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Associate Degree vs Bachelor’s Degree: Which is Better?

Associate or bachelor’s? Of course, each degree has its strengths for different people and careers. To answer, “Which is better?” means taking stock of your personal circumstances and professional goals. If you’re on the fence, read on, and we’ll try to cover some topics that will help you.

The Basic Differences Between Bachelor's and Associate's Degrees

It’s hard to know what elements to consider as you decide what’s right for you. Community college can be a cheaper and less time-consuming path to earn a degree. But a 4-year degree can open the door to more jobs. There are also changing trends within given fields, so your best bet is to do your research before you make a final decision on whether you’ll attend school for an associate or bachelor’s degree. Here are some helpful comparators to consider.

For an associate degree, courses typically prepare you for a specific career (technical or occupational degree). You can also take general studies (non-occupational degree), and the credits you earn toward an associate's 4degree can sometimes be transferred toward a bachelor's degree.

For a bachelor’s degree, you will need to complete a program of around 120 credits of coursework. For many fields, such as architecture, chemistry, or mathematics, a bachelor's degree is considered the minimum level of education required to enter the career. Often, “general education” courses are required on topics like history, fine arts, sciences, math, and English. You may be required to take several elective courses, which are designed to add depth to your chosen field.

 Associate's DegreeBachelor's Degree
Time to Complete2 Years4 Years
Number of Classes or Hours of Coursework20 Classes120 Hours
Degree You Might ReceiveAssociate of Applied Science (AAS) Associate of Arts (A.A.) Associate of Science (A.S.) Associate of Fine Arts (AFA)Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) Bachelor of Science (B.S.) Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA

The Difference in Content Between an Associate Degree and a Bachelor's Degree

Below is an example of the differences between a 2-year associate degree in accounting and a 4-year bachelor’s degree in accounting:

graphic describes the difference between a 2-year associate degree and a 4-year bachelors degree

Now you’ve seen the detailed differences between an associate and bachelor’s degree, but how do you know which is right for you? Here's some helpful advice.

5 Reasons to Aim for an Associate Degree

1. The job you want now is a vocation or trade that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree. Cyber security is a perfect example of an occupational associate degree. You get your associate degree, get a job, and work your way up. The reason we say “the job you want now” is because almost any vocation or trade has supervisory and management jobs. After working your way up, you might decide later to return for a bachelor’s degree, where you can focus on management or business courses so you can move into a managing role.

  • In 2010, 23% of children in families were in a two-year degree program
  • In 2017, 34% of children in families were in a two-year program (source: Sallie Mae 2017)

2. You’re itching to work and get experience. An associate degree is what you want if you wish for less time in school, and more time in the field gaining relevant experience.

3. You’re not quite sure what career path you want to pursue.* When researching associate degree programs, be sure to ask about the transferability of the program, especially if earning a bachelor's may be a possibility in the future. Some degree programs may be more transfer-friendly than others, and schools like Franklin have established partnerships with community colleges that streamline the process of transferring associate credits toward a bachelor's. * If you don’t know what you want to do, then there’s one area of an associate program you’ll want to avoid: occupational associate degree. That’s where you study one field in great detail (like air conditioning or welding or phlebotomy). If you end up not liking the work, then very little if any of your coursework with transfer over to another area of study.

4. You’re on a budget. Typically an associate degree costs less than a bachelor’s degree (about $20,000-$25,000 vs around $40,000), according to CollegeBoard. So, if your finances are tight now, you may want to avoid breaking the bank with a more costly bachelor’s degree. “However, in the long run,” according to Dr. Doug Ross, Program Chair for the B.S. Business Administration Program at Franklin University, “many studies have shown that a bachelor’s degree will generally give you more access to pay and promotion, depending on your company.”

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5. Attending a traditional 4-year school doesn’t fit your lifestyle right now. The on-campus life may not fit into a life that may already be busy with work, family, or children. It’s up to you to evaluate what personality of school program you want to join.

5 Reasons to Begin Your Path Toward a Bachelor’s

1. You want to maximize your earnings potential. People with a bachelor’s degree on average earn quite a bit more over a lifetime, about $325,000 more than an associate degree, according to a 2014 report by The Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

2. You want to qualify for more management and leadership positions. “With a bachelor’s degree, you can qualify for more management and leadership positions,” according to Dr. Ross. “In the past, you may have been able to move up the ladder without a bachelor’s degree. Now it’s different. They want someone who has studied core leadership, thinking, knowledge, and management.”

3. You want to beat the competition in emerging fields (like cybersecurity) to get hired. In any emerging field, there is always an opportunity to be the first to strike. If you earn a bachelor’s degree in your field, you can get your career off to a fast start.

4. You are unhappy in your current work and career. Sometimes, a person just wants to change career paths entirely, but they are afraid of the cost of going back to school. Try to take a long-term view. Think of it like investing in a car; many people spend five figures on a car, maybe using a payment plan over the course of years. Consider your education in a similar way. It’s an expense that gives you a powerful asset that you use every day--but unlike a car, your degree has a value that will always be with you and won’t decline over time.

5. You enjoy learning and critical thinking. Education is a foundational element of life. Our curiosity to know and grow is a powerful part of who we are. Besides, you will also be increasing your general employability. With a bachelor’s degree you’ll likely have some critical thinking embedded into your classes. The coursework is dedicated to a higher level of thinking and leadership—and employers recognize that. (Of course, master’s degree programs have even more critical thinking, but that’s another decision for another day.)

When It’s Time to Decide

Choosing a degree path is a personal choice, one that requires a lot of planning and introspection. One interesting thing is that the a person usually has different reasons for choosing an associate program vs a bachelor’s program. When choosing an associate program, it’s often based on cost and location. You might also want to consider some ways to get creative with your decision:

graphic describes that it is time to decide, 2-year public or community college

  • Focus on experience. “At a recent career fair, we heard loud and clear from employers that experience is most important to them,” according to Holly McFarland, Director of Center for Career Development at Franklin University. “That’s true,” according to Dr. Ross, though he added, “If the position is a supervisor or management position, then hands-down the most important thing to employers is a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
  • Think about getting both degrees! “After the first two years of school, make it your goal to have an associate degree.” According to McFarland, “Your employability goes up, as compared to a person with two years of college but with no associate degree. You’ll have a degree, a distinction, and you can always go back later, perhaps part time, to get your bachelor’s degree. Plus, you won’t have the amount of accumulated loan debt if you’d gone to school for 4 straight years.”
  • Plan early. In high school, many heads-up students are using what’s called “college credit plus.” It’s a way to get up to a year’s worth of college credits. When those credits are applied to a community college, it’s like having only one year left to get your associate degree.
  • Remember that the value of college is still high. The 2017 statistics for the annual Sallie Mae “How We Pay for College” report reveals something that cuts to the heart of this topic. The national study, now in its tenth year, interviewed 800 undergraduate students (aged 18-24) and 800 parents of undergraduate students. Despite our nation’s general discomfort with increasing costs of post-high-school education, nearly every respondent saw college as an investment with future value. A full 98% of the current generation of college students and parents agree that “college is an investment in the future.” In fact, for families with a child enrolled as an undergraduate, the belief that college is an investment in the future has not wavered in 10 years, with rates regularly 95% or higher. But we still must do our best to choose the path that suits us.

Today’s job market is complex and competitive. Your education is the first major decision that just may impact your success for decades to come. Just know that it’s a choice that should be made intentionally based on the future you want for yourself.

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