Between 2011 to 2017, an average of one million associate’s degrees were conferred by various post-secondary institutions, says the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). It has seen a steady increase since statistics became available in 1969. Now, what does this tell us about a high school graduate’s preference for post-secondary learning? What factors should you consider when making such a choice?
Short answer: It usually boils down to job prospects, especially these days.
The current pandemic has made high school graduates rethink their options. Fueled by economic concerns, many are considering a gap year or to continue pursuing the goal of a bachelor’s degree but on more flexible terms. Associate’s degrees are also another way to go for some incoming undergrads who are willing to forego their primary choice of school to attend a local community college instead.
But what are associate’s degrees, particularly online associate’s degrees? And why is this path a viable option even before the pandemic struck? Keep reading to learn more about this college path, how it differs from other forms of post-secondary learning, its job prospects, how to get in and pay for it, and how this path to employment is secure, stable, pragmatic, and a worthy investment.
Here’s what’s in this guide. Check them out!
- Associate’s Degrees and Online Delivery of Learning
- Associate’s Degrees versus Bachelor’s Degrees
- Associate’s Degrees versus Certificate Programs
- Pursuing an Associate’s Degree: The Rewards and the Risks
- How to Choose the Right Online Associate’s Degree and the Right School
- Financing Your Two-Year College Journey
- Summary and Closing Advice
Associate’s Degrees and Online Delivery of Learning
Associate’s degrees are two-year post-secondary courses usually offered by regional, community, and technical colleges. These degrees are an alternative to the traditional baccalaureate or bachelor’s degree, which can be completed usually in four years. Associate degree programs offer students a mix of general and career-specific coursework that they can use to either transition to a four-year program or be employed in jobs that require specific skills or specializations or in entry-level positions.
These programs fall under three main categories:
- Associate of Arts (A.A.) – which encompasses general education with a focus on the liberal arts like languages, history, social studies, humanities, arts, and the like. Minor STEM courses might be required for completion. The best feature of this degree is that it can be used to transfer towards the eventual completion of a Bachelor in Arts degree. Among the A.A. programs commonly offered by community colleges, Social Sciences and Humanities (SSHU) programs are – according to hiring and labor experts – necessary in the workplace now more than ever to balance out the highly quantitative, technical and automated skillsets demanded by the job market today, through critical thinking and profound human reflection. Other “employable” A.A. degrees also include Business Administration and Accounting.
- Associate of Science (AS) – the STEM counterpart of the A.A. track, which can also be beneficial should one choose to pursue a Bachelor in Science degree. One advantage it has over the A.A. track is that courses under the AS track have better employability prospects, especially in the areas of I.T., health, engineering technologies, and the like.
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS) – these are vocational degrees and sometimes known as “terminal degrees” because using this degree to transfer to the baccalaureate route will prove to be difficult if not impossible, and may end up costing you even more. Most four-year colleges and schools do not accept transferees with AAS degrees, or if they do, they require students to re-take some courses or take new ones before they can even begin their bachelor’s studies. However, AAS graduates are technically equipped, skillful, and not to mention, have very promising employability prospects. Examples of AAS programs include Paramedic Technology, Nursing, and Engineering Technologies (which is an umbrella of hot skills these days).
Most associate’s degrees are offered at community colleges, though some traditional colleges, universities and online schools offer two-year programs as well. Since community colleges are publicly funded, tuition fees are significantly lower by almost half compared to four-year colleges and universities, even more so with several states offering free tuition to its residents. Even out-of-state tuition in community colleges is reasonably more affordable if scholarships, aids, or discounts through regional exchange programs are accounted for.
As of January 2020, nearly 1,200 community colleges are spread across the U.S., according to the database of the American Association of Community Colleges, the nationally-recognized umbrella for community colleges. Online delivery of two-year programs has existed alongside in-campus teaching for more than two decades. In a dissertation obtained by the University of North Dakota (UND) graduate faculty in 2015, George Joseph Ellefson, then a doctoral candidate, provided comprehensive stats on the matter dating back to the academic year 1994-1995. In it, he revealed that about 40% of the distance education curricula being offered at the time are for two-year college programs or associate’s degrees. In the new millennium, a steady rise in enrollees in online associate’s degrees was observed. In 2012, close to half of the student population are enrolled in community colleges, with 26.5 percent of those students taking online courses in at least one subject.
