Best Online Associate Degree Guide

Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
October 13, 2021

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 7 million students participated in an online degree program in 2019. Since then, the pandemic has disrupted education, leading to greater adoption of online learning.

This new landscape for education has some benefits for adults interested in pursuing degrees. Today, more people can complete degrees from anywhere. And shorter degree options, such as associate degrees, can help students avoid debt while joining a rapidly shifting workforce faster.

If you're one of the millions of people interested in earning an associate degree online, you'll need to know some basics. Read on to find out what makes the best associate degree programs.

What is an Associate Degree?

Associate degrees are postsecondary degree programs that include general education classes and specific courses in a chosen field of study. They take about half the time to complete as a bachelor's degree program — about two years for full-time students — and they usually cost less, too.

Unlike certificates, diplomas, or other vocational and technical credentials, associate degrees are considered higher education degrees by the education community and employers. Frequently, the credits you earn in an associate degree program will transfer into a bachelor's program.

But not all associate degree programs are equivalent. Here's an overview of the different types:

Associate of arts degrees have three defining traits:

  1. They engage students in general education, a well-rounded core curriculum covering an introduction to psychology, math, science, English, and more subjects.
  2. They include several courses focused on the humanities: Languages, arts, philosophy, history, and literature.
  3. They can be a precursor to a bachelor's degree in the humanities.

Completing your associate of arts degree can shave time off getting your bachelor's degree since some of your courses will transfer. You also might be able to save money by starting your postsecondary education in an associate program at a local community college.

Like the associate of arts degree, an associate of science helps students gain general education credits and some more specific coursework to transfer into a bachelor's program. The difference is that an associate of science degree focuses on mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, and social sciences rather than the arts.

The one word "applied" makes a big difference in degree types. Associate of applied science (AAS) degrees typically guide students through a curriculum specifically designed with a career in mind.

Take these degrees as examples:

These degrees still include general education requirements, but as you can see, they are more specific. They're meant to enable you to start working right after completing your two-year degree.

Why Get an Associate Degree Online?

People pursuing their associate degree online come from all backgrounds — from high school students to working adults who may or may not have a high school diploma. Regardless of your situation, affordable online associate degree programs can help you reach your academic and career goals on your schedule, in your home, and according to your budget.

Learn From Anywhere

If you pursue your associate degree online or partially online, you complete your courses via an internet connection from your home or anywhere else.

Learn on Your Schedule

Some discussion-based programs will be on a schedule, while others may be self-paced.

When it comes to exams, different programs and instructors will use varying protocols. Typically, it will look something like one of the following:

  • An instructor will monitor you and your classmates during a scheduled exam through a video conferencing platform.
  • A software program will track your computer activity during the exam.
  • You might go in-person to the school or a local testing center.
Online Degrees Can Cost Less

Do online degree programs cost less than in-person degrees? That depends on your school and program. But often, online learners can avoid certain significant costs. Consider the following:

  • Online degree programs help you avoid paying extra for transportation, room, and board. According to College Board’s 2020 Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid Report, the average tuition cost for in-district students at a public two-year college was $3,700 a year. Add the cost of room and board, and that figure skyrockets to $12,850 a year. That means that the cost for room and board is more expensive than the degree itself.
  • Cost per credit hour could be lower. Find out from your program if its per-credit costs differ for online learners. For example, Illinois’ Elgin Community College states different credit costs for out-of-state online learners — their credits are more than $30 cheaper than the cost for in-person out-of-state learners.
  • Fees for online learning vary. When you’re looking at online associate degree programs, you might discover an additional fee for distance learning — for example, $20 for every online credit hour. This can be considered a technology fee to cover the costs of videoconferencing software or other requirements for the program. It’s similar to paying a lab fee for an in-person class, which can be $100-$200 per credit hour.
You Can Use Your Associate Degree Credits Toward a Bachelor's

An associate of arts, science, or general studies enables you to complete the general education requirements that you would complete in your first year or two of a bachelor's degree — and it might be cheaper. Plus, an online associate degree allows you the flexibility to start your higher education from home.

