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Associate Degrees Can Lead to More Pay and Better Career Opportunities

Pursue an associate degree, and in two years, you will have the training to land a job in a fast-growing field or continue your education by earning a bachelor's degree.

Hundreds of thousands of students earn associates degrees each year. For some, the associates degree is the culmination of a quick college career. They have the skills to get hired in a hot career sector or a traditional industry that offers a steady and satisfying paycheck. Others see the associates degree as a strong foundation for furthering their education.

Whether you're preparing for a career immediately after graduation or plan to add more degrees to your wall, here's what you need to know about associates degrees.

History of Associate Degrees
For years, associate degrees have been a hallmark of community colleges, many of which have added degree programs to keep pace with in-demand professions and industries. Nearly 1,200 accredited community, junior, and technical colleges in the U.S. offer associates degrees, in a variety of areas.

The ability to take classes in flexible schedules and formats, including online, has attracted more students to earn their associate degrees, with 787,466 awarded in 2008-2009 (the most recent data available).

Benefits of Earning an Associate Degree
An associate degree can make you more appealing to an employer and boost your bank account. A worker with an associate's degree over their lifetime will earn nearly $500,000 more than someone with only a high school diploma, according to data by the Georgetown University Center on Workforce and Education. On a weekly basis, that could be an average of $128 more in your paycheck, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

The specialized training in an associates degree program will help you stand out among job candidates who don't hold degrees and also will provide more job opportunities for you. For example, more than half of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. require that workers at least an associate's degree, the U.S. Department of Education reports. The unemployment rate among associates degree holders also is lower than workers who only have a high school diploma.

Jobs seeking workers with associate degrees also are more likely to offer health insurance and retirement plans than those only requiring a high school diploma.

"You are more eligible for career options and opportunities," says Esther Hugo, an adjunct professor in the graduate counseling department in the School of Education of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and former coordinator of the Outreach Program at Santa Monica College. "I tell students and parents you want to get a high school diploma but it is a ticket to nowhere unless you go on and get some kind of college degree."

An associate degree provides access work opportunities and job experiences much earlier in their academic career, says Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment development at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"The associate degree can be a credential that is valued in a number of industries, depending on the field," Flagel says.

It's also a credential toward pursuing a bachelor's degree, but he cautions that students consider whether they plan to continue their education first to make sure they are choosing an associates degree where the courses will transfer to another school. Flagel points out that research shows 60 percent of U.S. students transferred at some point before receiving their accelerate degree.

Different Types of Associate Degrees

There are some major distinctions between the different associates degrees, which you need to know before applying.

Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.)
The Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.) are the largest categories, offered by community colleges as well as for-profit institutions, private two-year schools and some four-year universities. The programs are similar to those first two years at a four-year school. As a result, you are likely to be able to use them to transfer to a four-year college to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.)
But if you want to immediately enter the workforce, the Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree often is a better choice. The degree is offered in vocational or technological programs, and it sometimes is the only degree necessary to find employment in those job sectors.

Flagel says the A.A.S. degree often is poorly understood by students. He notes that a study of students at community colleges in the nation found that the same number of students in A.A.S. programs indicated interest in baccalaureate programs as those in A.A. and A.S. programs.

"Those degrees are not designed with transfer in mind. It means it's very likely that fewer credits will move with you toward that baccalaureate degree," he says.

How to Obtain an Associate Degree
Before making a decision, consider the job prospects and potential earnings related to the associate degree programs you are considering. You need to consider the school as well, by looking at factors such as cost, accreditation, transfer and job placement rates, and faculty expertise.

Also research the latest options in associates degrees. Community colleges often are more nimble in terms of adding degree programs and responding to the needs of the workforce, Hugo says.

Applying for an Associate Degree Program

The majority of community colleges are open admissions schools, meaning that if you have a high school diploma or have passed a high school equivalency exam, you will be accepted.

But Hugo points out that students need to be more proactive in high school by being aware of dates to apply for the program and to apply for financial aid. The earlier you apply, the better chance you also have of getting the necessary classes that fit into your schedule, too.

Typical Length of an Associate Degree
More associate degrees are two-year programs, although some A.A.S. degrees take longer, such as up to three years for students to complete. It also depends on if you are going to school full-time or on a part-time basis.

The general requirements are about 60 credit hours for an associates degree compared to about 120 credit hours for a typical baccalaureate program, Flagel says.

How to Prepare for an Associate Degree Program
Even if you're applying to a community college with an open admissions policy, make sure you are prepared to excel in an associates degree program.

"To be truly successful, students need same level of preparation as students going to four-year colleges and universities," Hugo says.

Students must challenge themselves their last year of high school and get the best preparation possible in two key subjects math and English. So don't blow of your senior year of high school, but make sure that you are brushing up on math and English. If not, you may have to take some remediation courses, which could add to the length of the associates degree program.

"The math is a tremendous barrier for students. They have to take at least one college-level class in math to get their A.A. degree," Hugo says. "If they are away from math for a whole year, they take the placement test and test into the basement. They are essentially repeating high school math. It's a big shock for a lot of students."

Skill Sets Developed in an Associate Degree Program
An associate degree will develop the skills that students need to survive in the workplace, including communication skills, writing skills, and teamwork, Hugo says. Those obviously will be combined with mastering skills specific to the industry, whether it is nursing or business management or in-demand sectors such as logistics.

Interesting Associate Degrees
Associate degrees are evolving as colleges and universities desire to provide an educational experience that will help fill the demand for workers in fast-growing industries such as technology and health care. Another new area of focus, particularly since 9/11, is homeland security, with offering a specialized focus on topics from acts of terrorism to transportation to immigration to hazardous materials to emergency services.

Degree programs also are targeting industries with a high percentage of older workers and the need to cultivate a new generation of skilled employees. For example, the "Steelworker for the Future" program is a cooperative work-study associate degree offered at Ohio's Eastern Gateway and West Virginia Northern community colleges, focused on the steel and manufacturing industries.

As the arts and entertainment industry rely more on technology, Owens Community College, based in Toledo, Ohio, has debuted a music business technology associate degree program. From a different view of technology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania offers an associate degree in electro-optics, another fast-growing industry.

Some new associate degrees are online-only programs, with schools recognizing the demand for flexible learning options.

Celebrities With Noteworthy Associate Degrees

  • Tennis star and fashionista Venus Williams got her degree off the court at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, earning an associates degree in fashion design in 2007.
  • PBS anchor Jim Lehrer earned his A.A. degree from Victoria College in Victoria, Texas, before heading to the University of Missouri.

How to Best Leverage an Associate Degree
To make the most of your associate degree, try to map out a path that will reflect what you want to do after earning an associates degree. Although the path could change, this will prepare you to maximize your transfer credits that are applicable toward earning a bachelor's degree, says Flagel. And remember that it isn't only about the books -- get some real-world experience as well. That could be through paid or unpaid internships, part-time jobs, or volunteering. In addition, form relationships with professors in your associate degree program, who can provide strong recommendations in your job search or when transferring after you have earned your associate degree.

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