With the coronavirus pandemic, all forms of learning in all levels are being moved online. This shift, while not a new phenomenon in the world of associate’s degrees, will pose challenges. Some of the most affected programs are those that are heavily founded on physical skills or hands-on training (also known as career and technical education, or CTE) such as Nursing and EMT programs, automotive, aeronautic, or electronic repair, and the like. A planning guide released by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) for pandemic-impacted CTE programs shows that blended learning appears to be the most pragmatic solution to the current crisis. This learning style combines social distancing through remote learning and the need for minimal in-campus sessions to accomplish the hands-on learning and practices that CTE programs require.
In summary, think of associate’s degrees as the college road less traveled. It’s not the most popular way to get to your destination or the scenic route, but it’ll get you there in no time without leaving you broke.
Associate’s Degrees Versus Bachelor’s Degrees
Associate’s Degrees and Bachelor’s Degrees are kind of like first-degree cousins under the family tree of college education. Graduates of both degrees are considered as college graduates but with some differences. For one, an associate’s degree can be completed in two years (sometimes even less than two years for community colleges with accelerated programs), while a bachelor’s degree takes about four years.
But what advantages does each type of degree hold over the other?
For associate’s degrees, the time spent, money spent, and the possibility of a faster return on investment are some of its major selling points (more on that in the next section). Plus, assuming that they picked a field of study that pays well, community college graduates are highly employable. On the other hand, Bachelor’s degrees are the gold standard in college education, so it has a certain prestige and reputation, especially among employers. It boasts of higher employability rates than that of associate’s degrees. It also offers a more wholistic post-secondary education compared to the job-specific curricula of associate’s degrees (AAS tracks). But make no mistake, career-specific education has its merits, too. Being equipped with a career-specific associate’s degree means you have fewer applicants to compete with during the hiring process because you’re applying to a highly specialized field or role. Meanwhile, having a more generalized bachelor’s degree gives you employment flexibility and opportunities across industries. One also stands to gain higher returns with a bachelor’s degree, even when student loans are accounted for.
So, which is better?
It depends on your goals. While bachelor’s degrees are considered to be a higher form of post-secondary educational attainment than associate’s degrees, the answer to the question will be whichever college route will bring you closer to your goals. For example, with the ongoing recession, incoming undergrads are leaning more towards associate’s degrees because it is the more affordable and faster option to obtain a college degree that can translate to employment (assuming the field of study has a high labor demand). That’s a short-term goal and a viable one at that. A long-term goal would be to eventually leverage the degree they earned from community college to transfer to a university or college and complete a bachelor’s program in two years. So, you see, neither is better because both are good college options depending on your goals and your current situation.
Associate’s Degrees Versus Certificate Programs
What are post-secondary certificates or simply, certificates?
Certificates are skill-specific training offered to students at the post-secondary level. Its bits and pieces approach to learning and training makes it a level below associate’s degrees in the hierarchy of post-secondary learning, hence, considered as a non-degree award. Despite this, it’s popular among college undergrads, post-grads, and adult or part-time learners because of its cost, flexible schedule, and fast-tracked curriculum. The courses can be completed anywhere from six months to less than two years. Its curriculum is geared towards the learning of skills and capabilities that are in demand in the current labor market, without the general courses offered by associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. This post-secondary non-degree certificate is different from professional certifications and licenses, or the documentation required for you to practice a certain profession, such as a dental hygienist, an accountant or a nurse.
Non-degree certificates are career boosters for underemployed professionals or an effective gateway for high school graduates to enter the workforce through roles that don’t require college degrees. Examples of these certificate programs are CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certificates or the Certificate in Project Management.
According to a 2012 research by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), workers earn their certificates at different times during their post-secondary education. Among them, 66% earn it before embarking on a degree-granting program (associate’s or bachelor’s), while the rest earn it after their undergraduate studies. What this tells us is that then, and even more so now, certificate programs have been the alternate route of high school graduates besides associate’s degrees. In a 2018 BLS report, certificate program holders make up 6% of the employment demographic, while associate’s degree-holders only comprised 2% of the working population. However, associate’s degrees edge out certificate programs in the median salary category by $15,000. In some cases, it is the opposite. The field of study is an important determinant of projected salary even with certificate programs which is why in the fields of I.T., electronics, and business, those with only certificates outearn degree holders, particularly those with associate’s degrees.
