How to get an associate online college degree

After Phaedra Poliquin was admitted to Southern New Hampshire University, she enrolled in an online bachelor’s program in information technology.

But then Poliquin thought: Why not pursue an online associate degree at the four-year college instead? That credential might open doors to a wider range of bachelor’s programs, she realized, and also make her more competitive in the job market more quickly. So, she switched.

“The way that I saw it: With any type of four-year program, you’re not really getting the recognition for your work that you’re putting into that program until you complete your degree – and that’s four years,” says the 31-year-old Colorado resident and current student.

Like Poliquin, those considering an online associate degree program might choose one at a four-year university rather than a community college. Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, the Florida Institute of Technology and Liberty University offer several associate degree options, for example. But there are pros and cons to taking that route.

An associate degree requires fewer credit hours than a bachelor’s, allowing for a quicker career boost, though with a less advanced credential, experts say. It’s often easier for those who earn an online associate degree at a four-year college to progress directly into that school’s online bachelor’s program as opposed to transferring from an unaffiliated community college.

Constance Johnson, chief academic officer and provost at the for-profit Colorado Technical University, which offers online associate degrees, says some students who may ultimately want a bachelor’s degree first earn an associate degree along the way to get ahead at work, either at their current company or elsewhere.


Online associate degree students who then pursue an online bachelor’s are already familiar with the school’s virtual student services, faculty and learning management system, or the academic portal used to attend classes, college officials say. And, they will have already started developing relationships with other online students.

“Even online, you still see a lot of the same people in class,” says Brian Ehrlich, vice president of online learning at Florida Tech. “They have profiles, they have chats and they have discussions.”

Cara Bell, recruitment coordinator for Penn State—World Campus, says completing an online associate degree program at a four-year college makes the process of transferring credits into the online bachelor’s program easier. The completed associate degree courses might also be a part of the bachelor’s curriculum.

This smooth transition is important for online students, who often want to earn their degrees as quickly and simply as possible for a promotion or new job, experts say.

Whether a student should pursue an online associate degree before – or in place of – an online bachelor’s depends largely on his or her professionals goals, Ehrlich says. An associate degree is more helpful in some fields than others.

[Learn what to consider when juggling career goals and an online education.]

In the computer information systems industry, for example, where skills are in high demand by employers, an online associate degree might be enough to land a first job, Ehrlich says. An employer then might even pay for the subsequent online bachelor’s. For military online students, he says, an associate degree could also be part of a promotion track.

In other career fields, such as psychology, an associate degree alone may be less likely to increase job prospects, Ehrlich says.

Experts say prospective online students should also explore the potential downsides of an online associate degree from a four-year college. The admissions process might be more rigorous at nonprofit online schools than at online or traditional community colleges, which are generally open admissions.

Many four-year online colleges also charge the same per-credit tuition for online associate and bachelor’s degree programs, experts say, while community colleges are often cheaper.

And, at four-year online schools, faculty might be less accustomed to teaching associate degree-seeking students than at community colleges, says Thomas Boyd, vice president and dean of Kaplan’s school of business and information technology. It’s important to research professors’ backgrounds beforehand.

“If you have faculty who are used to teaching associate degree students, they’re going to be more accommodating of a student who needs more academic help,” Boyd says.

[Explore five questions to ask about online program student services.]

Four-year online colleges, where many online students reside far from campus, generally allow for less access to face-to-face resources than community colleges close to home. For instance, Ehrlich says, students at community colleges can enroll in on-ground courses for subjects they find difficult.

“For new students that haven’t experienced courses online, it’s worth considering whether they want to take on-ground classes or online classes, or any combination of,” Ehrlich says.