Associate's degree

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An associate's degree is a degree awarded by community colleges, junior colleges and some bachelor's degree-granting colleges and universities in Canada and the United States upon completion of a course of study equivalent to the first two years in a four-year college or university. It is the lowest in the hierarchy of academic degrees offered in these countries. Common abbreviations are AA (Associate of Arts), AS (Associate of Science) and AAS (Associate of Applied Science).

In 2000, Hong Kong introduced associate's degrees, as an equivalence to higher diplomas. These programmes are provided through affliated 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.

It is equivalent to the UK's foundation degree.


Associate's Degree

Generalized categories or types of Associate's Degrees

It is possible to break the Associate's Degree into three general categories.

An Associate of Arts degree is often awarded for programs that are terminal or intended for transfer to a four year college, usually with a major in the social sciences or humanities. It is also awarded to General Studies students, those who decline to select an area of concentration.

The Associate of Science degree is similarly awarded to terminal students or to potential transferees to a four years college, but the areas of concentration are usually in mathematics, natural sciences, or technology.

The Associate of 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. Typically, this kind of degree is for students who intend to enter the work force upon graduation.

Time requirements

The associate degree is most often awarded to students completing postsecondary programs requiring at least one but no more than two years of full-time study. More often, a lesser diploma, called a Certificate, is awarded for only a one year program. It is not unusual for students to study more than two years to complete the requirements for an associate's degree.

Names of Associate's Degrees

Wittstruck (1975) notes that the associate degree goes by several different names formally:

  • Associate of/in (name of specialty)
  • Associate of Applied (name of specialty)
  • Associate of/in Arts
  • Associate of Arts and Sciences
  • Associate of/in Applied Arts
  • Associate of/in Applied Science
  • Associate in General Education
  • Associate of/in General Studies
  • Associate of Individualized Study
  • Associate in Nursing
  • Associate of/in Occupational Studies
  • Associate of/in Science
  • Associate of Science in Nursing
  • Associate in Specialized Business
  • Associate in Specialized Technology
  • Associate in Technical Arts
  • Associate of/in Technical Studies
  • Associate of/in Technology

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

The number of associate degrees awarded rose rapidly in the 1970s. In 19811982, 434,515 associate degrees were awarded, representing a 25% increase over the number of associate degrees awarded during 19731974. 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 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 associate 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 associate degrees in 1980 transferred to a four-year institution.

Illinois data also shed light on transfers with vocational associate degrees. Of the 3,871 students who transferred with an associate 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 degree at all (11%).

Students who earn this degree

Since 19761977, over 50% of associate degrees have been earned by women. Though female students are beginning to enter occupational curricula in which women have been traditionally underrepresented, most women who obtain occupational associate 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 degrees awarded in 1981–1982, 54% were awarded to women (compared to 43% in 1971–1972).


Koltai (1984) presents a comprehensive analysis of the current status of the associate degree. He reports several issues that need to be addressed as community college educators plan associate degree programs for the future. These issues include:

  • the relatively low prestige of the degree in higher education
  • 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 associate degree as qualifying students for transfer
  • the need to keep up with high technology in vocational associate degree programs
  • the desirability of competency-based programs that certify the learning outcomes of associate 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 associate degree committees to work with faculty, students, four-year institutions and businesses in improving counseling, job-placement, and transfer.


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.

Wittstruck, J. R. Requirements For Certificates, Diplomas And Associate Degrees: A Survey Of The States. Denver, CO: State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 1985.

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