So, which is better?
Just like in the previous section comparing associate’s degrees versus bachelor’s degrees, the answer to this is dependent on one’s goals. So, don’t be surprised if we didn’t say outright that associate’s degrees are better. There is an ongoing debate on college degrees and their value, especially when all forms of learning are moving online amid the current recession, and even Fortune 500 companies are hiring non-degree holders. Instead of looking at resumes, they’re looking at projects done, or initiatives kickstarted, cultivating a culture of “learning on the job.” But the counter-argument still rings true though – having a college degree, even an associate’s degree is like having a sturdy fallback. When the going gets tough, college grads, whether of two-year or four-year degrees, seem to have the last laugh.
Pursuing an Associate’s Degree: The Rewards and the Risks
Incoming undergrads may have various reasons for choosing two-year programs. Still, a majority of them have attributed the desire to have a college degree, be employed the soonest, and be well-compensated as the primary drivers to choose this college track. Although, it seems that they would also like to have the option to pursue higher education, with almost 70% of associate’s degree graduates in 2019 having been conferred with either A.A. or AS degrees. In a 2020 report by Georgetown University’s CEW, it is revealed that almost 60% of associate’s degrees conferred are those that will lead to better job prospects.
Did you know that a significant percentage of incoming undergraduates that opt for associate’s degrees are the non-traditional types? They are the first generation students, the part-time employees, the students with dependents, and those coming from low-income social brackets! They need the flexibility and job-centric nature that two-year programs offer.
So, what are the rewards, aside from the promise of more immediate employment?
Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the in-demand occupations for 2019, which only require an associate’s degree but whose median salary ranges from $30,000 to $79,999. Below are the occupations belonging to the high median wage range ($60,000 to $79,000 range):
While occupations in the health sciences and I.T. fields represent the high-end of the compensation game, other jobs also have promising job outlooks based on the BLS 2018 to 2028 projection. Paralegals, legal assistants, physical therapist assistants, veterinary technologists and assistants, and preschool teachers also earn well.
Technical occupations such as technicians and drafters also have high returns on investment. Technicians, particularly nuclear medicine and nuclear technicians, have a median salary of more than $80,000. Mechanical, avionic, aeronautic, engineering, electromechanical, radiologic, MRI, and cardiologic technicians earn anywhere from $65,000 to $70,000. The single outlier among these is the air-traffic controller (ATC) job that pays an average of $120,000 yearly. If you work as an ATC in any of these ten states, you could be earning more. A word of caution, though, there is a direct link between employment success with a two-year degree and the field or industry of study. Not all associate’s degrees provide its graduates with good employment prospects (see the three main categories of associate’s degrees).
- Transfer into a bachelor’s program successfully. In some states like in California and Florida, community college graduates have guaranteed spots in state universities as incoming juniors. You will also reduce your tuition costs. By how much? Read the next bullet.
- CNBC reports, in 2019, the average tuition in community colleges is $3,660, without factoring room and board costs and the grants, scholarships, discounts, or other aids a student has received. Also, 17 states offer free tuition fees to its residents attending any of its local community colleges. As for online associate’s degrees, these are still relatively cheaper compared to out-of-state tuition fees, even with the addition of the online delivery fee or the “e-learning rate” to students’ bills who opted for online education.
- Strong ties with local businesses and integrate experiential learning in their curricula. Its partnerships with local or regional establishments help create internship opportunities and even employment opportunities for its graduates.
- Appreciate and find relevance in all the lessons and training as these are based on real-life industry practices, situations, and solutions. It’s the kind of learning that’s both efficient and effective for future employment as it is without the nuisance of unrelated subjects taking up twice the time, effort, and about half of the tuition fees. If you’re still undecided on a specific path, associate’s degrees are still a great option, especially with the generality of the A.A. track. The broader curriculum of A.A. programs produces graduates with marketable general skills that can competently vie for entry-level positions that require a college degree.
