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Associate Degree vs Bachelor’s Degree: 5 Key Differences

By Brian Eastwood
October 10, 2018

Deciding whether to go to college for an associate degree versus a bachelor’s degree can be a difficult decision. The degree program you choose should align with your personal, professional, and financial goals for the future.

If you’re not sure whether an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree is right for you, knowing these five key differences can help you make the right decision.


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#1: Program Length

The most obvious difference between the two types of degrees is how long it takes to earn each one. For a full-time student, an associate degree program lasts two years. A bachelor’s degree program, on the other hand, lasts four years for a full-time student. Both types of programs can take longer if a student opts for part-time enrollment. Many colleges now offer flexible schedules, including night, weekend, and online classes to accommodate working professionals, parents, and other prospective students who cannot attend classes during the day.

#2: Program Focus

There are two types of associate degree programs, each with a different focus:

  • Specialized technical or vocational coursework. This works well if you want to learn a particular set of skills or want to train for a certain job title.
  • General studies approach that does not focus on a particular job, set of skills, or declared major. This works well if you want to earn college credit that can later be applied to a bachelor’s degree.

Using an associate degree to complete a bachelor’s degree is common for working professionals whether they are seeking a promotion within their current field or a transition into a new field, says Mike Jackson, associate dean of Professional Programs in the College of Professional Studies.

“We work to make sure the programs provide an experience that transfers to any company within that career path,” he said. “If someone wants to get promoted, we provide them the skills and competencies to do that. If they want to go to a new job, we try to drastically cut down the learning curve. If they are feeling unhappy but also are not sure what to do, we work to develop tools to help them be more mindful.”

Bachelor’s degree programs focus on a specific major, or topic of study. You can expect to complete general education or core curriculum courses in a range of fields (including fine arts, language arts, science, and history) as well as mandatory and elective courses related to your major.

If students in a bachelor’s degree program take enough general education or elective courses on a similar topic that complements their major, they may declare a minor in that topic. A journalism major, for example, could minor in political science.

#3 Earning Potential

While an associate degree costs less than a bachelor’s degree, there’s a trade-off when it comes to the earnings potential of graduates from those two programs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of a bachelor’s degree holder are $1,173, which equates to nearly $61,000 a year. For those with an associate degree, the weekly median earnings are $836, or nearly $43,500 a year.

In other words, students with a bachelor’s degree earn about 40 percent more per year than those with an associate degree. This difference in long-term earning potential is often enough to make up for the cost associated with earning a bachelor’s degree, as the average graduate will earn enough to offset the cost of college by age 34.

#4 Program Cost

Though the cost of tuition and fees varies widely from one college to the next, it generally costs less to earn an associate degree than it costs to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Due to the earning potential that comes with a bachelor’s degree—as well as the many jobs that now require a bachelor’s degree—program cost alone should not be a deterrent if you are considering a bachelor’s degree. More than 75 percent of new students at Northeastern receive one or more types of financial aid to obtain a bachelor’s degree, whether it’s a loan, a grant, or a scholarship. Additionally, many colleges will assess and convert relevant prior work experience to college credits, reducing the cost of a degree.

This could be a consideration for a prospective student who does not want to take on a lot of student debt. According to the College Board, the average yearly tuition and fees for a public two-year college are less than $3,500. This compares to more than $9,400 for in-state students at a public four-year college, nearly $24,000 for out-of-state students at a public four-year college, and more than $32,000 for a private four-year college.

#5 Career Paths

Part of the decision about whether to earn an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree comes down to what you plan to do after completing the program.

As noted, the credits earned in an associate degree program can often be applied to a bachelor’s degree program, especially those that work in partnership with community colleges. For example, if you have an associate degree in business administration, you may be able to apply some or all of those credits to a bachelor’s degree in a major such as business administration, business management, or entrepreneurship. By transferring your associate’s degree credits, you may only need to complete two years of the bachelor’s degree program, not four.

(For more information on transferring to Northeastern from a Community College, click here.)

In addition, certain careers only require an associate’s degree, such as:

  • Police officer
  • Firefighter
  • Medical stenographer
  • Registered nurse
  • Dental hygienist
  • Radiation therapist
  • Fashion designer
  • Computer network specialist
  • Bank teller
  • Retail sales associate
  • Front-desk receptionist

While an associate degree may be enough for an entry-level position, it’s worth noting that earning promotions or otherwise advancing within a career path may require additional education. Becoming a police detective or supervisor could require a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or police administration, for example, while taking a job in cybersecurity or another specialized field of information technology could call for a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Additional coursework can also help students adapt to a changing work environment, Jackson says.

“Today, there’s an emphasis on digital communication. There’s a need for soft skills. Companies want employees who are self-starters, who have the ability to think creatively as well as critically.”

Finally, a bachelor’s degree is required if you intend to continue your education and obtain a master’s degree, doctorate, or another professional degree. These degrees will help prepare you for a career in a field such as academia, executive leadership, medicine, or law. These degrees also come with higher earning potential—a median of $1,401 per week for a master’s degree, according to the BLS, compared to $1,173 for a bachelor’s degree and $836 for an associate degree.

Trying to decide if a bachelor’s degree is right for you? Download our infographic below that helps explain the return on investment (ROI) of earning a bachelor’s degree.


Download Our Free Infographic on the Value of a Bachelor’s Degree

About Brian Eastwood
Brian Eastwood is a content contributor for Northeastern’s Lifelong Learning Network.