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Associate degree: Two years to a career or a jump start to a bachelor?fs degree

by Olivia Crosby

In 2 years, you can train for some of the fastest growing jobs in the economy, increase your earnings, and pave the way for further education.

How? Earn an associate degree. An associate degree is a college degree awarded after the completion of about 20 classes. It either prepares students for a career following graduation or allows them to transfer into a bachelor?fs degree program.

Compared with workers whose highest level of educational attainment was a high school diploma, workers with an associate degree averaged an extra $128 a week in 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). People with associate degrees also are more likely to find jobs: the unemployment rate in 2001 was more than 30 percent lower for associate degree holders compared with high school graduates. And, according to several academic studies, advantages in the job market might be even greater for those just starting their careers and for those who work in a career related to their degree.

But for most people, the best part about earning an associate degree is the opportunity to enter interesting professions. Training is available for those with nearly any interest, from technical fields like electronics and health care to liberal arts areas, such as design and social work. And according to BLS, occupations in which workers often are required to have an associate degree are growing faster than occupations that require other types of training.

The hallmark of associate degrees is flexibility, both in what to study and how to study it. Degrees are available from public community colleges, private 2-year colleges, for-profit technical institutes, and many 4-year colleges and universities. Taking classes from home is more common in associate degree programs than in any other type of educational credentials program, with more than 9 percent of associate degree students using distance learning in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Other students have a more traditional college experience, living at one of the one-fifth of schools that offer on-campus housing and meals. And nearly all schools offer extracurricular activities?\such as sports, clubs, and volunteer groups?\as well as academics. Nonprofit schools, such as private and community colleges, are most likely to offer these extras.

Keep reading to learn what types of associate degrees are available, which occupations they prepare students for, what to consider when choosing a career, how to select and prepare for a college program, and where to find more information about associate degree programs and careers.

Types of degrees
All associate degree programs require that students successfully complete about 60 college credits. That translates into roughly 20 courses. Associate degrees are of two types: Occupationally focused degrees, which prepare students to work immediately after graduation, and transfer degrees, which prepare students to move into bachelor?fs degree programs.

Occupational degrees. These associate degrees train students for specific careers. In addition to taking general education classes?\such as mathematics, writing, and speech?\students take courses specific to an occupational major. To earn an associate of applied science in biotechnology degree at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, for example, students are required to take classes in biology, chemistry, immunology, and drug production, among others. The courses teach basic principles but focus on applying those principles to the workplace. So, instead of learning to isolate a few proteins or DNA strands in a petri dish, students learn to use machines that isolate hundreds at a time. Graduates should be able to move directly from school to jobs in laboratories or production facilities.

Similarly, a course in the international business program at Florida Community College in Jacksonville teaches students how to complete and file import and export forms and comply with regulations. Graduates of the program can apply those skills as commerce clerks when they leave school.

The best programs tailor courses to industry standards. Schools ask local employers what skills workers need to perform specific occupations. Then, the schools create classes that teach those skills. With the help of advisors from local businesses, curriculums are updated regularly.

The focus on occupations means that classes are more handson than are those in bachelor?fs degree programs. According to surveys by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers in associate degree programs spend more time conducting demonstrations and leading practical exercises. And many of the faculty work in the field in which they teach, so they are able to relate first-hand stories of life on the job.

The opportunity to work on real-life issues is common. Students majoring in industrial design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh had this chance when they helped to design a bike for scientists in Antarctica. The bike needed to work in harsh conditions over ice and snow, so the students created blueprints for an especially stable, durable contraption. The chance to participate in projects like these in the first year of college draws many students to associate degree programs.

Most students also spend at least some of their classtime in facilities that mirror the workplace. Health technicians, for example, use medical devices they will find at jobsites. In the same way, childcare students often train at onsite daycare centers.

Formal cooperative, or co-op, and internship opportunities are an essential part of many associate degree programs. During a co-op, a student works full time for a limited period in a job related to his or her studies, then returns to school. During an internship, a student works full time or part time while enrolled in school. Often, students receive classroom credit for work on the job. They create journals and portfolios to summarize their experiences and the ways in which they relate to class.

At many schools, students receive certificates after 1 year or less of study and then continue studying toward an associate degree. This gives them an immediate credential to use in the workplace while continuing their studies.

Students also can continue their studies after earning their degree. Although occupational degrees prepare students for a career immediately after graduation, some occupational degree classes can often be transferred to a bachelor?fs program.

Occupational degrees have different titles. The titles include associate of applied science, associate of applied arts, associate of applied technology, and associate of occupational studies.

Transfer degrees. Another type of associate degree is designed to be a first step toward a bachelor?fs degree. With a little planning, all of the coursework completed in this degree will transfer to a 4-year school. Students take the introductory classes of a bachelor?fs degree program, graduating with an associate of arts or an associate of science degree?\and about half of the credits they need for a bachelor?fs degree. Courses include writing, literature, science, and mathematics. Most degree candidates study broad fields like liberal arts or general studies, but some declare majors and earn their degrees in specific areas, such as an associate of arts in literature or an associate of science in chemistry.

Often, classes correspond directly to those offered at local 4-year schools. In fact, most 2-year colleges have agreements with universities stating that their associate degree fulfills all of the general education requirements of a bachelor?fs degree. A few transfer programs look beyond the bachelor?fs to a master?fs or professional degree. Oklahoma Community College?fs prepharmacy program, for instance, is the first stage of a 6-year Pharm.D. program.

Starting college in an associate degree program has several advantages, including the one most often cited: saving money. For example, in the 2000-01 academic year, average annual in- State tuition and fees were $1,359 at public 2-year community colleges, compared with $3,506 at public 4-year colleges?\a savings of more than $2,000. Because many associate degree programs are offered at community colleges, students live nearby?\thus avoiding the added expenses of room and board often needed for relocating to a 4-year college or university. And the cost of an associate degree is rising more slowly than that of a bachelor?fs. Taking grants into account, the cost of an associate degree has not risen in the last decade.

But the advantages of pursuing an associate degree reach beyond cost. Students often receive more personal attention at 2-year schools than they do at 4-year schools, in part because class sizes are smaller in most associate degree programs. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, associate degree faculty spend a greater proportion of their time teaching.

When applying to a 4-year program, students who earned an associate degree are often given preference over students who completed a semester or two of college credits but did not earn a degree. Associate degree graduates also are more likely than other transfer students to complete their bachelor?fs degree successfully, according to U.S. Department of Education studies.

For students who have low high school grades or test scores, associate degree programs offer a chance to catch up. Programs at many community colleges are open to anyone with a high school diploma or a passing score on the high school equivalency exam. And nearly all 2-year colleges offer noncredit classes to prepare students for college courses.

Students in transfer programs also benefit from the career focus of 2-year schools. By taking a few occupationally focused courses and participating in career exploration programs, students have an advantage in choosing a major when they start a bachelor?fs degree program.
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