- Rates. In 2019, associate’s degrees registered a 2.7% unemployment rate, while bachelor’s degrees are at 2.2%. But with the current pandemic where most businesses have shut down, and no industry is safe, this puts all new graduates from every level of higher learning in an insecure position. Some students who are supposed to graduate in 2020 are delaying graduation by taking electives and other minor classes to gain transferable skills. As a result, they increase their marketability and employability. Such a move at community colleges is practical because of the lower tuition fees. Also, since lower starting salaries are to be expected, the lower costs of earning associate’s degrees may seem like a slither of financial silver lining since the return on investment is expected to be slow.
- Online associate’s degrees are the best way to go for higher learning during a recession and the current pandemic. With the pandemic leaving people jobless and penniless and changing the way we do things, enrolling at community colleges and taking your classes online is the best solution right now to pursue post-secondary education, both financially and physically. Financially, it is three times more affordable compared to public four-year colleges and universities and ten times more affordable than private institutions. Physically, since learning is done remotely, social distancing can be observed to keep the infection at bay. Also, the flexibility of two-year online degrees can help shake things up in times like these when things can easily fall into a monotonous routine because of minimized social interaction. Taking your classes at your own convenience and pace allows you to have time for other activities to balance it with school work.
Indeed, the rewards are compelling, but there are also some risks to obtaining an associate’s degree, and these are worth pondering:
The specificity of associate’s degrees, especially AAS programs, may also be its limitation. This is true nowadays when there are no jobs because there are no businesses and employers to provide it. So, in a time when you have to be creative, flexible, and adaptable to job market changes, some two-year degrees may not be able to provide that. For example, those with Associate of Hotel and Restaurant Management degrees may find it hard to transition to other industries after the closure of several food and hospitality establishments as a result of the pandemic.
There are two lessons here:
- As an incoming undergrad who’s still undecided on a program track, be mindful of what the job market looks like at any given time, what skills are in demand, and what industries are hiring, especially during a recession. Use these factors in deciding on a major or program. Nowadays, getting into college isn’t just about what you’re passionate about. You have to pick a program that you’re both interested in but is also flexible enough to withstand recessions and crises. Go for a degree where you can obtain general marketable skills that can be used across all industries, like an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration or Accounting, because there will always be businesses even during an economic crisis. The need for these professions will always arise.
- While you’re still in school, make yourself recession-proof by taking additional electives that may be useful in times like these (see the bullet on delaying graduation and taking electives above) because even during a recession, companies are still on the open season. You just have to do an inventory of which among your skillsets would enable you to transfer to a different role or industry. Using the hotel and restaurant degree as an example, if you have experience in supply chain management, this could translate to a job in food processing, manufacturing, management of FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods) or perhaps, even in agriculture. Your customer service skills could translate into an online support role. If you have some technical know-how to boost, you can even apply for an online tech support role. It’s all about being realistically creative in marketing and rebranding yourself. It’s like turning lemons into lemon squares, lemonade, lemon candy, or whatever is in demand right now.
Since associate’s degrees focus on middle-skills training and development, salaries tend to peak and then plateau early on during one’s career. To climb the career ladder, employees with associate’s degrees would have to undergo upskilling or training on new or “hot” skills, which touch upon a new set of highly in-demand skills such as analytics, communications, and management. The sudden rise in demand for employees who possess a combination of these skills is a result of the changing economic landscape in the country. For example, from the early to the mid-20th century, the manufacturing sector was the driving force of the U.S. economy. Thus, skilled workers in the industry formed the backbone of the American labor force back then. Then came artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, allowing the country to lead the way in automation vis-à-vis threatening the livelihood of skilled workers.
So, it’s not just further salary increases and career growth that limits associate’s degree holders, but there’s also the threat of becoming replaceable by new emerging technologies unless they upskill.
How to Choose the Right Online Associate’s Degree and the Right School
We’ve already given you pointers on how to choose the right associate’s degree. To recap, it should be a combination of your interests and the labor market projections (job and salary growth) for the next ten years. These types of data can usually be found in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Also—and this is equally important—don’t forget to check if a government-recognized accreditation body acknowledges your chosen community college. The Department of Education houses a database of accredited post-secondary schools and the accreditation information of each. The list of recognized accreditors, on the other hand, can be found in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) site (updated on July 2020).
