What is the Difference Between an Associate’s Degree and a Bachelor’s Degree?

Higher education comes in many forms and signifies its completion in a number of ways: certificates, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, doctoral degrees and a few other special degrees. Those degrees most likely to be sought by first-time higher education students are the associate’s and the bachelor’s. There is a marked difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, and while the bachelor’s is considered senior, both have their advantages.

Associate’s Degrees

An associate’s degree—whether an associate of arts (A.A.), an associate of applied sciences (A.A.S.), an associate of occupational studies (A.O.S.), an associate of sciences (A.S.) or another type of associate’s—is traditionally regarded as a two-year degree, considered junior to the bachelor’s but senior to most certificates. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has much to say about the subject, lauding it as a useful means of entry into a number of professions as well as an easy ingress into continuing formal study. Those are the primary purposes to which the associate’s is put: vocational training and transfer to four-year colleges and universities.

Associate’s degrees, because they are of shorter duration, tend to be less expensive than bachelor’s degrees. Occupational and applied associate’s degrees offer direct entry into a number of professional fields that are not likely to be outsourced, including many technical fields; they therefore tend to attract those who feel the need to enter the workforce quickly. Transfer degrees are often configured to help students who might otherwise not be prepared for college to attain the academic grounding they need to succeed. In both cases, students are required to take some general education courses, typically including writing, literature, mathematics and social and natural sciences, as well as courses in their major. The general education courses mark the difference between the degree and a mere certificate, and careful choice of them helps the newly professionally equipped to act as informed citizens when their educations are done.

Bachelor’s Degrees

The most obvious difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree—whether a bachelor of arts (B.A.), a bachelor of business administration (B.B.A.), a bachelor of science (B.S.) or another type of baccalaureate—is in the expected time to completion. While an associate’s is typically a two-year degree, a bachelor’s is typically four and possibly more, as many who pursue bachelor’s degrees change which one they pursue or the subject area in which they pursue it, adding time to the completion. With the greater time comes a generally higher cost, and baccalaureate institutions tend to have other facilities that end up adding to the bills incurred to study at them—although those facilities do offer much to improve the quality of study and the quality of life enjoyed during study.

The greater time also allows for deeper investigations of the major field than an associate’s permits, as well as a broader grounding in general education courses. The effect ideally is to produce an informed, broadly literate citizen who has deep knowledge in one area of study and enough of a background in many others to be able to continue to study independently. That ideal effect is what accounts for the emphasis placed on the achievement of the bachelor’s degree, which serves as a gateway to a number of career paths, including military commissions and civil service jobs with state and federal agencies. Some of the jobs may be subject to outsourcing, but they are often higher-paying than those which require only an associate’s, doing much to offset the higher cost of earning a bachelor’s degree.

There are other differences between the degrees, of course, and there are other degrees entirely. The major difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, though, is that the former offers short vocational training, while the latter offers longer and more flexible instruction—and both very much have their place in a functioning society.

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