An online associate degree is a convenient, cost-effective option for many of today’s college students. Most associate programs are designed to be completed in two years, allowing students to minimize their tuition costs and join the workforce as quickly as possible. Self-paced associate degree programs are also widely available for students who cannot commit to a full-time learning schedule.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that associate degree-holders have a 3.8% unemployment rate, only one percentage point higher than the unemployment rate for bachelor’s recipients. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau also reveals that individuals with an associate degree earned roughly $600 more per month than high school graduates with “some college” but no degree. In 2009, nearly 18,500 people aged 18 or older in the U.S. had earned an associate degree — a major increase from the 5,700 adults who held an associate 25 years before that.
Different types of associate degrees are available for today’s students. An associate of arts (AA) or associate of science (AS) degree is designed for students who plan to eventually transfer into a four-year undergraduate studies program; some schools also offer specialized two-year transfer degrees, such as an associate of fine arts and associate of elementary education. Other associate degrees prepare students to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. These include associate of applied science (AAS) programs, which feature a hands-on curriculum and are generally offered in nursing, industrial technology, criminal justice, and other vocational fields. In addition, many schools offer diplomas and certificates in core areas of study as a shorter, less expensive alternative to the associate degree.
In this guide, we examine the educational costs and professional benefits of pursuing an associate degree online in today’s competitive job market. We’ll also look at specific trends found in the country’s leading online associate degree programs. Our goal is to create a helpful, comprehensive resource for anyone interested in enhancing their career with an associate degree.
What Can You Do With an Online Associate Degree?According to a 2014 report from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), associate degree-holders earn a median annual salary of $37,500. However, current data from PayScale indicates that employees at the mid-career mark stand to earn much more in certain professional fields. The following table lists the 10 most lucrative major areas of study for associate-level students, as well as their specific salary earnings and some sample careers listed by the BLS.
10 Highest Paying Jobs for People With an Associate Degree
Dollars and CentsThe typical associate degree program requires 60 semester credits or 90 quarter credits. In either case, this amounts to an average of 20 three-credit courses completed over a two-year span. Students can determine the total cost of a degree by calculating the cost per credit hour at a particular institution. For example, students who attend a school that charges $100 per quarter credit should expect to pay $9,000 for their two-year program. In many cases, cost per credit hour will be higher for out-of-state students than for in-state students. Online associate degree programs generally carry the same cost per credit, although some schools offer web courses at a lower rate than brick-and-mortar courses.
In addition to tuition fees, students who pursue an associate degree will be required to pay other costs related to their program. We’ve broken down some of these specific expenses below, including expected costs per semester and strategies for reduced spending.
|Estimated Maximum per Semester$600||Estimated Minimum per SemesterFree|
|College textbooks are more expensive than ever. Students can minimize costs by purchasing used books or eBooks instead of new materials. Campus bookstores usually offer end-of-semester book buy-backs, as well.||Many colleges and universities offer library copies of course textbooks, allowing students to obtain required reading materials free-of-charge. Many students also avoid book costs by borrowing textbooks from peers in the same field of study. Those who pursue associate degrees online may not be required to purchase as many books (if any at all).|
|Estimated Maximum per Month$165||Estimated Minimum per MonthFree|
|On average, Americans pay $132 for Internet-cable TV bundle plans and $165 per month for triple play (Internet, telephone, and cable TV) services. Students can reduce Internet expenses by forgoing broadband Internet for a DSL plan.||Students can avoid paying for Internet service by leaving their homes and studying at their on-campus library. Coffee shops and other locations with public Wi-Fi access are another cost-effective option.|
|Estimated Maximum per Month$1,500||Estimated Minimum per MonthFree|
|Many institutions with associate degree programs offer some form of on-campus student housing. Studio and one-room apartments tend to be the least expensive option for students. Sharing a rental unit with multiple roommates will also drive down living expenses.||Students can reduce–or eliminate–housing costs by living with their parents during the course of their two-year associate program. Students who pursue an associate degree online also forgo paying the (often more expensive) room and board for campus housing.|
|Estimated Maximum per Month$725||Estimated Minimum per Month$15|
|For students who don’t live close to campus, the cost of getting to and from daily classes can add up over time; this includes on-campus parking passes and gasoline costs.||Students who carpool to campus or use public transportation spend much less per month than those who take a personal vehicle to school. Online associate degree programs are another option; students can study, take exams, and submit assignments from their homes without the requiring on-campus attendance.|
|Estimated Maximum per Semester$200||Estimated Minimum per Month$0|
|College students are urged to maintain an emergency fund of at least $200 to cover medical/dental costs, auto mechanic fees, and other essential expenses.||Students without any sort of emergency fund are susceptible to unforeseen charges. However, health and auto insurance coverage can greatly help ease emergency-related costs.|
The Quickest, Cheapest Path to an Associate Degree
High School Diploma or GED
