An associate degree is an academic degree awarded by community colleges, junior colleges, business colleges and some bachelors degree-granting colleges/universities upon completion of a course of study usually lasting two years.
Common abbreviations are:
- AA (Associate of Arts)
- AS (Associate of Science)
- APS (Associate of Political science)
- AFA (Associate of Fine Arts)
- APS (Associate of Public Service)
- AAB (Associate of Applied Business)
- AAA (Associate of Applied Arts)
- AAS (Associate of Applied Science; or in some cases, Associate of Arts and Sciences)
- AIT (Associate of Industrial Technology)
- AOS (Associate of Occupational Studies)
- ABA (Associate of Business Administration)
- AAT (Associate of Arts in Teaching)
- AF (Associate of Forestry)
- AT (Associate of Technology)
- AE (Associate of Engineering; or, in some cases, Associate in Electronics Engineering Technology)
- AES (Associate of Engineering Science)
- AET (Associate in Engineering Technology)
- AN (Associate of Nursing)
- ASPT-APT (Associate in Physical Therapy)
- AGS (Associate of General Studies)
- ADN (Associate Degree in Nursing)
In the United States and, more rarely, Canada, an associate degree is equivalent to the first two years of a four-year college or university degree. It is the lowest in the hierarchy of postsecondary academic degrees offered in these countries. It is also equivalent to the UK's foundation degree and France's diplôme d'études universitaires générales or DEUG. In 2000, Hong Kong introduced associate degrees, as an equivalence to higher diplomas. These programmes are mainly provided through affiliated colleges at universities. In 2004, Australia added "associate degree" to the Australian Qualifications Framework. This title was given to more academically focused advanced diploma courses. However, very few courses yet use the new title.
Generalized categories or types of associate degrees
It is possible to break the associates degree into two general categories: transfer degrees and career or professional degrees.
This degree forms the foundation of a bachelors degree by allowing students to complete all of the general education requirements prior to (possible) transfer to a four year university, although not all classes taken as general education will reliably transfer as general education. They include:
An Associate of Arts degree is often awarded for programs that are intended for transfer to a four-year college or university, usually with a major in the social sciences or humanities, but may be awarded as a terminal degree.
The Associate of Science degree is similarly awarded to terminal students or to potential transfer students to a four-year college or university, but the areas of concentration are usually in mathematics, natural sciences, or technology.
The Associate of Fine Arts degree is typically awarded to student in Music, Theater, and Art (either performance or education related) and is usually transferable. In many cases, general education requirements are not satisfied upon conferral.
The Associate of Arts in Teaching degree (or in some cases an associate of arts with an emphasis in teacher education) allows students who transfer to any participating four-year institution to receive full credit for their approved lower-division education courses. The intent is to encourage a larger, more diverse pool of students who want to become teachers by allowing students to test their interest in teaching early in their academic career and to shorten the time it takes them to obtain their baccalaureate degree. With this degree, one can also do Paraprofessional Education (Teacher's Aide) work. One can get this degree with a concentration in Paraprofessional Education, and assist teachers in the classroom, while pursuing a bachelor's degree.
Career or professional degrees
The Associate in Applied Science degree is awarded to students who are permitted to relax some of the general education requirements in order to study more course work in their program area. This kind of degree is for students who intend to enter the work force upon graduation.
The Associate in Industrial Technology This kind of degree is for students who intend to enter the work force upon graduation. It is awarded in fields of industrial technologies such as Computers, Electronics, Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Engineering. It may also be for those who continue on to a four year university program.
The Associate in Business Administration degree is often awarded for programs that are terminal, but may also be intended for transfer to a four-year college or university, usually with a major in one of the business majors.
The Associate in Occupational Studies degree is for students who intend to enter the work force upon graduation. There are generally no liberal arts requirements for this degree.
Liberal Arts requirements
It is possible to categorize associate degrees by their liberal arts requirements. For example, New York State classifies its programs as follows: 
Associate in Occupational Studies (A.O.S.): no courses in the liberal arts and sciences.
Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.): one-third of the work shall be in the liberal arts and sciences.
Associate in Science (A.S.): one-half of the work shall be in the liberal arts and sciences.
Associate in Arts (A.A.): three-quarters of the work shall be in the liberal arts and sciences.
The associate degree is most often awarded to students completing educationally broad based post secondary programs requiring at least one but generally no more than two years of full-time study. In some instances, particularly allied health programs, three years is the norm. For students who place into developmental (sometimes called pre-college or remedial) courses, the time will be extended since these credits will not apply toward the associates.
