Your Guide to Earning an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts

Students earning their associates degree

Not many people really know what they want to do when they first enroll in college. That’s completely normal. It’s also the perfect reason to consider a liberal arts associate degree. Those first few semesters, you’re still getting your mind out of high school gear and into the big wide world of collegiate studies. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet—misconceptions about different career paths are common.

It’s actually more common to figure out what you really want to major in along the way. That’s a costly process for a lot of undergrads, though. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that the average cumulative debt from student loans for bachelor’s degree students was over $31,800. Tacking on even one extra year to get your core courses adjusted to a new major can run you up to $17,000 extra.

Associate of arts in liberal studies programs offer you some affordable ways to avoid racking up all that debt while still keeping your options open in terms of both your education and your career.

A Liberal Arts Associate Degree Offers Inexpensive Options for Meeting Life Goals

An associate of arts in liberal studies can help you out of this potential jam in three different ways.

Often offered at community colleges, or through low-cost online programs, an associate will cost a whole lot less than two years of general courses at a four-year university. And if you ultimately decide that two years is enough and that you don’t need to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, you walk away with a real college degree in your hand without the full cost of four years of loans weighing down your future income.

This fact will help you get familiar with your options for further studies. Everything from nailing down sines and cosines in trigonometry to mastering the neuter nouns of German could wind up in your coursework.

They are designed to hone your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. You’ll learn how to write clear and direct papers. You’ll learn how to structure an argument, how formal logic works, and how to use rhetoric and other skills in both written and verbal communications.

If you do choose to go on to a four-year program, you’ll thank your associates in liberal arts profs for teaching you how to blast through those advanced upper-class courses with ease.

Finding Colleges That Offer Associate in Liberal Arts Degree Programs

Associate in liberal arts may be found at either two or four-year colleges. Some full four-year colleges offer associate degrees as a path toward a full bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.

Community colleges

Community colleges, which only offer two-year degrees, often include liberal arts associate degrees as a kind of general studies option.

The primary difference you’re likely to find between these two kinds of colleges is in the breadth of subjects offered in the degree program and the qualifications of your instructors. Smaller two-year colleges often have adjunct professors who are often temporary or relatively new to the job. They also have fewer resources for offering classes in different subject areas. They may be stronger in one or a handful of subjects.

Four-year schools

Four-year schools are more likely to have career instructors who are either tenured professors or on a tenure-track for full-time professional employment. They have more resources and probably offer coursework in greater depth and on a greater variety of topics. Because they offer four-year degrees as well, some of that more advanced level of research and preparation will bleed over into the two-year degree programs.

A four-year school, on the other hand, will also tend to cost more. Two-year community colleges are much more affordable, and will often have transfer agreements with a wider variety of regional schools that can open up your options if you choose to continue your education elsewhere.

Ensuring That Your Liberal Arts Associate Degree is Transferable is a Top Priority

Transferability is the ability to take your two-year associate degree and apply it to count for the first two years of your bachelor’s degree program. That means getting to count your relatively inexpensive community college credits exactly the same as if they were more expensive four-year college credits. And that can be a huge savings. A whole year of community college could be half the cost of as single semester at a four-year university.

But transferability isn’t a sure thing that comes with every liberal arts associate degree. The bachelor’s program you are transferring to has to agree that the courses you took at your two-year program are equivalent in content and quality to what they require.

It’s possible to handle this on a case-by-case basis. You may take your transcript to your new school and ask for those credits to be recognized, but this doesn’t guarantee they will be. More commonly, you will look for transfer agreements that are arranged between schools, usually on a regional basis. This offers students the assurance that they will be allowed to transfer credits to other schools that are part of the agreement.

This is a big deal in terms of both education quality and expense, so it’s something you want to consider before you enroll.

Getting Your General Education Courses Online with a Liberal Arts Associate Degree

Online associate of arts in liberal studies are becoming increasingly common options for free-thinking college students. The advantages to online studies have been creeping up on traditional college programs for a while, but the COVID-19 pandemic really put them front and center. They include:

Location independence leads to more education options -
  • Online degrees give you choices way beyond what you might find if you are restricted to only looking around your own area. More choices offer a better chance of finding the professors and curriculum that best line up with your personal interests and learning styles. Moving isn’t always an option, but with remote studies you don’t have to!
Fewer resources mean lower costs -
  • In addition to not having to bear the costs of relocating to a town with a school that meets your needs, you can save money in many online programs just because they have much lower overhead costs. The fact that you don’t need to commute saves you transportation costs. Schools don’t have to build, light, or heat classrooms or libraries for remote students, so they can charge lower tuition rates.
Classes at any time open up attendance options -
  • For a lot of liberal studies students, going to class isn’t the only obligation in their lives. Whether it’s holding down a part-time job or dealing with family obligations, you may just not be able to keep up a traditional class schedule. But with online courses, that’s not a problem—you can tackle asynchronous course content any time of day, from after dinner to before breakfast.

These kinds of advantages are leading online programs to become more common for all kinds of degrees, of course. But they particularly line up with the traditional values of liberal studies, which place an emphasis on flexibility, responsibility, and academic freedom. Your choices to study what you want, when you want, where you want are all maximized through online degrees.

What Is the Typical Curriculum in an Associate of Arts in Liberal Studies?

The typical liberal arts associate degree requires:

The topics you study in those courses will depend both on your interests and plans and the offerings available at the college you choose.

A liberal arts associate degree takes a shotgun approach to subject matter. You will find coursework and electives available in every kind of category of intellectual study. Part of the excitement comes from the discovery of new subjects and new interests you might never have been exposed to in a more linear kind of degree program.

That makes it a little tough to categorize the typical curriculum in an associate in liberal arts program—there is no typical! But many of them will organize their coursework around certain core areas:

Like other levels of liberal arts studies, liberal arts associate degree programs often come with different kinds of concentrations to help you focus your studies. These can include areas such as:

Other colleges might offer even more interesting specialization options, like World Languages or Organizations and Society. And others may give you the option to mix and match, building your own specialized curriculum out of a wide range of electives.

One thing you shouldn’t expect is that your curriculum will be narrow. Whatever specialization you choose, you’ll take a range of classes that will offer new perspectives on that field from outside the traditional patterns of thought. 

Although an associate in liberal arts program doesn’t have the same kind of time or space to give you those perspectives as more advanced degrees, it’s a great start down that path.

A Liberal Arts Associate Degree Can Offer a Flexible Education at a Price You Can Afford

One great thing about liberal arts associate degree programs is that you will find they won’t break the bank when it comes to tuition costs. Community colleges offer some of the most affordable higher education experiences in the United States. And an associate of arts in liberal studies offers some of the best bang for your buck that you will get anywhere.

The go-to source for college costs in the United States is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). According to data from the 2019-2020 school year, the average cost of tuition at a two-year college was only $3,621 per year. The single year tuition costs at a four-year school, meanwhile, clock in at $16,647.

Your total tuition costs for a liberal arts associate degree at a community college are less than half of a single year of attendance at a four-year school!

That fact becomes even more important if you do decide to go on to earn a bachelor’s at some point. You saw the big total debt number up there earlier, right? Well, with the first two years of your four-year education completed at the far lower rates of an associate degree program, you can count on taking out a lot less in loans and owing many fewer payments than jumping straight into a bachelor’s program.