Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree: Which is Right for Me?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

The degree level you choose for your initial foray into higher education isn’t as critical a decision as what you decide to get the degree in—say, biology or information technology. The degree level, that is, associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s, you start with doesn’t have to remain the final degree you obtain.

If you have chosen a career path, for instance, paralegal, then do some research to find out what law firms are looking for when they hire paralegals. If most law firms hire paralegals with associate’s degree, then it would be fine for you to obtain your associate’s degree with an emphasis on paralegal studies. If most law firms in your area demand a bachelor’s degree for entry into a paralegal position, then you’d want to consider starting with the bachelor’s degree.

Associate’s Degree

The main thing to keep in mind about an associate’s degree is that it mostly consists of general education credits, that is, math, social studies, English, writing, science, history and psychology. These courses are required along with a required component of courses geared toward paralegal studies or the focus of your degree. The two years of your associate’s degree will include 60 semester credits, or about 20 college courses.

The general education credits of an associate’s degree are usually transferrable to a four year college if you decide to go for the bachelor’s degree after earning the associate’s. Check with both schools first, the college you’re getting the associate’s degree from and the college you will transfer to or the destination college. Many community colleges have agreements with four year colleges regarding transfer credits.

Every associate’s degree program will include courses that are required and elective courses, that is, courses that you choose to take. Specific areas of study or majors will include required courses in that field of study, that is, paralegal courses for a paralegal associate’s degree. If you decide to transfer your credits to a destination college to obtain your bachelor’s degree, then most likely it is the specific area of study, paralegal courses for example, that might not transfer unless the destination college offers a bachelor’s degree program in that major. Again, check with each school before making a final decision.

Associate’s degrees usually take one of two forms, transfer associate degrees and career or professional associate degrees. As the name hints, transfer degrees are ideal for those who ultimately wish to earn a bachelor’s degree. The career or professional associate’s degree is for students who wish to immediately begin applying their knowledge and skills in the workplace.

Many good paying jobs in the trades and in technical fields accept people with associate degrees for entry level positions. People with associate degrees are hired into nursing, computer programming, veterinarian technician, respiratory therapy, graphic design, healthcare technology, electronics and medical records positions, among other career areas. If these positions are where you think you’d like to work, then go for an associate’s degree.

Since an associate’s degree takes half the time of a bachelor’s degree, and half the college courses required for a bachelor’s, obtaining an associate’s degree also costs about half as much as a bachelor’s degree.

Consider getting an associate’s degree if:

  • You know that your career path requires an associate’s degree
  • You already have some college credits under your belt and would like to consolidate the credits you have into a formal degree
  • You have no college credits but would like to earn a degree quickly and within a price you can afford
  • You aren’t sure about a career yet. Working towards an associate’s degree allows you to try the general education courses and you might find a career focus in the process. You’ll have access to college advisors and the career services department of your community college and can obtain career guidance there.
  • You can’t afford to begin your higher education with a bachelor’s degree
  • You don’t have the grades or the SAT scores to get into a four year college but your community college will admit you. Study, keep your grades up while earning the associate’s and you can then transfer to a bachelor’s degree program later.
  • You want to earn an associate’s degree to get started in your career, then take online courses towards your bachelor’s degree while you are working full time.

Pros and Cons

Pros for earning an associate’s degree include:

  • Half the cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree
  • Can transfer credits into a bachelor’s degree program later, having completed the first two years of a bachelor’s with your associate’s degree at a community college that costs less
  • Earn an associate’s degree and start in your chosen career two years before your bachelor degree peers

Cons

  • You may be competing with people with bachelor’s degrees for the same jobs. When this situation occurs, employers may decide to use degree level to narrow down the candidates for a position.
  • Your earnings may be lower than that for people with a bachelor’s degree
  • Getting into managerial or supervisory positions may be difficult without a higher degree

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is like an associate’s degree doubled. This degree level requires 120 semester credits or about 40 courses, many of them general education such as humanities courses and 10 to 12 courses focused on the major area of study.

A bachelor’s degree is required for entry into professional or graduate schools such as medicine, law or teacher education. Many jobs require a bachelor’s degree for an entry level position.

Courses

A bachelor’s degree program for Business Administration, for example, would be set up something like this:

Competency Requirements (10 credits>

English composition, oral communication, mathematics of finance

Liberal Arts Requirements (36 – 40 credits)

Fine arts, humanities, history, social sciences such as geography, economics, sociology, principles of macroeconomics, principles of microeconomics, natural sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics

Business Administration Major Requirements Required courses (45 credits)

Management, financial accounting, global business, leadership and management, accounting issues for managers, human resource management, legal environment of business, intro to marketing, etc.

Business Emphasis in Finance (15 credits)

Investments, financial decision making, agricultural commodity marketing, managerial law, personal finances, real estate, etc.

Accounting Minor (24 credits)

Management accounting, financial accounting, federal income tax, cost accounting, intermediate accounting I, intermediate accounting II, etc.

Taking these courses will take about four years. If you earned an associate’s degree before applying to a bachelor’s degree program, then usually you will already have the liberal arts requirement completed if all the credits transferred.

Costs

The cost of the bachelor’s degree, of course, will vary depending on the college or university you attend. According to a report by College Board, a bachelor’s degree at a private college or university was $25,143 per year, and $7,000 per year at a public college. This cost only concerns tuition, room and board costs are separate. For four years, a bachelor’s degree at a private college is slightly over $100,000 and $28,000 at a public college. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree is very expensive these days, especially with the tuition hikes of the past decade. However, with scholarships, grants, college savings, federal financial aid and student loans, many students can work out a financial plan and find the right college that will gain them their higher education.

Consider getting a bachelor’s degree if:

  • You know your chosen career path requires a bachelor’s degree
  • You plan to go further in education and attend graduate school
  • You already have some college credits or an associate’s degree and want a bachelor’s degree

Pros and Cons

Pros for earning a bachelor’s degree include:

  • Increased job prospects
  • Higher earning potential
  • Can be promoted to managerial or supervisory positions
  • More expertise, knowledge and skill

Cons

Cons for earning a bachelor’s degree include:

  • Prohibitive tuition cost
  • Four year time commitment
  • Costs of room and board, rent, books, car and fuel, etc.

While many high school students will earn their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees by going to an on campus school for two or four years, technological advances are creating new educational pathways and choices. Students can now obtain nearly any degree level online, either entirely online or partially online and on campus.

However a student decides to earn a degree, whether it is an associate’s or bachelor’s, online or on campus, higher education requires commitment on the part of the student. Dedicating a portion of your life to obtaining higher education will reward you with better job prospects and higher earning potentials.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.