A a, called a certificate, is awarded for specific studies that complete in a one year program or less, for example certification in a particular subfield of information technology may only run for four to six months.
However, for an associates degree it is not unusual for students to study part time, and therefore take more than two years to complete the degree. According to fall 2004 IPEDS data, 61 percent of US community colleges students are enrolled part time. To accommodate working students, most US community colleges offer required course during evening and weekend hours and, increasingly, online (the Sloan Consortium reports that 51% of all degrees earned online are associates degrees.) 
Names of associate degrees
Wittstruck (1975) notes that the associates degree goes by several different names formally:
Data on associate degrees are frequently disaggregated by curriculum: vocational or nonvocational. The Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) counts nonvocational degrees under the category "Arts and Sciences or General Programs"; vocational degrees are counted under six headings:
- business and commerce technologies
- data processing technologies
- health services/paramedical technologies
- mechanical/engineering technologies
- natural science technologies
- public service-related technologies
Annual number awarded
Recent IPEDS data
According to recent US Department of Education data, over half a million associates degrees were awarded in the US academic year 1999-2000; this was approximately one-fifth (19.1 percent) of the 3,010,714 degrees conferred. A total of 573,620 associates degrees were conferred by Title IV degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and outlying areas that year; men earned 228,958 and women earned 344,662.
Most associates are conferred by public institutions. Of the 573,620 noted above, 452,933 were earned at public institutions, 48,463 were earned at private not-for-profit institutions, and 72,224 were earned at private for-profit institutions. Most students are earning associates degrees at public institutions; 79.0 percent of the 1999-2000 associates degrees were conferred by publics, 8.4 percent by private not-for-profits, and 12.6 percent by private for-profits. (Percentages do not add to 100 due to rounding.)
Associate degrees account for about a quarter of the degrees conferred by public institutions, only a small fraction of the degrees not-for-profit institutions granted, and about one-fifth of the degrees private for-profit schools granted. Associates comprise 24.1 percent of all degrees earned at public institutions, only 6.2 percent of all degrees earned at private not-for-profits, and 20.5 percent.
Degrees conferred 1999-2000 by race/ethnicity
Looking at these data by race/ethnicity, we see:
|Race Ethnicity||Total Number||Percentage of Total|
|White, Non Hispanic||100,230||43.1 percent|
|Asian/Pacific Islander||58,428||10.2 percent|
|African American||57,329||10.0 percent|
|American Indian/Alaska Native||6,282||1.1 percent|
|Non-Resident Alien||10,116||1.8 percent|
|Race/Ethnicity Unknown||17,261||3.0 percent|
Program of study
The following are the 10 largest programs of study at Title IV degree-granting postsecondary institutions (50 states and District of Columbia). Totals are then broken down by sex.
|Degree||Total Degrees Conferred||To Men||To Women|
|Liberal arts and sciences/liberal studies||149,243||55,200||94,043|
|Nursing (R.N. training)||40,258||4,288||35,970|
|Business administration and management, general||24,894||8,805||16,089|
|Administrative assistant/secretarial science, general||9,328||370||8,958|
|Electrical, electronic and communication engineering technology||8,510||7,646||864|
|Liberal arts and science, general studies and humanities, other||8,270||3,193||5,077|
|Electrical and electronic engineering-related technology||7,840||7,075||765|
|Biological and physical sciences||7,072||2,885||4,187|
The NCES data above are from 2,784 institutions (1,345 public, 727 private not-for-profit, and 712 private for-profit).
For details about the above figures and for more information, see the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) web page , particularly the report Postsecondary Institutions in the United States: Fall 2000 and Degrees and Other Awards Conferred: 1999–2000 .
The number of associate degrees awarded rose rapidly in the 1970s. In 1981–1982, 434,515 associate's degrees were awarded, representing a 25% increase over the number of associate's degrees awarded during 1973–1974. All of the increase is accounted for by growth in the number of vocational degrees awarded. Between 1973–1974 and 1981–1982, percent changes in the number of associate's degrees awarded were as follows:
- data processing technologies (225%)
- mechanical and engineering technologies (86%)
- business and commerce technologies (39%)
- health services and paramedical technologies (31%)
- natural sciences technologies (30%)
- arts and sciences or general programs (-4.5%)
- public service-related technologies (-7%)
In terms of absolute numbers, 158,000 nonvocational and 276,493 vocational degrees were awarded in 1981–1982. Of the vocational degrees awarded:
- 35% were in business and commerce technologies,
- 22% were in health services and paramedical technologies;
- 21% were in mechanical and engineering technologies;
- 9% were in public service-related technologies;
- 8% were in data processing technologies, and
- 5% were in natural science technologies.