School accreditation does not only guarantee you get a high-quality education, but it also guarantees that you can apply for financial aid or other forms of federal student loans. Schools apply for accreditation for this very reason.
The U.S. Department of Education makes it clear that just because a school is not accredited doesn’t mean it offers subpar education! You’re free to attend to one if you wish. Still, you run the risk of one, not being able to apply for aid and two, hiring managers or transfer schools discrediting your school when you apply for a job or transfer to pursue higher education, respectively.
There are several recognized accreditors in the CHEA list. Still, the following are the major and more renowned accreditation agencies which you should look out for so you could give your prospective school a “checkmark” for accreditation:
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges – encompasses institutions located in the six states belonging to the region: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine.
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education – accredits institutions in the east coast states and territories: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (or the Higher Learning Commission) – this is the largest higher learning accreditor in the country which includes schools located in the 19 Northern and Midwest regions: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – the accredited agency for institutions located in Alabama, Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. It also accredits a handful of American-affiliated international schools located in countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, and the UAE.
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities – covers the accreditation of schools in the following states: Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, and Washington. It also includes institutions located in British Columbia, Canada.
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges – the recognized accrediting body for California, Hawaii, and Guam. It also offers accreditation services to international schools.
Now that all learning is moving electronically one way or another – blended learning is also a viable option – a school’s ability to deliver online instruction should be one of the key factors in deciding where to go. Community colleges are no stranger to the online delivery of instruction and learning.
You have to look at other factors as well! Know the number of students enrolled in their online programs. The numbers are a testament to the school’s effectivity in this modality. Location is and will always be a factor even with the pandemic because even when you’re enrolled out-of-state, you might not need to travel at all thanks to online learning.
Enrolling in a local community college will be advantageous, especially these days when social distancing is a priority. If you’re enrolled in a blended program and would need to be on campus one or two days a week, this shouldn’t be a problem. Plus, you can take advantage of the lower tuition fees and great discounts and scholarships for residents. On the other hand, enrolling out-of-state will sometimes be necessary if the school offers the best curriculum for the program of your choice. It is also a way to reduce your tuition fees by relocating to a particular state and establishing residency there. And like we said, with the pandemic, the social distancing, and travel restrictions in place, you can still take classes out-of-state from the comfort of your own home since everything’s online. The tuition might be slightly higher though compared to when you’re a resident. For example, at South Georgia Technical College – one of the more affordable community colleges – residents pay $100 per credit hour while non-residents pay $200. For online learning, their technology fee is a fixed rate of $105 per student per term. Depending on the program you choose, those numbers translate to tuition rates ranging between $2,500 and $5,000 for SGTU students, with financial aids accounted for.
The American Association of Community Colleges or AACC reveals that about 20 states, mostly in the Midwest and the South, had a 40%-50% online learning enrollment during the fall term of 2018. It accounts for 14% of the total community college enrollee population who opted for distance learning. There are only three states where the number of students enrolled in online learning is above 50%, and these are North Dakota, Alaska – both above 70% – and North Carolina.
What does this mean to a student like you? It seems that community colleges in those 20 states are not new to the online learning game, and they are better equipped, both in infrastructure and in the curriculum, to handle the transition to a fully online curriculum amidst the pandemic. This is valuable information if you reside in any of these states. If you reside outside, though, community colleges are known to have reasonable tuition fees even for out-of-state enrollees (see the example above). Also, if you live outside the state but are within the region, and you want to attend community college, say in Texas… but you reside in Oklahoma, regional interstate discounts can be availed, allowing you to attend school at a neighboring state without having to pay for out-of-state tuition. We will talk about this topic in the next section.
If you would like to continue pursuing a bachelor’s degree by transferring to a four-year institution after completing your associate’s degree, it shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re continuing your studies within the state, thanks to the Guaranteed Transfer Program enacted in 35 states. This means that if you earned your associate’s degree in one of those 35 states, you are guaranteed a spot as an incoming junior in the state’s select universities. Usually, state or publicly funded universities provided that you meet the academic requirements. Outside the 35 states, similar programs are being implemented but only for certain college systems. California, for example, has a similar program involving the state’s 116 community colleges, collectively known as the California Community Colleges (CCC), and the University of California (U.C.) system. The program guarantees junior-level slots in any of U.C.’s six schools to associate’s degree graduates from any CCC school.
