Online Associates Degrees

Prospective students planning to pursue an undergraduate education have a wide range of options offered online. Among them are online associate degrees.

An associate degree can serve as a starting point for somebody considering eventually pursuing a full bachelor’s degree. In general, associate degree programs require around 60 semester credit hours; by comparison, a traditional bachelor’s degree typically takes around 120.

For many full-time on-campus students, associate degrees typically take about two years to complete whereas bachelor’s degrees usually take about four, experts say. These numbers vary more among online students; many enroll in fewer classes at once and enter with some college credits already completed. 

How Do Online Associate Degrees Work?

At online colleges, most if not all coursework is completed virtually, though some may have face-to-face requirements. While many classes are asynchronous – meaning students complete most schoolwork at their own pace under regular deadlines – some have synchronous components, which students attend by videoconferencing at a specific time.

Online degrees often appeal to adults looking for flexibility to study on their own schedules, as many also work full time or part time.

Experts say accredited online programs at reputable schools are generally just as rigorous as the on-campus options. The difference is mainly the format, with students completing individual and group assignments remotely. Classes and programs may be held either fully online or in a blended format, meaning partially online and partially on campus.

In recent years, online associate degrees have become more widely available in various disciplines at both community colleges – which are traditionally categorized as two-year schools – and institutions that also offer bachelor’s and graduates degrees, experts say.

“That’s the reality of life these days. People need degrees at different stages of their lives, and this a way to get it” says Antone Aboud, director of online programs and professor of practice in labor and employment relations at Penn State—World Campus, which has an online associate degree in the discipline.

But online courses aren’t right for everybody. Without constant in-person guidance from a teacher, students need greater self-discipline and time-management skills. Some students may also prefer a traditional face-to-face classroom environment where they can interact with classmates more frequently.

Experts say online degrees typically have the same tuition as their on-ground counterparts, though this varies depending on the institution.

The academic calendar for an online program may offer flexible course scheduling options. Many online classes last eight weeks, says Laura Ballard, e-learning director at the school, which offers online associate degrees. Online students may also take courses during a four-week winter intersession and the summer to help speed up the time to graduation.

What Are the Requirements?

As is the case in most associate degree programs, the online offerings typically consist of a combination of general education requirements – classes students must take to graduate – as well as courses specific to their chosen discipline. Students can also enroll in electives.

Experts say associate degree students can choose a certain field of focus or pursue general studies. The curriculums for on-campus and online degree programs at the same institution are often very similar, if not the same.

What Can I Do With an Online Associate Degree?

“If what you want to do is to begin a major, begin working toward a major, what you might want to consider is enrolling in an associate degree program first – at least getting that two-year credential – and then moving forward if you want to with a bachelor’s degree, maybe later on with a master’s degree,” experts say.

Some online associate degree holders pursue certificates and industry certifications upon graduating, either at the same institution or elsewhere, says Caroline Simpson, vice president of student and alumni services at the online, for-profit American Public University System, which offers associate degrees. Certificates – offered either online or on-ground – often focus on a more specific subject area within a certain discipline or provide foundational insight into a field.

“They are quick and recognized across professional communities,” Simpson says. “That’s certainly a track that our associate students might consider, either after an associate degree or during an associate degree.”

What Is the Job Outlook for Graduates With an Online Associate Degree?

An associate degree may open certain doors for graduates, but some jobs require a bachelor’s. Associate degree holders may attain roles in various health care professions – such as a nurse or dental hygienist – as well as in tech support and other industries. Other job opportunities include preschool teacher and paralegal.

Experts say that to many employers, the fact that a degree was earned online likely won’t hinder a candidate’s chances of getting a job, though perceptions vary overall. A hiring manager often won’t know that a candidate earned his or her degree online if it’s not listed on a resume, but it may come up in conversation.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that in 2016 among adults ages 25 to 34, the median annual earnings for full-time workers with an associate degree was $38,000, compared with the median of $34,900 for those with some college completed but no degree, and a median of $31,800 for a high school graduate. Those who had a bachelor’s earned a median of $50,000.