Online Associate Degrees

Research from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University has discovered that earnings of individuals with associate degrees have increased by 15 percent since 1983, while those with a bachelor's or graduate degree have increased by 34 and 55 percent, respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, a postsecondary education is becoming a minimum requirement for a growing number of occupations in nearly every industry. CEW research estimates that 33 percent or 14.4 million of the projected 46.8 million job openings between 2008 and 2018 will require either an associate degree or some form of college training.

Commonly, associate degree programs are offered by community colleges and -- in some cases -- four-year universities. One central mission of community colleges is to prepare students to either complete a four-year degree or be prepared for direct entry into a specific professional field. The major benefit of online associate degree programs are they allow both working professionals and entry-level students alike the opportunity to complete an education in flexible, individualized learning environments.

As defined by the US Department of Education, an associate degree program requires between 60 and 72 semester credit hours of study and lasts at least two -- but fewer than four -- years of academic study. Curriculum is generally divided between general education and classes specific to the student's chosen major or field of study. There are four types of associate degrees: Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Science, and Associate of General Studies. Prospective students should explore the various types of degrees available, as some may be completed with the intention of transitioning directly into a career, while others are preparatory in nature, preparing graduates to transfer to a four-year college to complete a bachelor's degree program.

  • Associate of Arts (AA): The AA is an academic-focused degree that traditionally requires between 60 and 64 semester credit hours to complete and can be transferred toward a bachelor's degree program.
  • Associate of Science (AS): The AS is an academic degree, with a greater emphasis on occupational-focused studies that generally requires between 60 and 72 semester credit hours to complete and can be transferred towards a bachelor's degree program.
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS): The AAS is a professional, terminal degree designed for students to transition into direct employment. Traditionally, half of the degree program is dedicated to technical training in the area of study (e.g. electronics technology), and most programs require between 60 and 72 semester credit hours to complete.
  • Associate of General Studies (AGS): The AGS is intended for students seeking a broader educational experience and can be used for direct employment or preparation for enrollment in a bachelor's degree program. Because AGS programs are individualized, the number of credit hours to graduate vary, with most programs requiring between 60 and 64 semester credit hours.

As for majors, there are a wide range of programs available at the associate level. For details on specific program options, check out the links below or contact an admission counselor from the school of your choosing.

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Whatever the reason for selecting an online program -- distance from school, work commitments, inability to relocate -- students can expect the same rigor as they would in a traditional campus-based program. Today's online associate degree programs are designed much the same as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, and often feature the same courses and assignments. Depending on the specific institution and field of study, online associate programs are typically available via two different delivery formats: online and hybrid.

  • Online: Fully online programs do not require any in-person or face-to-face interaction between students and their instructors.
  • Hybrid: Also known as "blended" programs, hybrid learning programs integrate online coursework with traditional face-to-face instruction.

In either case, prospective students should be comfortable with online learning and have an understanding if the department or program uses synchronous or asynchronous teaching methods. In synchronous learning environments, students and teachers participate in real-time instruction using a variety of educational technologies including virtual classrooms, message boards, video conferencing, and chat rooms. On the other hand, some programs use asynchronous or self-paced classes, allowing students to complete their coursework at their own schedule and time.

Over 1,100 institutions across the country provide more than 5,200 associate degree programs online in the various academic subjects. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals the most popular online programs of study (by program count) at the associate degree level include the following:

Popular Programs of Study
Job Openings (2016-26)
Total Employment
Elementary Education and Teaching53600424520
Paralegal - Legal Assistant34700309940
Dental Hygiene17500215150
Radiologic Technology13600205590
Hardware Support and Repair16500181360
Respiratory Care Therapy Assisting9800129600
Computer Programming - Software Development14200127300
Electronics Engineering12000126950
Business Administration with a Human Resource Management Concentration15100124600
Veterinary Assisting and Technology10700106680
Source: 2018 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Prospective students may want to turn their attention to healthcare, as most of the fastest growing occupations requiring an associate degree are healthcare-related, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fastest Growing Occupations
Average Salary (2016)
Job Growth (2012-22)
Physical Therapist Assistants$57,75031%
Occupational Therapy Assistants$60,41029%
Respiratory Therapists$62,50023%
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers$73,86023%
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians$35,56020%
Dental Hygienists$75,50020%
Geological and Petroleum Technicians$62,89016%
Paralegals and Legal Assistants$54,50015%
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists$72,23014%
Web Developers$75,58013%
Environmental Engineering Technicians$54,80013%
Radiologic Technologists$61,54012%
Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, Including Health$50,35012%
Radiation Therapists$86,73012%
Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education$34,41011%
Source: 2018 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

With 30 percent of jobs requiring an associate degree, the benefits of completing an associate degree program online far outweigh the drawbacks. Below are three advantages to earning a two-year degree:

  1. Increased employment competitiveness. Associate degree education aligns a student's skill set to specific occupations and industries, giving them the specialized training they need to be competitive in today's job market.
  2. Shorter time to employment. As two-year programs of study, associate degrees can prepare graduates to enter the workforce or change careers much more quickly.
  3. Improved career earnings. Education pays, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Associate degree holders earned 19.3 percent more than individuals with only a high school diploma and also have lower rates of unemployment.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections, http://www.bls.gov/emp/
Center for Education and the Workforce, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/fullreport.pdf
Learning House, 2014 Online College Students, http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/2014-Online-College-Students-Final.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/CDS.aspx

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