You don’t need a four-year degree to work in the US

2-year degrees
Getty Images / AFP

International students know that a four-year degree abroad can be a pricey affair. What if we told you there is a more wallet-friendly option?

Instead of spending four years at a university, get an associate degree from a community college. There is a selection of 2-year degrees available. 

What is an associate degree?

It’s an academic programme for students who have completed higher secondary school.

This degree is ideal for those who want to know how to apply the technical, academic and transferable skills to the real world. 

There are many benefits to 2-year degrees.

Some community colleges allow students to take this degree online, making it flexible.

As it is subject-focused, you can zoom into the area you are interested in, while also applying your knowledge to everyday scenarios. It is all about using your learning in the practical world. 

An associate degree is also specialised, making students experts in that particular area. It gives you an edge when applying for jobs, proving an area of expertise that your high school diploma cannot.

Different types of 2-year degrees

There are various types of 2-year degrees offered by community colleges. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Associate of Arts (AA): This programme includes business, humanities, arts and social sciences. Graduates either head to work or transfer to four-year courses. 
  • Associate of Science (AS): Ideal for those who have a passion for science or maths, this degree is usually recommended for those who would like to transfer to a four-year programme.
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS): With a focus on technical and vocational skills, this programme helps students zero in on a particular field. This includes computer science technology, hospitality management, paralegal studies, and law enforcement. Graduates usually go straight into the workforce. 

Most disciplines have an associate degree, so it is just a case of finding the one that best suits your future plans. Here are a few other 2-year degrees to keep in mind:

  • Associate of Applied Business 
  • Associate of Engineering
  • Associate of Applied Arts
  • Associate of General Studies
  • Associate of Fine Arts
2-year degrees

2-year degrees save students time and money, but can be just as fulfilling and fun. Source: Getty Images / AFP

Which is better: Associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree?

To determine which degree suits you the best, you need to consider your end goal. 

There are pros and cons to both degree choices. For instance, 2-year degrees would have fewer entry requirements but a lower graduate salary. 

Bachelor’s degrees come with higher tuition fees and living costs, but carry more prestige when applying to larger companies. 

While an associate’s degree will have you graduating quicker and spending less, those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree tend to enter the working world with a higher salary.

To help you out, we’ve outlined the key differences here:

Associate’s degree Bachelor’s degree
Duration Two years Four years
Average tuition for 2022-23
(According to College Board)
US$3,860 US$28,240
Basic entry requirements 60 credits
High school diploma or GED
120 credits
High school diploma, GED, GPA, standardised
tests like the SATs, letters of recommendation
Average annual graduate salary (According to Bankrate) US$50,076 US$69,368

What are the requirements for 2-year degrees in the US?

For associate’s degrees, you need a higher secondary certificate that’s hit a minimum score (most colleges require 60% to 70%).

You will also need to submit your academic transcripts as well as a cumulative high school GPA of 2.0 or above. 

Being able to read, write and speak in English is important. If you do not come from an English-speaking country you may need to take an English Language Proficiency test.

Most community colleges accept IELTS or TOEFL, with a minimum score of 6.5 and 79 respectively. 

Another crucial requirement for an international student is a student visa. It is recommended to apply for your visa at least three months before your date of travel. 

What can I do with an associate’s degree?

There are a few pathways you can take after earning an associate degree. 

The first is to start a career. The benefit of an associate’s degree is that, like a vocational course, you are equipped to hit the ground running. 

There are numerous jobs you can get with these 2-year degrees. Here are a few popular ones that are often in demand:

  • Air traffic controllers (one of the highest paid jobs that requires an associate degree)
  • Computer network support specialist
  • Account executive
  • Web developer or designer
  • Physical therapist
  • Social media manager 
  • Radiation therapist
  • Paralegal
  • Civil engineering technician
  • Environmental engineering technologist
  • Geological and hydrologic technician
  • Cardiovascular technologist
  • Agricultural and food science technician
  • Mechanical engineering technician
  • Legal assistant
  • Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technician
  • Dental hygienist
2-year degrees

It is difficult to decide what do to after graduating high school. Getting an associate’s degree is often a forgotten option. Source: Getty Images / AFP

Can international students work in the US after graduating from 2-year degrees?

It’s possible.

You can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is a “federal programme coordinated by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that allows international students with an F-1 visa to work in the United States,” according to career service Indeed.

With an OPT, students can work in a vocation related to their field of study for 12 months. You can put what you learnt into practice. 

This helps you get real experience whilst networking and building connections that can lead to jobs in the future. 

Remember that you can apply for OPT up to 90 days before the end of your programme, but it should be done no later than 60 days after the end of your programme. 

OPT must be done immediately after you graduate and can only be used once per higher degree level. 

There is also the option to apply for employment-based visas or enter the green card lottery

After graduating with an associate’s degree, students can choose to study further. You can use your credits to complete your second two years at most universities.

This way you would have saved money in your first two years, adapted to American life, and still achieve a bachelor’s degree from a more prestigious institution. 

Check to make sure you can transfer credits to the university in question. 

Can I do a master’s after an associate degree in the US?

The short answer: yes, in some cases.

You can search for universities that offer two-in-one programmes in which a bachelor’s is not a requirement.

For instance, South University allows registered nurses with associate’s degrees to pursue a master’s in nursing without a Bachelor’s of Science in nursing. 

Another option is to keep an eye out for integrated master’s degrees which allow you to accomplish two qualifications in one.