Financing Your Two-Year College Journey
Associate’s degrees are a more reasonable option financially compared to bachelor’s degrees, but four-figure tuition is still steep for many middle-class Americans. Financial aids like loans, grants, scholarships, and as mentioned above, regional interstate discounts or interstate reciprocity agreements are available to students pursuing associate’s degrees, both incoming and transfer students.
The key here is applying early, just like with any degree at any level. Submit your FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms early. Submit to as many schools as you’d see yourself attending and be mindful of the deadlines. There’s nothing to lose when submitting your FAFSA forms, which have been modified to make it easy for students and their families to complete it. You can also easily transfer your tax information to your application through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
Federal grants for community colleges are also plentiful. There are grants for adult education, career and technical education (CTE), for minorities, National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants and the quintessential ones like the Pell Grant, Federal Work-Study (FWS) aids, Perkins Loan, military grants and direct loan programs to name a few. The full list of available grants for two-year programs can be viewed at the Department of Education – Office of the Career, Technical, and Adult Education page.
Reciprocity programs are extremely valuable financial aids, whether you’re attending in-state or out-of-state community colleges. Currently, there are four interstate and regional discount programs available for hundreds to thousands of post-secondary degrees, these are:
- New England Regional Student Program – Coined as “tuition break,” residents within the New England region – Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut – who wish to cross the border to attend schools from the five other neighboring states can take advantage of the tuition discounts available within the region.
- Midwest Student Exchange Program – Eligible for students from and attending schools in the 10 Midwestern states, whether private or public. These states are North Dakota, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
- Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) – From the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) comes WUE, the largest interstate educational reciprocity program in the country for post-secondary learning. It employs the same mechanics as with the other regional programs. It encompasses all the Western states starting from the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and the rest of the states that are to the west of these. The program also includes Alaska, Hawaii, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
- Academic Common Market – This is the second-largest interstate academic agreement in the country, next to WUE. The ACM is a tuition discount program instituted by the Southern Regional Education Board which includes agreements between the 13 participating Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. It also offers the largest number of undergraduate and graduate degrees available under the initiative, a combined 1900 degrees.
If you’re wondering why some states were left off the list, here’s why:
- The tri-state area comprised of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania does not participate in any regional or interstate tuition agreements with each other nor with neighboring states. They are also not part of any regional compacts. Expect higher tuition rates in these states if you’re not a resident.
- Texas and Florida participate in the ACM program but only at the graduate level. North Carolina does not participate in it at all.
- Michigan, Iowa, and South Dakota, though currently part of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), are non-participants to the MSEP program.
When studying your financial options, especially for the regional interstate tuition programs, be sure to check first with your prospective school if they are participating in the program. It’s one thing that the state takes part in, but it doesn’t mean that all schools within its borders are participating as well. If your chosen school is participating, check if your chosen degree is qualified or available for the program. Also, check with the school if the exchange and interstate agreements cover online programs such as online associate’s degrees. For example, the Academic Common Market program for the Southern region covers distance learning degrees under the ACM/Electronic Campus variation of the program.
Summary and Closing Advice
Little is known about the value of associate’s degrees and online associate’s degrees. It has always been just an alternative option to bachelor’s degrees, and true enough. In contrast, associate’s degrees are entry points to immediate and gainful employment. It does not equate to four-year degrees. Both college degrees are valuable, depending on perspective. From the perspective of tuition affordability, employability, prospective salary, and job growth, associate’s degrees – with the right field of study – have an edge. Bachelor’s degrees, on the other hand, impart a sense of labor market resilience and adaptability because of the generality of its education and the prestige it carries.
Associate’s degrees, both online and in-campus, have a definite advantage over certificate programs. Most hiring managers and employers would still rather employ a two-year degree holder over a certificate awardee (except for a few companies like Apple and IBM).
The bottom line is that, depending on the perspective, there will always be something better or less than an associate’s degree. But if you’re dead set on pursuing this two-year path, know this, you are on the right track, especially now. And you’re certainly not alone in making the shift to community colleges instead of that dream college or university.