Associate degrees have long helped students jump-start their careers, whether they immediately join the workforce or continue to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Thanks to online education, associate degrees are more accessible than ever. Hundreds of community colleges, technical schools, and four-year institutions offer associate degrees that can be completed entirely online or in a hybrid format.
This article will delve into the differences in earning an associate degree online versus in person, the pros and cons of online associate degree programs, and what students should consider when deciding to pursue an online associate degree.
What Can I Do with an Associate Degree?
An associate degree is a 60-credit higher education degree program that students can usually complete in two years of full-time study. To be eligible for an associate degree program, students must have a high school diploma or GED.
Although there are many types of associate degrees available, the most common are Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Applied Science (AAS). Which type of associate degree a student chooses can inform that they do post-graduation.
Many students who plan to pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree use an AA or AS as a convenient, affordable way to earn undergraduate credits, explore a field of study, or improve their academic records before applying to a bachelor’s program. These programs typically combine standard academic requirements like math, English, and social sciences with foundational coursework in a major area of study. In most cases, having an associate degree means a student is halfway towards earning the 120 credits they need for their bachelor’s degree.
Associate degrees can also provide training for dozens of entry-level jobs, particularly in fields like healthcare, business, and law. As the name implies, an Associate of Applied Science degree equips students with specific skills and knowledge for particular jobs or careers. Some of the fastest-growing jobs that require an associate degree as the minimum level of education include dental hygienists, occupational therapy assistants, paralegals, and veterinary technicians.
Earning an associate degree means an individual can secure a higher-paying job in their desired field while they continue their education and earn a bachelor’s degree.
The Difference Between Earning an Associate Degree Online vs. On-Campus
The most significant differences between in-person and online associate degree programs are where, when, and how students learn.
In an on-campus program, students attend class at set times in the same location, meaning students must live on campus or close enough to commute. Coursework is delivered through lectures, real-time group discussions, and hands-on projects.
Online associate degree programs typically follow one of two formats, synchronous or asynchronous. Both offer more flexibility and accessibility than traditional programs, although they have their differences.
Synchronous programs mean students attend classes at scheduled times, although they participate virtually from anywhere with reliable computer and internet access. These programs combine elements of in-person learning, like lectures and in-class discussions, with virtual tools like chat forums, videos, and online assignments.
Asynchronous programs have no set class times. Students complete lessons and assignments when it’s convenient for them and learn via videos, pre-recorded lectures, readings, and online chat forums.
Communication methods differ based on whether the program is online or in-person. In a traditional program, most communication is handled in person, either in class, during office hours, or in impromptu interactions. Virtual students rely on email, online messaging, and video chats to connect with their instructors and classmates.
There are also differences in how much online and on-campus associate degree programs cost. While schools may charge on-campus and virtual students the same tuition, on-campus room and board can cost students an extra $6,000-$10,000 per year. Attending school remotely means students have more control over their living arrangements and expenses.
Some things remain the same whether you’re earning your associate degree online or in person. Confirm your school is accredited (this is especially important if you intend to pursue a bachelor’s degree). Make sure that your time management, organizational, and study skills are up to snuff, and prepare yourself mentally for the college experience.
Pros of an Online Associate Degree Program
As mentioned above, earning an associate degree online gives students maximum flexibility in terms of where and when they learn. Students working, caring for family, or having other commitments can create a class schedule that suits their needs. Rather than being forced to learn in a traditional classroom or lecture hall, students can attend class in the environment that’s most comfortable for them, such as a bedroom, dining room, or home office.
This flexibility also makes online associate degree programs more accessible. There’s no need for students to relocate to attend the program of their choice, meaning students have a broader array of educational options. For students with health issues, physical limitations, or different educational needs, remote learning might make it easier to attend classes.
Many students earn associate degrees from community colleges, where the average annual tuition is $3,730 for in-state students. By comparison, in-state students at four-year colleges pay an average annual tuition of $9,377. This means that even if students go on to earn a bachelor’s from a four-year college, they save money by first earning an associate degree.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for individuals with an associate degree in 2021 was 4.6%, compared to 6.2% for individuals with only a high school diploma. The career outlook for students is also improved because employers increasingly view online degrees as equal to degrees earned in traditional on-campus programs.
After decades of technological and pedagogical developments, the quality of online associate degree programs is essentially the same as that of in-person programs. Online classes use the same curriculums and are taught by the same professors as in-person classes. Learning online may also give students an advantage in the current remote work landscape, as students learn in-demand virtual collaboration and presentation skills
Cons of an Online Associate Degree Program
Not suitable for all learners
A notable drawback to online associate degree programs is that remote learning is not for everyone. Some students need face-to-face interaction, hands-on lessons, and personalized attention to stay engaged, motivated, and focused. Online learning, particularly in an asynchronous program, demands a level of self-discipline, organization, and independent study that may only work for some students. It’s also important for students to consider their learning style, as online curriculums tend to rely primarily on videos, pre-recorded lectures, and reading assignments.
Technology skills required
Technology is a common component of all educational experiences, but online students must be particularly tech-savvy. When attending school online, students must be able to set up and use equipment like webcams and microphones, troubleshoot connectivity issues and use online resources to their best advantage. Schools typically provide tech support services to students, but trying to solve tech problems can waste valuable time and energy, especially when deadlines loom. To succeed, online students must have access to reliable hardware and internet connections. While schools usually offer some tech support services to online students, they may need a higher level of tech-savviness
Some programs require in-person learning
Despite technological advancements, not every associate degree can be completed online. Some fields, such as healthcare, education, or social services, have hands-on learning components like clinical rotations or internships that must be done in person. Even if students don’t need to go to a college campus for these requirements, they must still be present at a specific location and time, which undermines the flexibility of an online program.
What to Consider Before Starting an Online Associate Degree Program
Enrolling in an online associate degree program can be an exciting step on a student’s educational journey, but there are some key factors to consider before you begin.
What are your long-term education plans?
What kind of career are you seeking, and what type of education credentials do employers in your field want? Is an associate degree a stepping-stone to a bachelor’s degree or the last formal education you anticipate earning? Knowing the answers to these questions will help inform the type of associate degree program you choose and the school you attend. For example, if you plan to earn a bachelor’s degree, make sure you attend an accredited institution; this will make it more likely that the next college you attend will accept the credits from your associate degree. Consider two-year colleges with articulation agreements with four-year schools to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
Do you have an adequate learning environment and tech set-up?
Learning at home may be convenient, but it also has its challenges. To set themselves up for success, students must have a dedicated, distraction-free workspace for attending classes, doing homework, and taking tests. Students also need to communicate and set boundaries with those they live with, including partners, kids, and roommates, to ensure they have the space and time to complete their schoolwork. They should also assess their tech set-up and confirm that their hardware and software are in good condition and compatible with their needs. Having reliable high-speed internet is also a must for online students.
How will you pay for your online associate degree?
Even though earning an associate degree online may be more affordable than attending an on-campus program, a tuition bill will still come due each term. Students should figure out how to pay for their degree before that point. As you research degree programs, gather the information you’ll need about tuition costs, payment options, scholarships and financial aid opportunities. You’ll also want to consider additional expenses beyond tuition, such as books, equipment, and fees. If you’ll be working while you attend school, find out if your employer offers tuition reimbursement benefits, which can help offset the cost of your program. Contact the school’s financial aid office if you have questions about costs or paying for your program.
The Best Online Associate Degree Programs
Learn more about online associate degree programs with Intelligent.com’s list of the best online associate degree programs or, discover specific associate programs below: