What's the Difference Between a Bachelor's and Associate's Degree?

Find out what makes a bachelor's degree different from an associate's degree. Learn what bachelor's degrees and associate's degrees are, what separates them, and which of these degree levels is best for the career you're trying to pursue.

Bachelor's Degree Versus Associate's Degree: How Are They Different?

Higher education degrees are divided into several different categories, two of which are the associate's degree and bachelor's degree. Associate's degree programs typically last two years and are primarily designed to prepare students to work in particular technical careers and vocations. Bachelor's degrees are a step beyond, typically lasting four years, and are meant to offer a broad education in a variety of subjects in addition to developing an expertise in a particular field.

Associate's degrees can sometimes function as a stepping stone to a bachelor's degree, with completed credits able to be applied towards those needed for a bachelor's degree should a student decide later to continue their education. Associate's degree programs and bachelor's degree programs can both exist for the same career, such as with nursing. Some fields, such as architecture and mathematics, require a bachelor's degree.

Time Commitment Purpose Example Degree
Associate's Degree 2 years To teach students the skills needed for a particular job or prepare for a bachelor's degree Associate of Applied Science in Nursing
Bachelor's Degree 4 years Provides well-rounded education and a particular field of study, and/or prepares students to pursue graduate degrees Bachelor of Science in Physics

What Is an Associate's Degree Program Like?

Associate's degree programs are planned to take two years to complete, and occupation-focused programs have little in the way of coursework that does not directly relate to degree subject. Students taking courses for an associate's degree usually won't have to worry about living on campus, and many associate's degree programs offer distance learning or hybrid online/on-campus instruction.

An Associate of Applied Science in Nursing, for example, might only require 15 credit hours of a 62 credit hour program be dedicated to general education classes, but even these will relate to skills like English and mathematics, which are important in the work place. Courses related to the program will often have a clear progression, with numbered classes that must be taken in a certain order. Upon graduation, a student should be able to acquire any needed licensure or certification and begin working in their field immediately. Some associate degrees, however, are designed to transfer general education to bachelor's programs.

What Is a Bachelor's Degree Program Like?

Bachelor's degree programs are expected to take four years to complete on average, and roughly two of those years will be spent on general education courses, resulting in a more well-rounded education. Some universities require incoming freshmen to live on campus for at least two years, although older students are often exempt from this.

Most bachelor's degree programs require 120 credit hours to complete, and the amount of that time spent on electives and general education can vary depending on the exact degree. A Bachelor of Science in Physics, for example, might require 33 hours of science and 20 hours of math, along with 37 hours of general education, leaving 30 hours to be filled by electives which may or may not relate to the major. Bachelor's degree programs may be aimed at preparing the student for a particular career or for continuing on to a graduate degree.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of These Degrees?

Associate's degrees and bachelor's degrees exist as distinct programs because they are suited to different goals; one is not strictly better than the other. Associate's degrees require less time investment, are often less expensive even on a per-credit hour basis, and usually directly prepare students for work under a particular trade. However, they may limit room for promotion compared to a higher degree. For those looking to start working or make a change in career quickly, and those who do not wish to spend a lot of time in school, an associate's degree is a good choice.

Bachelor's degrees provide a more thorough education on a wider variety of topics, are widely respected by employers even outside their field, and offer a higher potential earning cap over one's lifetime. However, they require significant commitment in terms of time and money and may not have as clear of a career route as an associate's degree. For those who can afford to make such a commitment, such as those with relatively fewer responsibilities or individuals seeking a radical career shift, a bachelor's degree may be a preferable route.

How Can I Decide Which Is Best for Me?

Having a particular job title in mind that you intend to work towards is perhaps the easiest way to decide what level of degree is best for you. Technicians and other skilled labor positions are best served by associate's degree programs, which train them for a particular role. Jobs in academia, research, or management often benefit from the broader education received in a bachelor's degree program.

For jobs like nursing, which are available as both associate's and bachelor's degrees, it could be best to decide what your ultimate goals are. Do you appreciate learning and experiencing a wider variety of topics, or would you like to finish school and get to work quickly? Is there a chance you may decide to pursue graduate-level degrees later on as you seek to progress in your career? Considering the answers to questions like these may help to decide what degree is right for you.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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