Earning a practical college degree doesn't have to mean spending at least four years cracking the books.
Do you want to go back to school to help you launch a new career, but aren't too gung-ho on the idea of spending until 2016 - or longer - chasing a bachelor's degree?
Well, don't dis your degree plans just yet. There are plenty of associate's degree programs in various fields that can be completed in as little as half the time of a typical bachelor's degree.
It also could be a very practical approach to pursuing your career goals.
"School is a big commitment of time, especially for adults with jobs and families, so they often can't or don't want to spend four years for a degree." says Velvet Miscione, a counselor with Southern California's Coastline Community College (CCC). That's why she says that earning an associate's degree - which could be completed in as little as two years - is a smart move.
And unless you've got a hankering to go into rocket science, there's probably an associate's degree in the industry of your choice.
So read on for six smart associate's degree options.
Have you always had a strong desire to work in the medical field, but aren't so keen on spending years in grueling classes? Good news: An associate's degree in medical assisting could help you gain valuable health skills in as little as two years.
Why it's a Smart Choice: "I expect many opportunities for graduates of this degree," says Cathy Summa-Wolfe, communications director at the College of Marin, in the North San Francisco Bay area. Why? Because "Medical assistants are part of health care, which has great demand."
And she's right. The Department of Labor projects 31 percent job growth in this field from 2010 to 2020. That translates into a whopping 160,000 new jobs.
What You'll Learn: In a medical assisting program, you'll learn everything from taking vital signs to keeping patient's medical records, says the College Board, a nonprofit research organization that promotes higher education. A line-up of typical classes might range from medical office administration and insurance, to medical terminology and diagnostic procedures.
Are you good with numbers? Do you like the number two more than the number four? Great - because an associate's degree in accounting, which could be completed in as little as two years, could be very much to your liking.
Why it's a Smart Choice: Accounting is a degree that Summa-Wolfe thinks very highly of for its practicality. She says that it teaches skills that are in demand in a variety of businesses, like bookkeeping and budgeting.
"Getting this degree gives students marketable skills to jump into the job market," says Summa-Wolfe.
Stuff You'll Learn: So just what other in-demand, practical skills could you learn in this major? According to the College Board, you'll study how to "gather, record, analyze, interpret, and communicate information about an individual's or organization's financial performance and risks." Yep, sounds practical.
Are you a lover of technology who has the desire to learn more about how computers work? You could turn your passion into a practical pursuit with an associate's degree in information technology (IT).
Why it's a Smart Choice: "IT is a great associate's degree now because there's such a demand for it. The number of jobs that are open in that field have increased in the last five to ten years, whereas a lot of other fields have declined," says Miscione.
She adds that this is not surprising since computers are becoming more prolific in our society seemingly every day. "Everything is moving toward electronic communication and someone has to manage that," she says.
What You'll Learn: The College Board says you'll learn a variety of things about computers, from the details of the hardware, to the complex ways we use them to communicate with each other. Your course load might include classes such as computer systems and architecture, introduction to computer science, and web technologies.
Do you want to improve your business knowledge and prepare for your climb up the corporate ladder? Or perhaps you have a great idea for your own business, but lack the skills to make your dream reality. Either way, an associate's degree in business administration could help you reach your career goals.
Why it's a Smart Choice: Summa-Wolfe says business degrees are very popular among those looking for an advantage in the business world. "A business degree teaches skills that are applicable in the private or public sector," she says.
Miscione is a fan of an associate's degree in business as well, saying that students in this major have often been business professionals for years, but never went to school. "They feel that to take their career to the next level, they need a business degree to make themselves more competitive," she says.
Stuff You'll Learn: According to the College Board, students in this field learn how to plan, organize, and direct an organization's activities. Common coursework might include classes like financial management, accounting, economics, marketing, and a host of others. In fact, the list seems as eclectic as the world of business itself.
Do you picture yourself a legal eagle but can't picture yourself spending four or more years learning how to spread those law-loving wings? You're in luck, because an associate's degree in paralegal studies can be completed in as little as two years.
Why it's a Smart Choice: Summa-Wolfe sees this degree as one that is very practical since it teaches very specific skills. "Students can apply their knowledge to the legal profession, but also in many aspects of business," she says.
For instance, Summa-Wolfe says understanding contracts, legal matters, and how to research all these subjects are skills that are very important to many businesses. And these are all things you might learn as a paralegal studies major (more on this below).
Stuff You'll Learn: In a paralegal studies program, you'll learn many aspects of the legal process, including how to do things like legal research, investigations, and keeping legal records, according to the College Board. As for typical classes? It ranges from criminal law and procedure, to litigation and legal research and writing.
Does the medical field fascinate you, but not enough to want to play a hands-on role when it comes to treating patients? Studying the field of health information technology could satisfy that health care craving, while keeping it on an administrative level.
Why it's a Smart Choice: "This degree is in the area of health care, a growing field with a lot of job opportunity. So I think for those students who want a practical degree that gives them skills for an industry that will probably have a lot of jobs, this is a good choice," says Miscione.
And how's this for a lot of jobs? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, medical records and health information technicians are projected to experienced a 21 percent job growth from 2010 to 2020.
Stuff You'll Learn: We all know how important medical records are to doctors in their fight to keep patients healthy, not to mention to insurance companies. As a health information technology student, you'll learn how to prepare and maintain those all-important medical records and systems, with help from classes like medical terminology, health care law, introduction to coding, and more.
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