|Why it’s Important||According to the BLS, high school graduates face an unemployment rate of 5.6%, while the unemployment rate for those who do not earn a high school diploma is 8.6%. The vast majority of accredited associate degree programs require a high school diploma or an equivalent GED credential. Furthermore, high school completion is a prerequisite for most post-education employers.|
|Associated Costs||Public education is free for high school students in the United States, but many courses require nominal fees for textbooks, lab equipment, and other learning materials. Students who require educational assistance may also pay for outside tutoring. Transportation costs–such as parking passes and fuel–may be burdensome for some students. Other expenses include notebooks, writing utensils, computers/software, and flash drives. Those who attend private high schools will face higher expenses, along with additional costs like annual tuition, accommodations (if dorm housing is required), uniforms, and meal plans.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost|| |
|Why it’s Important||The SAT is not required for graduation, but strongly encouraged for college-bound high school students. This exam measures academic performance in three areas: English, mathematics, and reading comprehension. The ACT exam is a popular alternative to the SAT, and this exam covers four academic areas: English, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences. Students who score well on the ACT or SAT may find that they are qualified to apply to a wider variety of schools. An exceptional score may also increase a student’s eligibility for certain scholarships.|
|Associated Costs|| |
Each SAT session costs up to $57 per student; SAT-takers are allowed to sit for the exam as many times as they want in order to earn an optimal score. Additionally, students can prepare for the SAT by taking the practice SAT (PSAT) exam; the PSAT does not reward an official score.
For the 2016-17 school year, sitting for the PSAT costs $15 per session. The cost of sitting for the full ACT exam is virtually the same as the SAT. Other expenses related to testing include SAT or ACT prep courses and exam study guides. Students may also need to pay for printed copies of their scores that can be sent to their prospective colleges.
|Ways to Reduce Cost|| |
Finding the Cheapest School
|Why it’s Important||Students are encouraged to thoroughly research all of their prospective colleges and universities in order to find the most affordable online associate degree programs. The annual cost of two-year programs at U.S. postsecondary institutions has risen more than 33% in the last three decades, so higher education represents a significant investment for today’s students.|
|Associated Costs||Students can visit campuses to meet with admissions counselors and learn about cheap online associate degree options; travel costs and on-campus parking fees may apply.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost|| |
|Why it’s Important||Virtually every accredited two-year associate degree program requires a completed application from every prospective student. Applications generally include personal information, SAT scores, high school grades, and at least one personal essay written by the student. Some schools may require a printed application, but many of today’s institutions allow students to submit their application online.|
|Associated Costs||According to U.S. News & World Report, students may pay up to $90 for a single college application. However, the average application costs $47 per applicant. Students may pay additional fees to obtain high school transcripts and SAT scores; mailing fees will also apply for written or printed applications.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost|| |
Maximum Credit Loads
|Why it’s Important||Students who take full course loads (at least 15 credits per semester or quarter) tend to save more money in the long run by minimizing extraneous costs related to postsecondary education (such as campus housing or meal plans). These learners are then able to graduate more quickly, apply for paid employment, and enter the workforce.|
|Associated Costs||Tuition rates are based on a cost per credit hour basis, so these expenses will remain the same regardless of a student’s timeline.|
Living Frugally While in School
|Why it’s Important||Many college students face the unique pressure of paying for everyday expenses without the financial support of full-time employment. Even for students enrolled in a relatively cheap online associate degree program, cost-effective living is crucial. Students should identify inexpensive housing accommodations, shop for food within their individual budget, arrange affordable transportation to and from campus, and limit frivolous spending as much as possible.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost|| |
Graduating and Beyond
|Why it’s Important||Students who complete a two-year degree program fare much better than those who leave college without graduating. The job market is highly competitive in most professional sectors, and candidates who have completed an associate program will gain a substantial advantage over other applicants. Furthermore, associate degree-holders are well-positioned to continue their education and enter a bachelor’s program.|
|Associated Costs||Pursuing certain jobs may require relocation costs if desirable positions are not available near the student’s campus or current residence. Certain professions also require candidates to obtain additional certifications or vocational training programs. Those who decide to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program face at least two more years of undergraduate tuition and monthly/annual expenses related to postsecondary education, such as housing and meal plans.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost|| |
Upgrading to a Bachelor’s DegreeFor many students, a two-year associate degree online program is a stepping stone towards a more advanced degree. Bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs require a longer time commitment and, as such, a larger financial commitment. However, students who earn these degrees stand to earn a much higher salary at both the starting and mid-career levels than those who finish their postsecondary education with an associate-level credential. Additionally, the BLS notes that unemployment rates decrease with each successive degree level. Currently the unemployment rates stand at 2.8% for bachelor’s degree-holders, 2.4% for master’s degree-holders, and 1.7% for doctoral degree-holders.
