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What’s the Difference Between Associate and Bachelor’s Degrees?

What’s the difference between Associate of Applied Science (AAS) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees? Can't decide which degree is right for you? We'll break down the two types of degrees and help you figure out which is the right fit for your future education and career goals.
Nicole Krempasky

Nicole Krempasky

Deciding to go to college is a big step in shaping your career and future. But then you have to decide whether to get an associate degree or a bachelor's degree. This decision depends on your career goals, how much time you're willing and able to commit, your financial resources, and your personal circumstances. Each degree has its own unique advantages, from the length of study to the depth of academic rigor, and from potential earnings to career advancement opportunities. Whether you're looking to quickly join the workforce with a specialized skill set or seeking a comprehensive educational experience with a broad academic foundation, it's important to understand these differences. So, let's take a closer look at associate and bachelor's degrees to help you align your academic goals with the career path you envision.


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Associate degree vs. bachelor's degree – what is the difference?


Associate and bachelor's degrees have a few similarities. They are both considered undergraduate degrees and have some overlap with the classes required for each. There are also key details that set them apart from one another, which can help you determine the better option for you.


Criteria Associate Degree (AAS) Bachelor's Degree (BS)
Duration These are between 60-73 credits and take around two years/four semesters to finish if you take classes full time. It will take longer to complete if taking classes part-time. You have six years to complete your AAS at Penn Foster. These are 120 credits and are 8 semesters long. If you attend full-time, it will take four years to complete and longer if you’re going part-time. You have up to eight years to complete your degree.
Type of Degree Undergraduate Undergraduate
Program Depth More focused on core courses and may be more vocational Broader range of courses with major and electives
Credits Required 60-73 semester credits, depending on the major 120 semester credits
Cost $4,000-$6,000 - total for 4 semesters $8,000-$12,000 - total for 8 semesters
Career Options Some careers like medical assistants and paralegals don’t require a four-year degree, meaning an associate degree can get you where you want to be professionally without the added time and expense of a bachelor’s. A bachelor's degree opens a wide range of career doors in various industries, from business management to criminal justice to veterinary technology. Graduates can pursue hands-on professional work, management, or education, depending on their interests.
Transferability Credits may often be transferred to a bachelor’s program Not designed to transfer to a higher-level degree
Potential Earnings Workers with an associate degree have an average weekly pay of $963 Employees with a bachelor's degree earn an average of $1,334 per week
Some Popular Majors/Degrees Accounting, Business Management, Computer Information Systems, Construction Technology, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Engineering Technology, Graphic Design, Health Care Management, Human Resources Management, Industrial Electronics and Electrical Maintenance Technology, Interior Design, Medical Assistant, Paralegal Studies, Veterinary Technician Business Management, Criminal Justice, Veterinary Technology


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Why earn a degree?


There are a lot of different types of academic programs out there, so it’s important to know which to choose and why. If you’re looking to complete courses in order to earn a college diploma, you’ll want to choose a degree program instead of a certificate program. Degrees show that you’ve completed a specific course of study, with associate and bachelor’s being at the undergraduate level. Earning a degree may also improve your chances of being employed, with those holding an associate or bachelor’s degree traditionally earning more than those with only a high school diploma.


Which degree type is for me?


Though a bachelor’s degree can often earn you more than an associate degree, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a bachelor’s degree is the better choice. Knowing which degree path is better for you depends on your needs and career goals. If financing is an issue, you can start with an associate degree to improve your job prospects, later applying those credits towards earning a bachelor’s degree.


Should I get an associate degree before a bachelors?


Deciding whether to pursue an associate degree before a bachelor's degree depends on your personal circumstances, career goals, financial situation, and the time you can commit to your education.


Some reasons to earn an AAS before transferring to a four-year program are:

  • Cost savings. Two-year colleges are typically cheaper than universities.
  • Flexibility. Two-year programs tend to have more flexibility when it comes to classes.
  • Career focus. Work on a degree that you can use in real life, almost immediately.
  • Academic preparation. A two-year degree can be a good stepping stone before transferring to a university or four-year college.
  • Branching out. Since classes aren’t as expensive, you can dabble in subjects you might have skipped before.


Read more: 10 Jobs You Can Get With an Online Degree


Can I transfer my associate degree to a bachelors?


Yes, you can transfer credits from an associate degree to a bachelor's degree program. To do so, the credits must be from an accredited institution, relevant to the bachelor's program, and have a minimum grade of C. Some bachelor's programs also have a residency requirement.


Transfer policies vary. Check with the school you want to transfer to for the latest info. Talk to an advisor or counselor.


Read more: The Penn Foster Guide to Transfer Credits


Is an associate degree equivalent to a bachelor's degree? 


While they are both undergraduate degrees, an associate degree is not equivalent to a bachelor's degree. An associate is a two-year degree focused on foundational or technical education, while a bachelor's degree is a four-year degree including a more comprehensive education with a deeper focus on a specific field of study.


Can you skip an associate degree and go straight to bachelors?


Yes, you can skip an associate degree and go straight to earning a bachelor's degree if you meet the admission requirements for the bachelor's program. Many students enter a bachelor's degree program directly after completing high school or its equivalent.


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Why is an associate degree called an AA?


An associate degree is typically abbreviated as "AA" and stands for Associate of Arts. This type of degree focuses on liberal arts and sciences, with a balance of general education courses and a concentration in the arts or humanities. There is also an Associate of Science (AS) degree for programs with a focus on science and mathematics, and an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree for programs that are more vocational or technical and designed to lead directly to employment in specific career fields.


What are the disadvantages of an associate degree?


An associate degree may have some disadvantages, including lower earning potential compared to a bachelor’s degree, limited opportunities for career advancement, fewer majors to choose from, possible issues with credit transfer if pursuing further education, and a perception of lower status in some professional fields.


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Is an associate degree respected?


Yes, associate degrees are respected, especially in fields where they align with the specific skills and knowledge needed for employment. They're often seen as a practical education that can provide a quicker path to the workforce, and they're especially valued in technical and applied trades. While they may not carry the same weight as a bachelor's degree in every industry, many employers recognize the value of the specialized training that an associate degree provides.


What is the shortest time to get a bachelor's degree?


There are several ways to get a head start on your bachelor’s degree, such as taking advanced placement (AP) or dual enrollment courses in high school, which will count as college credit. Some programs allow you to earn college credit by examination, so you can test out of, but still earn the credits to graduate. Another way to earn your bachelor’s degree in a short amount of time is to enroll in an online college program that allows you to go through your courses at your own pace. For example, the Bachelor's Degree in Business Management includes 120 credits earned over the course of eight semesters. However, you can potentially complete each semester in as little as two months; this means that you could earn a BS in Business Management in as little as 16 months.


Read more: How to Prepare for College in High School (A Checklist for Online Students)


Start working towards a degree with Penn Foster 


Penn Foster can help you earn an accredited associate or bachelor’s degree affordably and flexibly from the comfort of your home. To learn more about our degree programs, contact an Admissions Specialist today at 1-888-427-6500.


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