Bachelor’s Degree vs. Associate Degree: Where Should You Start?

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

Before you make the commitment to go back to school, one of the first decisions you'll need to make is what type and level of degree to pursue. Just because a traditional four-year bachelor's degree is often associated with a post-secondary college education doesn't necessarily mean it's always the right degree for everyone. Different types of degrees may be better suited to different people's personal and professional goals.

To help you make the choice that best fits your goals, it's important to know more about what you can expect to study when completing a bachelor's degree or associate degree program.

What is an Associate Degree?

An associate degree is the first level of non-vocational degree you can pursue following a high school diploma. Typically designed to be completed in two years or less, associate degree programs include introductory courses through which students can start to learn about a particular field or academic discipline. For this reason, the courses in an associate program may overlap with the lower level courses in a bachelor's program of the same field or subject.

What is a Bachelor's Degree?

A bachelor's degree is the next step after an associate degree and is typically awarded through traditional four-year college programs. In addition to requiring more credit hours to complete, bachelor's programs include more specialized courses that build on the knowledge and information covered in an associate program of the same subject. You are not required to get an associate degree before pursuing a bachelor's, as the requirements for the former are often built into the latter.

Two Key Differences: Time and Depth

Length of Time to Complete an Associate versus a Bachelor's Degree

As mentioned above, one of the basic differences between an associate degree versus a bachelor's degree is the amount of time it takes to earn each. While many consider typical timelines for bachelor's and associate degrees to be four years and two years, respectively, this isn't always the case. Completion of either degree is dependent on the specific number of credits required by a college or university, so while an associate requires fewer credits, you should also take into account how many courses you can take each period or semester, whether you can take classes in the summer, and whether you qualify for transfer or prior learning credits.

It is worth noting that at some schools, depending on whether classes are offered on an accelerated basis or in online/hybrid formats, it may be possible to earn a bachelor's degree in as few as three years and an associate degree in as little as 18 months. Again, this depends on how many courses you are able to complete per term.

Depth of Study

In exploring a bachelor's degree versus associate degree, it's important to note that bachelor's degrees take longer to earn because they require more credits, which is intended to allow students to gain deeper knowledge in a specific field of interest, such as business management or information technology. An associate degree, on the other hand, is often built around more broad foundational coursework. These degrees may enable students to work through the general education courses often required for a variety of different educational paths, such as English composition, basic science or humanities courses.

That said, some associate degree programs are built specifically to educate students around certain types of training or job roles. While Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degrees may better serve as building blocks to bachelor's programs, Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees are typically vocational degrees focused on a specific area of study.

Type of Degree Can Affect Demand and Employment Rates

No degree can guarantee you a job, much less one in your chosen field. However, it is worth exploring how different degrees are faring on the current job market. In 2018, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that those with associate degrees experience lower unemployment rates than those without any college education, at 2.8% unemployment. However, bachelor's degree holders experience an unemployment rate of just 2.2% according to the BLS.2

Additionally, Pew Research Center's most recent survey on job satisfaction by degree showed some differences between bachelor's degree holders and associate degree holders. Specifically, more respondents with a bachelor's degree reported being in a career-track job, as well as feeling satisfied with their current job, than those with an associate degree.3

Discover Your Interests by Starting With an Associate Degree

If you know you want to earn your degree but aren't yet settled on a specific career path, an associate degree may be a good place to start. This approach can help you decide what subjects interest you before making the larger commitment to completing a bachelor's degree. It can also be a good way to get a feel for what going to school may be like and whether it will work with your current schedule and responsibilities.

You may want to pursue an associate degree in business administration, for example, as a starting point that can help you determine the specific business fields in which you're most interested. Business-related coursework in accounting and marketing, as well as general studies coursework like economics or math, can act as foundational courses, serving as a sturdy springboard to bachelor's programs in areas such as accounting or finance.

If you're considering starting with an associate degree and have a different university's bachelor's program in mind as a next step, make sure to research that institution’s transfer requirements. This is especially important if you plan on transferring to a university from community college.

Have a Game Plan in Mind

If you're still considering a bachelor's versus associate degree, more research is likely a good idea. Look at the course offerings of specific programs you're considering as well as the requirements for career paths you may want to pursue. Explore the requirements of the job market for your field of interest and, if you can, talk to hiring managers and career counselors for their advice before making a decision.

Ready to learn more? Explore bachelor and associate degree programs at AIU.

1. Complete College America, "Data Dashboard: Time and Credits to Degree," on the Internet at (visited on October 16, 2018).
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment 2018," on the Internet at (visited on October 16, 2018). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.
3. Pew Research Center, "Education: The Rising Cost of Not Going to College," on the Internet at (visited on October 16, 2018).

For important information about the educational debt, earnings, and completion rates of students who attended these programs, go to AIU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states.
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