general, associate degrees include fewer credits; therefore, students pay lower total tuition. The greater cost of a bachelor’s program compared to an associate degree is a sound investment for many students considering the increased employment opportunities the higher-level degree makes available to graduates.

Level of Coursework

Associates degrees can lead to specific fields such as skilled vocational work and technical programs like nursing. These associate degree programs include a highly specific set of courses that help you prepare for that specific job. A student completing an associate degree can also take a general studies path in order to transfer credits. A bachelor's degree requires that you choose a subject-specific major. Graduates of a bachelor’s degree will gain a higher level of education, with courses that provide both breadth and depth into their chosen field. In some programs, students are required to complete a final project, such as a research paper.

Career Goals

Students with an associate degree can get started quickly in roles like dental hygienist, nurse, cosmetologist, computer programmer or paralegal. Usually a student with an associate degree can begin these jobs in technical or skilled labor areas right after graduation, but may wish to continue their education to promote greater career development.

Students interested in pursuing a career in fields like business management, engineering, finance and education often require at least a bachelor's degree to find work. Students who intend to earn more advanced degrees like master’s or doctoral degrees must have a bachelor’s degree before they advance to this step in their education.

How to Transition from an Associate to Bachelor’s Degree

Many students choose to transfer credits completed for their associate degree into a bachelor’s degree program at a college or university. Each school has different policies about how many or what type of transfer credits they accept from an associate degree program. AA and AS programs are sometimes called transfer degrees because they are designed to provide around half of the credits needed for most bachelor’s degrees over the course of the two-year program. For the most part, students that transfer credits can complete their bachelor’s degree in as little as two years. Be sure to double check the transfer policies for your university or reach out to your admissions counselor with any questions.

If you are ready to earn your college degree, there is a lot to think about. At Grand Canyon University, we offer over 100 bachelor's degrees, with each program available on-campus or online. If you are interested in learning more about why a bachelor's degree is a good choice for your career goals and future earning or have an associate degree and want to talk to us about transfer credit, contact us today. Prospective students can also use our Transfer Course Search tool to enter their community college transcripts and find out how many credits will count toward a degree at GCU.

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