The following table lists five common career paths, along with the median annual salary for both associate and bachelor’s degree-holders.
|Field||Associate Pay||Bachelor’s Pay|
Affordable Schools with Online Associate Degree Programs
East Mississippi Community College
|Value Score 8.20|| |
Located in the small town of Scooba, East Mississippi Community College offers a range of career-technical associate degree programs designed to prepare students for the workforce. Each program consists of at least 30 credit hours. Specific areas of study include automotive, business and marketing, drafting and design, industrial maintenance, and practical nursing. Seventeen of the school’s career-technical programs also offer vocational certificates. On-campus and online associate degree programs are available at EMCC; the bulk of courses are taught at the school’s primary Golden Triangle campus.
Students who are currently employed in the same field as their major may also qualify for EMCC’s work-based learning program; eligible candidates are paired with a local employer, where they will spend the term working for industry wages and earning college credit. Local high school students may also sign up for dual enrollment, which allows them to take college courses and earn credit while still attending high school.
Holmes Community College
|Value Score 7.51|| |
Originally founded as an agricultural school in 1911, Mississippi’s Holmes County Community College has operated as a junior college since 1929. Students who enroll at HCCC can choose from two different educational pathways. AA degrees are available in 10 different academic areas; the bulk of these 62-credit programs fall within the fields of business, education, or natural sciences. Alternatively, students may pursue an AAS degree or professional certificate in one of the school’s 21 technology-oriented programs.
Students who prefer to study off-campus can sign up for online courses using the Mississippi Virtual Community College server. These courses are primarily virtual, allowing students to access course materials, participate on class discussion boards, and submit assignments via email. All HCCC programs feature at least two proctored exams which require classroom attendance; however, exemptions are available for disabled students and students who live out-of-state.
Allen County Community College
|Value Score 7.29|| |
Students who attend Allen County Community College in southeastern Kansas may choose from four associate-level degree pathways in 38 different fields of study. The AA and associate of science degrees carry a 64-credit requirement, while the AAS and associate in general studies (AGS) options are capped at 60 credits. In certain fields, more than one type of associate degree will be available. Additionally, opportunities at the school for distance learners include exclusively online, hybrid, and web-enhanced (supplemental) courses. Students who require educational assistance may access the school’s online writing lab (OWL) or web-based tutoring services.
ACCS offers a handful of institutional scholarships and grants to students who meet specific requirements pertaining to academic history, residency, and demonstrated financial need. Roughly 2,500 students enroll at ACCS each semester.
Pamlico Community College
|Value Score 7.10|| |
Pamlico Community College lies in the small coastal community of Greensboro, North Carolina. Academic pathways are offered in 17 different areas of study, including allied health, business, education, and career-oriented technical fields. Most programs culminate in either an associate degree or a professional certificate; both options are available in certain fields. And as a certified Electronic Campus with the Southern Regional Education Board, PCC offers exclusively online associate degree programs and courses (as well as hybrid options) across all areas of study.
PCC’s small business center works with students who hope to pursue an entrepreneurial career after graduation, and those who want to improve their office skills can enroll in a WorkKeys® certification course. The school is also home to a corrections education program that allows inmates living at nearby Pamlico Correctional Institution to earn diplomas and/or vocational certificates in 18 different technical fields; these include auto repair, carpentry, and plumbing, as well as a basic adult education course that culminates with a high school equivalency exam.
West Kentucky Community and Technical College
|Value Score 7.02|| |
The city of Paducah is home to West Kentucky Community and Technical College. The school’s academic pathway options include two-year associate degree, diplomas, and professional certificates, as well as on-site work training programs. Students can also follow a track with the college’s Accessible College Education (ACE) program; options through ACE include receiving credit for prior work experience, signing up for evening/weekend/courses, or completing a degree program exclusively online. WKCTC also offers numerous, non-credit community courses throughout the year.
WKCTS was formed in 2003 following a merger between Paducah Community College and West Kentucky Technical College. The institution serves 10 counties throughout the Bluegrass State, and enrolls roughly 6,500 full- and part-time students every semester. Nearly 3,000 of these students are distance learners, while another 1,400 are high school students sponsored under the college’s dual enrollment program. WKCTS also boasts a student-to-teacher ration of 20:1.