The growing popularity of vocational degrees is not necessarily a sign of the diminution of the transfer function, because many occupational students transfer to senior institutions. Indeed, a study conducted by the State University of New York (SUNY) found that 29% of SUNY community college students receiving vocational associates degrees in 1980 transferred to a four-year institution.
Illinois data also shed light on transfers with vocational associates degrees. Of the 3,871 students who transferred with an associates degree from an Illinois community college to an Illinois senior institution in Fall 1979, 19% (727) held the associate in applied science (AAS) degree. While the baccalaureate attainment rate for AAS transfers (19%) was lower than the baccalaureate attainment rate of those transfers with Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degrees (31%), it was higher than the attainment rate of those community college transfers who had earned no associate's degree at all (11%).
Students who earn this degree
Since 1976–1977, more than 50% of associate's degrees have been earned by women. Though female students are beginning to enter occupational curricula in which women have been traditionally under-represented, most women who obtain occupational associates degrees remain in health, office, and public service occupations. The 1981–1982 data reveal that women made up:
- 88% of the degree recipients in health services and paramedical technologies (compared to 89% in 1971–1972)
- 65% of the degree recipients in business and commerce technologies (compared to 47% in 1971–1972)
- 52% of the degree recipients in public service-related technologies (compared to 38.6% in 1971–1972)
- 50% of the degree recipients in data processing technologies (compared to 30% in 1971–1972)
- 41% of the degree recipients in natural science technologies (compared to 24% in 1971–1972)
- 9% of the degree recipients in mechanical and engineering technologies (compared to 2% in 1971–1972)
Of the nonvocational associate's degrees awarded in 1981–1982, 54% were awarded to women (compared to 43% in 1971–1972).
(See above for more recent data on degrees conferred by program of study.)
Advantages include lower costs, more evening classes for those with day jobs, and often a more convenient location. Many students first attend a local community college before transferring to four-year college for a combination of these reasons. See Community College for a more detailed list of the advantages.
Koltai (1984) presents a comprehensive analysis of the current status of the associates degree. He reports several issues that need to be addressed as community college educators plan associates degree programs for the future. These issues include:
- college-by-college variation in subject area and unit requirements
- the fact that many colleges and universities prefer their own transfer requirements rather than accepting the associates degree as qualifying students for transfer
- the need to keep up with high technology in vocational associates degree programs
- the desirability of competency-based programs that certify the learning outcomes of associates degree programs
- the need for more honor sections to attract and retain gifted students
- the types of courses for terminal two year programs are not adequate (or not transferable) for a four year college
In light of these issues, Koltai recommends that colleges establish testing and placement procedures for entering students, specify competency standards for degree graduates, improve the pre-service and in-service professional development of community college faculty, and establish associates degree committees to work with faculty, students, four-year institutions and businesses in improving counseling, job-placement, and transfer. In response, many community colleges have made arrangements with four-year institutions (usually those nearby or that offer advanced training in a specialized field) whereby the associates degree and the related hours will normally meet the "core" requirements for the first two years towards a bachelor's degree.
- Associate Degrees: A Look At The 70's., National Center For Educational Statistics Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1981. ED 207 628.
- Bragg, A. K. Fall 1979 Transfer Study. Report 3: Second Year Persistence And Achievement. Springfield: Illinois Community College Board, 1982. ED 230 228.
- Koltai, L. Redefining The Associate Degree. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, 1984. ED 242 378.
- SUNY Community College Graduates: Their Futures. Analysis Paper No. 822. Albany: State University of New York, Office for Community Colleges, 1982. ED 223 282.
- U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, [E.D. Tabs] Postsecondary Institutions in the United States: Fall 2000 and Degrees and Other Awards Conferred: 1999–2000, NCES 2002–156, by Laura G. Knapp, et.al.. Project Officer: Susan G. Broyles. Washington, DC: 2001.
- Wittstruck, J. R. Requirements For Certificates, Diplomas And Associate Degrees: A Survey Of The States. Denver, CO: State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 1985.
- I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006. The Sloan Consortium, 2006.
- Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006. The Sloan Consortium.