High school students looking toward the future have a lot of options. Although the general trend in American education has been for a four-year bachelor's degree immediately following high school, the changes in technology and the shifts in the innovation economy have made it possible for students to pursue an education without a costly time-consuming bachelor's. One of the most popular options for recent graduates is the associate degree.

The Average Cost of College

Traditionally, American students graduating from American high schools are being prepared to enter a four-year college. The general understanding that all students need a four-year degree in order to enter the workforce has persisted in American culture for decades.

Many jobs, even retail, service, cleaning or food preparation jobs that do not require the application of a liberal arts curriculum are unavailable to students who have not completed a bachelor's degree. While a few decades ago a high school diploma was sufficient to begin life in the working world, the bachelor's degree is now the gold standard for anyone hoping to secure entry-level employment.

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Bachelor's degrees typically take students about four years of full-time study to complete. This does not take into account internships or any external programming that may be related to the student's degree and which may be required for graduation, making the program additionally time-consuming. In addition to being tremendously time-consuming, bachelor's degrees are also expensive and are only getting more costly as time goes on.

The Average Cost of Degrees

In 2018, the average cost of one year at a four-year private college was $34,740. At a public university, the cost was significantly less, coming in at around $9,970 dollars. This puts the cost of a bachelor's degree at between $138,960 and $39,880 dollars per student.

Considering that for the majority of Americans making these payments without taking out significant student loans is an impossibility, most students graduating from an American university with a bachelor's degree will begin their professional life with a tremendous amount of student debt.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Undergraduate Degree?

Depending on the program a student chooses, and the time in which he or she has to complete the coursework, an undergraduate degree may take anywhere from two to four years of full-time study to complete.

A bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete, while an associate degree usually takes two years. For students who must go to school part-time because they need to work or care for family members or can only attend school for a part of the year, the timeline will be different.

If you are set on earning a bachelor's degree but can only commit to going to school part-time, it will likely take you eight years of part-time study. For students who do not have this kind of time before they begin working, an associate degree might be the better option. Many people who don't know what they want to do for work choose to begin a degree program because it is the cultural expectation. This can be costly and ultimately defeating.

What Is a Bachelor's Degree?

When considering the options for education following high school graduation it can be helpful to get clear on exactly what a bachelor's degree is. Generally speaking, a bachelor's degree is the general four-year degree that every student who graduates from college will earn. In some cases, students may earn a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science (B.A. and B.S. respectively), but for all students who graduate after four years of college, the bachelor's degree is the very first degree earned.

Bachelor's degrees are the foundation of higher education. Unlike a master's or a doctorate, bachelor's degrees typically are not specialized degrees. While students generally do choose a major or a concentration in a particular discipline or subject area, education is not limited to these subjects. Rather, students earning a bachelor's degree must fulfill requirements in several areas and across a variety of disciplines in order to achieve their degree.

The benefit of the bachelor's degree is that it allegedly provides all students with a strong curriculum of general knowledge which is to be beneficial in helping them to make their way in the working world. The idea is also that the studies and experiences that students have while pursuing a bachelor's degree may help them decide what they want to be doing long-term.

An experience at the undergraduate level may spark an interest in a particular subject or topic. This may help the students decide whether or not they are interested in pursuing additional schooling post-graduation in that particular area.

What Is the Average Cost of an Associate Degree?

An associate degree, unlike a bachelor's degree, is generally a program that takes two years of full-time study to complete. While bachelor's degrees tend to be broad, general knowledge degree programs, equipping students for life after college, associate degree programs are generally geared toward a single career or professional field.

Students who are pursuing an associate degree will be taking courses that directly pertain to the job that they want to do upon graduating. This stands in contrast to the more common but much less focused bachelor's degree.

The average cost of college in 2018 was very high. While the average cost of a bachelor's degree is at least $40,000, the average cost of an associate degree is generally far lower. While the difference between private college associate tuition and public school associate tuition is still large, it is possible to complete an associate program at a private college for less than it would cost to do a single year in a bachelor's program. This fact is sobering and eye-opening for students who lack the funds or the time to complete a bachelor's degree.

