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Associate Degree vs. Bachelor's Degree

If you're looking into options for college or career training beyond high school, you might be considering either a four-year college or university, or perhaps an Associate Degree Program at a community college or online school. How do you know which program is right for you? Your decision will be based on many factors, especially the amount of time and money you want to invest in your education, as well as the career path you want to go into. Let's take a look at some specific factors you might consider when choosing between a Bachelor's Degree program and an Associate Degree program.

Length of Study

How long you want to spend in school before launching your career will certainly be a factor in whether you choose an Associate Degree or a Bachelor's Degree program. Most Associate Degree programs can be completed in two years or less, while Bachelor's Degrees are typically a four-year course of study, however some degrees (such as engineering or architecture) may take up to five years to complete. Some students are able to complete Bachelor's Degrees in less time (around three years) with a heavier course load and college credit earned with advanced placement testing, summer courses, or other volunteer or work experience for course credit. However, taking a much heavier course load to complete a degree sooner may not be manageable for all students. If school is your primary focus and you don't need to work while attending, you may be able to handle the additional courses. Students juggling work and family obligations may find that taking more courses is difficult to schedule.


Tuition Expenses

The longer you spend in school, the higher your tuition expenses will be. So, it's clear that Associate Degree programs will typically be less expensive to complete than Bachelor's Degree programs. Tuition and fees at public, 2-year institutions averaged $8,085 in 2010. Keep in mind that tuition rates vary greatly from school to school. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2011–2012 school year was $28,500 at private colleges, $8,244 for state residents at public colleges, and $20,770 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. Some Bachelor's Degree programs are far more affordable than others, and online degree programs offer affordable and flexible options for many students who might otherwise bypass a Bachelor's Degree for financial reasons. Be sure to research the tuition rates and financial aid options available for all schools you may be interested in attending.


Course of Study

A very important deciding factor in whether you choose an Associate Degree program or a Bachelor's Degree program is the course of study you plan to focus on. Typical courses of study for Associate Degrees include:

  • Business Administration
  • Applied Science
  • Technology
  • Business
  • Teaching
  • Fine arts
  • Nursing
  • Criminal justice
  • Dental hygiene
  • Communications
  • Project management or operations
  • Computer engineering
  • Healthcare technology


Many Bachelor's Degree program offerings are far more extensive, offering a large range of majors in the arts or sciences. A sampling of Bachelor's Degree program offerings at a typical 4-year state university may include:

  • Applied Sciences & Engineering
  • Archeology
  • Art and Art History
  • Bioinformatics
  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  • Business
  • Christianity & Culture
  • Cinema
  • Cognitive Science
  • Comparative Literature
  • Creative Writing
  • Cultural Studies
  • Developmental Biology
  • Economics
  • Ethics
  • Environment & Ecology
  • European Studies
  • Folklore
  • Genetics & Molecular Biology
  • Global Studies
  • Humanities
  • Jewish Studies
  • Journalism
  • Latin American Studies
  • Latina/o Studies
  • Management
  • Mathematics
  • Medieval Studies
  • Middle East/Muslim Civilizations
  • Molecular and Cellular Biophysics
  • Music
  • Neurobiology
  • Oral Communication
  • Peace, War, and Defense
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Russian/East European Studies
  • Sexuality Studies
  • Social and Economic Justice
  • Theater and Drama
  • Toxicology
  • Writing

This list is a representative sample, but each school will have a different set of academic majors for Bachelor's Degree programs. Be sure to research all schools you are interested in to make sure they offer an academic major you want to focus on.


Admissions Requirements

Admissions requirements for Associate Degree programs and Bachelor's Degree programs also vary considerably. Associate Degree programs offer the most flexible admissions requirements, depending on the school, and are therefore more accessible with students who do not have an excellent high school academic record. Typical admissions requirements for an Associate Degree program include:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Minimal high school grade point average (GPA ) -- often GPAs of 2.75 or better are acceptable, though some programs will accept students with any passing GPA
  • Minimal ACT or SAT scores (not all schools require standardized test scores, however)
  • Passing grades in prerequisite courses
  • Short writing sample stating career and educational goals
  • Letters of recommendation


Keep in mind that some Associate Degree programs offer very open admissions, waiving any or all of these requirements in certain cases. However, programs with the easiest admissions requirements may not offer the most valuable courses, so be sure to balance your chances of being admitted with the quality of education offered.

Bachelor's Degree programs typically have stricter admissions requirements, but these vary greatly depending on the college or university. Factors influencing the admissions requirements include whether the school is a state or private school, the age and reputation of the school (Ivy League universities, for example, typically have the most stringent admissions requirements), and other factors. The following requirements represent the minimum acceptable standards for admission to many state universities:

  • Cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better
  • Required high school course units, including 4 units of English, 4 units of mathematics, 3 units of natural science (some including laboratory science), 3 units of social science, 2 units of a foreign language or American Sign Language, 2 elective units
  • Minimum score of 21 on the writing ACT or 500 on the writing SAT
  • Minimum score of 21 on the math ACT or 500 on the math SAT
  • Minimum score of 22 on the reading ACT or 500 on the critical reading SAT
  • Participation in extracurricular activities
  • Essays and writing samples
  • Letters of recommendation


This is simply a guide for minimum requirements, but many 4-year colleges and universities have higher standard requirements and some may have lower requirements. Keep in mind that satisfying the minimum requirements does not guarantee admission. The schools you apply to will also consider many other factors including the quality and rigor of your high school courses, volunteer and extracurricular activities, sports or arts talent and skills, and other considerations.


Graduation Requirements

Graduation requirements for Associate Degree programs and Bachelor's Degree programs also vary. Most Associate Degrees require about 60 semester credit hours to complete and a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0. By contrast, Bachelor's Degree programs typically require 120-150 semester credit hours and a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or better. Many schools also require all outstanding bills paid and all school-owned equipment and library books returned before students receive their diplomas. Some 4-year colleges and universities also have other, less obvious, graduation requirements. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, all students are required to pass a basic swimming test before they graduate.


Available Careers

Most students seeking Associate Degrees will focus rather specifically on their course of study, preparing them for entry-level careers in a narrow range of occupations. Because Bachelor's Degree programs offer a more broad liberal arts education, graduates of these programs often have more career options available to them. Indeed, the Bachelor's Degree is considered the minimum degree for most white collar jobs. Read more about the careers available to Associate Degree holders here and get more information about the huge range of careers available to Bachelor's Degree holders here.


Associate Degree vs. Bachelor's Degree Comparison

  Associate Degree Bachelor's Degree
Length of Study 1-2 years 3-5 years
Average Tuition & Fees $8,085 (average in 2010) $8,244 - $28,500 (average for 2011-2012 academic year)
Course of Study Specific fields (see section above) Wide range of fields and academic disciplines (see section above)
Minimum GPA for Admission 2.0 (average) 3.0 (average)
Minimum ACT for Admission May not be required 21-English; 21-Math; 22-Reading (representative for a public state university)
Minimum SAT for Admission May not be required 500 - English; 500 - Math; 500 - Critical Reading (representative for a public state university)
Admissions Requirements Flexible, on average Competitive, on average
Credits Required for Graduation 60 semester credit hours, on average 120-150 semester credit hours, on average
GPA Required for Graduation 2.0, on average 2.0 - 3.0, depending on the school


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