An associate degree is an undergraduate academic degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of a course of study lasting two years. It is considered to be greater level of education than a high school diploma or GED but less than a bachelor's degree.
The Foundation degree in the United Kingdom, the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) in Scotland, and the Higher Certificate in the Republic of Ireland can be considered European equivalents of associate degrees. These programs are mainly provided through affiliated colleges at universities. In Germany the Abitur can be considered the best equivalent to an associate degree, as no dedicated associate degree exists. In 2004, Australia added "associate degree" to the Australian Qualifications Framework. This title was given to more academically focused advanced diploma courses. However, very few courses yet use the new title.
In the Netherlands, there were four pilots between 2005 and 2011 to assess the added value of the associate degree. In 2011 the associate degree has been added to the Dutch system of higher education as a means to close the gap with the vocational education system.
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. A student who completes a two-year program can earn an Associate of Arts/Associate in Arts (A.A.) or an Associate of Science/Associate in Science (A.S.) degree. A.A. degrees are usually earned in the humanities, business, and social science fields. A.S. degrees are awarded to those studying in scientific and technical fields. Students who complete a two-year technical or vocational program can earn an Associate of Applied Science/Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S., easily confused with the Associate of Arts and Science). They may also have the option to use the credits from the associate degree toward a bachelor's degree via articulation agreements.
In the province of Ontario, a college is an educational institution which awards a 1-year certificate, 2-year diploma or a 3-year advanced diploma in technical or career programs. Universities offer 3 or 4-year bachelor's degrees, and at times partner with colleges to offer joint diploma-degree programs. For example, the University of Toronto Scarborough and Centennial College offer a joint Diploma-Degree program in paramedicine. Students are eligible to enter these programs once they have completed an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) program at a high school, focusing their studies on college preparation. Students who wish to attend university must study a different stream of academics while obtaining their OSSD.
In the province of Quebec, an associate degree is roughly equivalent to a college diploma, which is delivered by a college-level institution. Students can take two different paths to obtain a college diploma. One way consists of completing a pre-university program, which normally has a duration of two years and prepares the applicant for university-level studies. The other way consists of completing a technical or career program in a college. Normally, courses of this nature have a duration of three years and enable the student to enter the work force directly after obtaining their diploma.
Associate degrees are offered at some universities and colleges in British Columbia.
The two-year General Academic Studies Degree has been offered since 1973.
In Hong Kong, associate degrees, first introduced into the territory in 2000 with the aim to increase the number of students with post-secondary qualifications, are generally regarded as an inferior substitute to bachelor's degrees. The quality of teaching and graduates have been under doubt since it was introduced. Many degree-awarding and non-degree-awarding institutions start to offer associate degree courses following the government's encouragement; some of them are accused of over-admission for profits. Students who do not do well enough for university admission in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE), the public examination sat by the territory's students in the final year of their secondary education, enroll in associate degree courses with the hope to obtain a place for government-funded bachelor's degree courses. As the number of university graduates continues to increase, more and more associate degree holders are finding it difficult to get employed and receive the salaries that were advertised by the government or the institutions. Although the recognition of associate degrees gradually improved in recent years, it was generally regarded as one of the worst flaws of the Hong Kong education system.
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- Associate degree: Two years to a career or a jump start to a bachelor’s degree (PDF) – More information on associate degrees provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.