The majority of associate degrees are earned at community colleges. These colleges do not have the clout of some of their four-year counterparts. However, if the goal of a student is to begin working in a particular field as quickly as possible, an associates degree may be the right choice.

Why Get An Associate Degree?

For people who know what career they want to pursue and want to get started, an associate degree is a good choice to make. Students earning an associate degree will complete their course requirements much more quickly than if they had gone for a general bachelor's.

These students will be able to enter the workforce at a younger age and with significantly less debt than their counterparts who pursued bachelor's degrees at private colleges. This is difficult to deal with especially considering the average cost of college in 2018.

While many associate degree programs are highly focused and specifically geared toward training students in a particular field or for a particular job, some associate programs have the same sort of general knowledge structure as a bachelor's degree program.

Benefits of the Degree

There is a benefit for students who initially did not want to go to a four-year college, but changed their mind during an associate program. Most universities will apply associate degree credits to the bachelor's degree requirements, allowing the students to transfer and complete a bachelor's program if that is their desire.

The benefits of an associate degree are numerous. One of the key benefits is practical instruction. Rather than spending time and money studying classes with no connection to the field a student is hoping to pursue, most associate degree classes are geared toward helping students understand the industry they are hoping to enter.

These programs, whether in the medical field or the field of culinary arts, offer the chance for students to spend their time getting trained in the things they will actually need to know to make a living after graduating.

Why Choose a Bachelor's Degree?

Although the idea of college is, generally speaking, to make the entrance to the workforce easier, the fact is that some careers require years of education. If you are hoping to enter medical school, law school, an architectural program or to get an advanced degree, you will need a bachelor's degree.

Professions like medicine, law, therapy and hard sciences require several years of schooling, in some cases as many as 12. This is the challenge for students who are unsure of exactly what they want to do.

By choosing a bachelor's degree program you are setting yourself up for the chance to more easily be admitted to a graduate school or a Ph.D. program.

More Education

Students who have only an associate degree and decide that they want to go back to school to get a master's will need to put in additional work to qualify for a bachelor's degree or it's equivalent.

If you are certain that you are going to be attending graduate school, or you're certain that the career path you will choose will require post-graduate education, there is almost no second guessing if you will need to get a bachelor's degree. This is true even if the average cost of a master's degree is more than you would expect.

Beyond the Classroom

In addition to preparing you for post-graduate education, a bachelor's degree program on a four-year undergraduate campus can provide wonderful socializing opportunities and the chance for growth, expansion and great experiences outside of the classroom.

For students who have the opportunity to live on campus and experience college life as a resident, the experience alone can be worth the price of admission. But these experiences are not required to live a happy and fulfilling life, and many students may not feel that they are important enough to warrant the high price tag of four-year university education.

What Other Alternatives Are There to Four Year Programs?

As the economy shifts away from the industrial model of a worker, manager, executive and into a more innovation-focused economy, the bachelor's degree at a brick-and-mortar university is becoming less and less relevant.

Of course, there are still a large majority of students who will want to pursue such a degree, either for their own educational satisfaction or to the lay the groundwork for postgraduate education. For those students who want something different, however, who want to train for a trade or a vocation rather than get a general degree, there are exciting options that can jump-start their careers and their futures.

Vocational Degrees

Vocational school has gotten a bad rap in the American educational system over the last several decades. The scorn for a vocational degree or a degree directed at a particular career is somewhat classist and in no way warranted.

Many students interested in pursuing careers in technology, mechanics, engineering, culinary arts, hospitality management, cosmetology, medical technology and other similar trades can find programs that will help them achieve their goals without parting with thousands in tuition money, or spending years earning a degree that will ultimately have very little to do with the work they want to pursue.

Online Programs

Online programs are another high-quality alternative to a bachelor's or an on-campus associate degree. For students who need to earn a degree on their own schedule because they have family, or they are working full-time, online programs are a wonderful option.

When online education was first a part of the scene, the programs were not considered to be particularly respectable. That has changed and now some of the most prestigious universities and training schools offer online and remote learning for students studying a variety of subjects. When considering the average cost of college in 2018, an alternative program may be the perfect fit.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.