Making the Tough Choice: Associate or Bachelor's Degree

General Education

Not Always Black and White: Deciding between as Associate and Bachelor's Degree

Going to college involves making big decisions. Not only do you have to determine which school is right for you, but you also have to figure out which degree is appropriate for your future. That can be a lot of pressure. But deciding between an associate degree and a bachelor's degree can be a lot simpler than you realize, if you know the facts about each degree. Making an informed decision is the first step toward a successful career path.

So what's the difference between an associate and a bachelor's degree?

This is a common question addressed to Nicole Corcoron, counselor and director of the transfer center at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, Calif. When this question comes up, Corcoron advises students to take an Introduction to College course, which many community colleges and universities offer.

"Some students don't understand that you get an associate degree at a community college and a bachelor's degree at a four-year college or university," she said.

If you're thinking of starting your college career at a community college, it's important to know that you aren't required to get an associate degree to transfer to a four-year school. But if you have the required amount of course credits, you can work on an associate degree, which can be an added benefit to your resume.

So which degree is better?

"The benefit of getting a bachelor's degree is, you can earn more money." Corcoron said. "The reality is overall, the more education you have, the more you make, and the more employable you are."

The numbers appear to back this up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those who had a bachelor's degree earned mean annual wages of $53,300 compared with the $39,572 earned by associate degree holders. The student newspaper of California State University, Fullerton, The Daily Titan, reported that while unemployment rates were dropping in California, the national unemployment rate for adults age 25 and older with an associate degree was 7.4 percent, while it was 4.5 percent for the same age group with a bachelor's degree.

Because a bachelor's degree can be seen as beneficial in many ways, some students don't even consider not getting one.

"I didn't really consider an associate degree," said Asad Ramzanali, 22, who recently graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's of arts degree in economics. "I knew a bachelor's was right for me because I wanted the option of going to grad school and I figured having a bachelor's would make further education easier in the future."

For Ramzanali, a bachelor's degree represented the type of liberal arts education he wanted.

"You aren't taught a technical skill set, but rather a way to view the world and think critically/analytically," he said.

So does that mean getting a bachelor's degree is a no-brainer?

But don't rush to rule out an associate degree. Many high-growth fields, like health care, can be entered with an associate degree. Students can also use two-year training, like in nursing, to make a start in the field and then look for a job that will help them pay for completion of a bachelor's degree.

Additionally, some associate degree programs allow students seeking vocational training to combine their learning with general coursework in English and math so they can broaden their knowledge, be more employable, and be prepared to pursue a bachelor's degree later on.

Sometimes an associate degree may be the best option for you at the moment. Julia Troxell, a nurse who graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College's nursing program, was about to move to San Diego to pursue a bachelor's degree when she met her husband and decided to stay in the area.

"That really narrowed my options for school, since I also had to work full time, but luckily I had a local junior college that I was currently attending that had a fantastic 2-year registered nursing program." Troxell said. "So it was a pretty easy choice from there, since I could get my degree, be close to home, save money and graduate making the same amount as a bachelor degree RN."

So how do you decide?

When students approach Corcoron with this question, she says it all depends on the career path they want to pursue.

"If a student wants to be an elementary school teacher, then the reality is, he or she will need a bachelor's degree." Corcoron said.

Corcoron advises students to consider the career they want and to connect it to the educational path they need. If you're not sure about what field you want to enter, ask working professionals in the fields you like what they think about their careers.

"Talk to people in the industry," Corcoron said. "I'm a big fan of informational interviewing. Talk to people in the field to see the reality of a career field. They are doing the hiring or have been through the education. Get the inside scoop."

Once you know the educational path you'll need to take to obtain the kind of career you want, you'll be better informed about what degree is better for you.