An associate degree is an undergraduate degree awarded, primarily in the United States, after a course of post-secondary study lasting two or three years. It is a level of qualification between a high school diploma or GED and a bachelor's degree.
The first associate degrees were awarded in the UK (where they are no longer awarded) in 1873 before spreading to the US in 1898. In the United States, the associate degree may allow transfer into the third year of a bachelor's degree. Associate degrees have since been introduced in a small number of other countries.
In 2004, Australia added "associate degree" to the Australian Qualifications Framework. This title was given to courses more academically focused than advanced diploma courses, and typically designed to articulate to bachelor's degree courses.
Due to the decentralized nature of Canada, each province is responsible for education, and the education system across Canada is not standardized. British Columbia is the only Canadian province offering American-style associate degrees. These are similar to the US associate degree, consisting of a two-year program and allowing for articulation onto the third year of a bachelor's degree program.
The other provinces of Canada do not offer associate degrees as such, but do offer similar higher education qualifications below the level of a Bachelor's degree. These are mostly two-year courses, although Ontario also offers three-year advanced diplomas. In Quebec, the Diplôme d'études collégiales (diploma of college studies), taught at post-secondary collèges d'enseignement général et professionnel (colleges of general and professional education; cégeps) can be a two-year pre-university qualification that is a pre-requisite for entry onto (three year) bachelor's degree courses, or a three-year technical programme preparing students for employment.
Qualifications on the short cycle of the Bologna Process/level 5 on the European Qualifications Framework sit between secondary education and bachelor's degree level and are thus approximately equivalent to an associate degree. Such qualifications include the Foundation degree (FdA, FdSc, FdEng), Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) and Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) in the United Kingdom, the Higher Certificate in the Republic of Ireland, and the French Diplôme Universitaire de Technologie (DUT) and Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS).
In the Netherlands, there were four pilots between 2005 and 2011 to assess the added value of the associate degree. In 2007 the associate degree was added to the Dutch system of higher education within the Higher Professional Education (HBO) stream taught at universities of applied sciences (hogeschool). Associate degree courses form part of HBO bachelor's degree courses, and advising requirements are the same for the two-year associate degree and the related four-year bachelor's degree. Those gaining the associate degree may proceed to an HBO bachelor's degree in only two years, but it does not articulate to bachelor's degrees in the research oriented (WO) stream.
The title of Associate in Physical Science (Associate in Science from 1879) was used by the University of Durham College of Physical Sciences (now Newcastle University) from the 1870s. It required (in 1884) passes in three of mathematics, physics, chemistry and geology, and allowed students to go on to take the examination for the Bachelor of Science. As a university-level qualification lying below the bachelor's degree, this is considered to be the world's first associate degree in the modern sense, having been first awarded in 1873, 25 years prior to the introduction of associate degrees into the US by the University of Chicago. Durham also introduced an Associate in Theology in 1901. Both of these have since been discontinued, although the date of their withdrawal is unknown. There were thirteen different types of associate degrees offered in British universities in 1927.
The title of Associate in Arts, introduced by the University of Oxford in 1857 and sometimes referred to as the degree of Associate in Arts, predates the Durham degree. However, it was an examination for "those who are not members of the university" and who were under the age of 18; as such it was at the level of a high school qualification rather than a modern associate degree. Examinations were held in English, languages, mathematics, science, drawing and music, with the title being conferred on those who students who passed any two (as long as the two were not drawing and music).
British equivalents to associate degrees vary depending on the national system which issued them. Based on assessment by the UK NARIC, American and Canadian associate degrees are considered equivalent to one year higher education courses such as the Higher National Certificate at level 4 of the British Framework for Higher Education Qualifications. Australian associate degrees, however, are considered equivalent to two year higher education courses such as the Higher National Diploma at level 5 on the framework.
In Hong Kong, associate degrees were first introduced into the territory in 2000 with the aim of increasing the number of students with post-secondary qualifications. As originally introduced, the qualification took two or three years, but this was reformed in 2012 to a two-year course. The associate degree is designed as a general academic education qualification, compared to the more vocational Diploma/Higher/Advanced Diploma (Qualifications Frameworks Level 4), and allows articulation onto the third year of a four-year (US-style) bachelor's degree or the second year of a three-year (British-style) bachelor's degree. A survey in 2016 showed that most students believe associate degrees will help them to get onto bachelor's degree courses, but not (by themselves) in gaining a career; however only 30% of associate degree graduates gained places for further study, leading to accusations that the degree is "a waste of time and money" and calls for the government to address this by making more bachelor's degree places available. This has been criticized, with others saying that education had benefits beyond income, which is only a short-term measure.
In the United States, associate degrees are usually earned in two years or more and can be attained at community colleges, technical colleges, vocational schools, and some colleges, as well as at some universities. A student who completes a two-year program can earn an Associate of Arts/Associate in Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science/Associate in Science (AS) degree. AA degrees are usually earned in the liberal arts and sciences such as humanities and social science fields; AS degrees are awarded to those studying in applied scientific and technical fields and professional fields of study. Generally, one year of study is focused on college level general education and the second year is focused on the area of discipline.
Students who complete a two-year technical or vocational program can often earn an Associate of Applied Science/Associate in Applied Science (AAS), although sometimes the degree name will include the subject (a "tagged" degree).
Transfer admissions in the United States sometimes allows courses taken and credits earned on an AA, AS, or AAS course to be counted toward a bachelor's degree via articulation agreements or recognition of prior learning, depending on the courses taken, applicable state laws/regulations, and the transfer requirements of the university.
Common associate degree titles include:
- Associate of Applied Business (AAB)
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
- Associate of Applied Technology (AAT)
- Associate of Arts (AA)
- Associate of Arts in Teaching (AAT)
- Associate of Business Administration (ABA)
- Associate of Electrical Engineering Technology (AEET)
- Associate of Electronics (AE)
- Associate of Engineering (AE/AEng)
- Associate of Engineering Technology (AET/AEngT)
- Associate of Forestry (AF)
- Associate of General Studies (AGS)
- Associate of Industrial Technology (AIT)
- Associate of Nursing (AN)/Associate Degree Nurse/Nursing (ADN)
- Associate of Occupational Studies (AOS)
- Associate of Science (AS)
- Associate of Science in Computer Assisted Design (AS-CAD)
- Associate of Technology (AT)
The Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act was signed into legislation on September 29, 2010, which is a legislation that grants any California Community College student who has earned the Associates in Arts degree for Transfer (AA-T) or the Associate in Science degree for Transfer (AS-T) will be granted priority admission to the CSU (California State University) into a similar baccalaureate (BA) degree program with a guarantee of junior standing.
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