Earn an Online Associate's Degree

Thousands of online colleges across the country offer associate's degrees. Without the usual state residency requirements, students are free to choose from almost any online school that's out there. This means you can probably find a good program that is right for you. But with so many options, finding it can be a challenge.

Below you'll find some basic facts about online associate's degrees and some tips to help you find the right school for you.

Associate's Degree, Certificate or Community College?

Before you decide to pursue an online associate's degree, do some research on jobs in that field. What are the typical requirements for employment? Some technical careers require that you have an associate's degree. Others only need an associate certificate, which can be completed more quickly and affordably.

If your prospective career does require an associate's degree, you can usually complete your studies in two years. Almost all employers and colleges recognize online associate's degrees, as long as they are from a properly accredited school (more on that below).

Earning your associates online is also an efficient way to fulfill your general education requirements for a bachelor's degree. If this is your plan, make sure your online course credits will be transferable to colleges and universities.

Another option is community college. If you're an in-state resident, community college can be even more affordable. Almost all community colleges offer online classes, as well as night and weekend classes, but you will most likely have to attend some physical classes. For many students, this is the most efficient route to an associate's degree.

Different Types of Associate's Degrees

There are four basic types of associate's degrees. Most of them require you to complete about 60 semester credits.

An Associate of Arts degree (AA) usually focuses on humanities and social sciences. Most AA students go on to study for a bachelor's degree and credits are generally easy to transfer to other colleges and universities.

An Associate of Science degree (AS) focuses on physical sciences, life sciences and technical fields. AS graduates are generally ready to start a career, but some also pursue a bachelor's degree, depending on their field of study.

An Associate in Applied Science degree (AAS) is made up of vocational training in a technical field of study. Students typically earn an AAS to fulfill requirements for a specific career and proceed directly to the workforce. Most four-year colleges and universities only accept AAS transfer credits on a limited basis.

An Associate in Occupational Studies degree (AOS) is similar to an AAS degree. It consists of vocational training that is very specific to a technical career. AOS programs are not typically transferrable to bachelor's programs.

Make Sure Your Online College is Accredited

If you're pursuing an online associate's degree, you probably either want to go on to get your bachelors or begin your career immediately. In either case, your online degree won't be worth much if the school isn't properly accredited.

If an online degree isn't accredited by a recognized board, it won't be accepted by employers or other institutions of higher education. Before you look into an online college too much, make sure it is accredited by a regional association. If you're uncertain, visit the website of the U.S. Department of Education. They provide a list of all the recognized accreditation boards.

Some online colleges are accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). While most employers will be fine with this, you might run into trouble transferring credits to other colleges and universities.

Is Online Education Right for Me?

The truth is, online education isn't for everyone. If you're an independent learner who is motivated and self-disciplined, you're a good candidate for online college. But others find that they miss the structure of a traditional class.

Most online courses are heavy on reading and writing. Instead of attending lectures, you may just be reading a text and responding to it. Is this format a good way for you to absorb information? If not, search for online programs that use audio/video lectures and multi-media content.

It is also important to know what comes after your online associate's degree. Most students are earning their associates in order to enter a certain career. Know where you want to go and what credentials are required for jobs in that field before you choose your online associate's program.

How do I Know I'm Choosing a Good School?

Online education hasn't been around that long. Some online colleges provide a high-quality education, but they haven't yet established a solid reputation like much older colleges and universities. How can you know if an online associate's program is up to academic standards?

First, how long has the program existed? It can be hard to judge an academic program if it's only been around a year or two. But after four or five years there will be plenty of data on the program that you can evaluate.

Find out more about the faculty. What education and experience do the instructors have? This can ultimately be the deciding factor in how well you do in a particular class.

Check out the graduation rates. You want to enroll in a program that has a good history of student success. Seek out graduates of the program and see how satisfied they were. You can also ask them their opinions of the faculty.

If you've gathered all this information but don't know how to put it into context, compare this program to ones at other schools. Once you start comparing and contrasting, you'll start to get a better idea of what looks good to you and what doesn't.

Guidance Counseling

At some point you will need the help of an academic counselor. Make sure any online college provides this valuable service. They can help you find your best-fit classes that will fulfill your academic requirements. They are especially helpful if you plan to transfer credits to another college or university.

More and more online colleges are also providing career counseling. This can be invaluable in helping you find coveted internships and jobs. Before enrolling in a school, find out how they can help you plan your education and your career.

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