How to Earn Your Associate Degree Online

Step 1
Get a High School Diploma or Equivalent

Most online colleges and universities require a high school diploma or GED. However, some schools may admit you without a diploma or GED if you're at least 18 and you ace your placement exams.

Step 2
Determine Your Education Budget

Knowing what you can afford will help you narrow down programs. Your budget will also help you ask informed questions to college admissions counselors regarding tuition, payment schedules, and scholarships.

We recommend using Lantern's affordability calculator to get started. It will ask you to think about your current income, cost of living, and savings to determine what you can spend on education.

Step 3
Apply for Financial Aid (Complete the FAFSA)

Whether or not you're applying to any scholarships, you should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid the year before you apply to schools. This application tells colleges if you're eligible for financial aid to help pay for your education. It also may qualify you for loans from the government which have lower interest rates and longer grace periods than private loans.

Step 4
Collect Your List of Questions — and Get Help

Community colleges hire admissions counselors to help prospective students through the application process. You might not be able to find all the answers to your questions on the college's website. It's ok — and totally welcome — to call or email a counselor. Their contact information should be readily available on the program site.

Collect all of your questions to present them in an organized manner in an email or during a conversation.

Your questions might include:

  • Can I enroll as a full-time or part-time student? When do I need to decide?
  • What if I don't have certain standardized test scores, like the SAT or ACT?
  • Will I need to attend any in-person classes or events?
Step 5
Gather Your Application Materials

Visit the website of the college of your choice and build a checklist for everything you need to submit your application on time.

Most colleges require:

  • An online application with your information
  • A personal statement or short essay answering why you chose the program
  • Proof of your high school diploma or GED

Some colleges require:

  • Scores from the SAT or ACT
  • Your high school GPA
  • An application fee (less than $50)
  • Letters of recommendation that can replace or supplement test scores or a low GPA

If you're an international student, you will also need to provide your scores on an English language exam and a copy of your passport.

Step 6
Apply to Programs

Once you gather all the necessary information, you're ready to apply online. Apply early to avoid any last-minute technical difficulties.

It's wise to apply to a few of the best associate degree programs. Keep in mind that if you do not get accepted, you will have to submit the FAFSA again the following year if you want to be eligible for financial aid from other programs.

Step 7
Decide How Many Classes to Take Per Semester

One benefit of online associate degree programs is that you can structure your course load to fit into your life. Will you continue to work while completing your degree online? If so, you could spread your courses out so that you only have to take a couple of classes at a time.

Step 8
Work Toward Your Degree

Once you're accepted into an online associate degree program, all that's left to do is the work. Choose your classes, gather the equipment you'll need, and start studying and participating in your courses.

Step 9
Continue Learning to Advance Your Degree

Today, you can complete all sorts of degrees online. We compiled guides for online bachelor's degree programs, online master's degree programs, and even doctorate programs online, so you can keep learning.

Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Associate Degrees

You can reduce the cost of your online associate degree through scholarship opportunities available for two-year students. Here are a few examples:

Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship

The American Association for Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC) National Board Scholarship

Learn.org Associate's Degree Scholarship

University of the Aftermarket Foundation Scholarship

What Jobs Can You Get With an Online Associate Degree?

If you love distance education, you might consider getting a remote job such as virtual office administration or technical support. Try looking in these top cities for remote workers.

In addition, earning your associate degree online can set you up for a number of careers that only require a two-year degree.

Some of the top-paying fields for associate degree jobs include:

Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Contributing Writer

Lyss Welding is a staff writer who covers career and education topics for Become with Lantern. Since graduating from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in linguistics, Lyss has worked in 21st century skills programs and for companies writing curriculum and training resources for students and job seekers. Her writing has also appeared on Best Value Schools and Grad School Hub.

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