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An associate degree is an undergraduate academic degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of a course of study lasting two years. It is considered to be greater level of education than a high school diploma or GED but less than a bachelor's degree. The first associate degrees were awarded in the U.K. (where they are no longer awarded) in 1873 before spreading to the U.S. in 1898. They have since been introduced in a small number of other countries.
In 2004, Australia added "associate degree" to the Australian Qualifications Framework. This title was given to courses more academically focused than advanced diploma courses, and typically designed to articulate to bachelor's degree courses.
In the province of Ontario, a college is an educational institution which awards a one year certificate, two year diploma or a three year advanced diploma in technical or career programs. Universities offer 3 or 4-year bachelor's degrees, and at times partner with colleges to offer joint diploma-degree programs. For example, the University of Toronto Scarborough and Centennial College offer a joint Diploma-Degree program in paramedicine. Students are eligible to enter these programs once they have completed an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) program at a high school, focusing their studies on college preparation. Students who wish to attend university must study a different stream of academics while obtaining their OSSD. 
In the province of Quebec, an associate degree is roughly equivalent to a college diploma, which is delivered by a college-level institution. Students can take two different paths to obtain a college diploma. One way consists of completing a pre-university program, which normally has a duration of two years and prepares the applicant for university-level studies. The other way consists of completing a technical or career program in a college. Normally, courses of this nature have a duration of three years and enable the student to enter the work force directly after obtaining their diploma.
Associate degrees are offered at some universities and colleges in British Columbia.
Qualifications on the short cycle of the Bologna Process/level 5 on the European Qualifications Framework sit between secondary education and bachelor's degree level and are thus approximately equivalent to the an associate degree. Such qualifications include the Foundation degree (FdA, FdSc, FdEng) and Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) in the United Kingdom, and the Higher Certificate in the Republic of Ireland
In the Netherlands, there were four pilots between 2005 and 2011 to assess the added value of the associate degree. In 2011 the associate degree has been added to the Dutch system of higher education as a means to close the gap with the vocational education system.
The two-year General Academic Studies Degree has been offered since 1973.
The title of Associate in Physical Science (later Associate in Science) was used by the University of Durham College of Physical Sciences (now Newcastle University) from the 1870s. It required (in 1884) passes in three of mathematics, physics, chemistry and geology, and allowed students to go on to take the examination for the Bachelor of Science. As a university-level qualification lying below the bachelor's degree, this is considered to be the world's first Associate degree in the modern sense, having been first awarded in 1873, 25 years prior to their introduction into the U.S. by the University of Chicago.
The title of Associate in Arts, sometimes referred to as the degree of Associate in Arts, predates the Durham degree, having been introduced by the University of Oxford in 1857. It, however, was an examination for "those who are not members of the university" and who were under the age of 18, as such it was at the level of a high school qualification rather than a modern Associate degree. Examinations were held in english, languages, mathematics, science, drawing and music, with the title being conferred on those who students who passed any two (as long as the two were not drawing and music).
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In Hong Kong, associate degrees, first introduced into the territory in 2000 with the aim to increase the number of students with post-secondary qualifications, are generally regarded as an inferior substitute to bachelor's degrees. The quality of teaching and graduates have been under doubt since it was introduced. Many degree-awarding and non-degree-awarding institutions start to offer associate degree courses following the government's encouragement; some of them are accused of over-admission for profits. Students who do not do well enough for university admission in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE), the public examination sat by the territory's students in the final year of their secondary education, enroll in associate degree courses with the hope to obtain a place for government-funded bachelor's degree courses. As the number of university graduates continues to increase, more and more associate degree holders are finding it difficult to get employed and receive the salaries that were advertised by the government or the institutions. Although the recognition of associate degrees gradually improved in recent years, it was generally regarded as one of the worst flaws of the Hong Kong education system.
In the United States, associate degrees are usually earned in two years or more and can be attained at community colleges, technical colleges, vocational schools, and some colleges. A student who completes a two-year program can earn an Associate of Arts/Associate in Arts (A.A.) or an Associate of Science/Associate in Science (A.S.) degree. A.A. degrees are usually earned in the Liberal Arts and Sciences such as humanities and social science fields; A.S. degrees are awarded to those studying in applied scientific and technical fields and professional fields of study .
Students who complete a two-year technical or vocational program can earn an Associate of Applied Science/Associate in Applied Science This type of program is designed for persons seeking direct employment upon completion. AA and AS programs are primarily designed for transfer into a bachelor's degree program.
Courses taken (and earned credits) under an A.A., A.S., or A.A.S. degree may be applied toward a bachelor's degree via articulation agreements, depending on the courses taken, applicable state laws/regulations, and the transfer requirements of the university.
- "Introduction of Associate Degree in 2004". Australian Qualifications Framework Advisory Board. Archived from the original on 5 August 2004. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
- "Main features of the Associate Degree". Australian Qualifications Framework Advisory Board. Archived from the original on 5 August 2004. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
- "Diploma Programs at Ontario Colleges". ontariocolleges.ca. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
- "Recognition Ireland Statement on US associate degree". Qualificationsrecognition.ie. Retrieved 2014-02-12.
-  Archived March 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- "overview of Dutch associate degrees and their classification". Alleassociatedegrees.nl. Retrieved 2014-02-12.
- "EQUIVALENCE DE DIPLOME (Degree equivalence)". voilanewyork.com. Retrieved 2014-03-29.
- William Crookes (1877). The Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science. XXXVI. p. 128.
- The Durham College of Science Calendar. University of Durham. 1884. pp. 13,24.
- Arthur Levine (1978). Handbook on undergraduate curriculum. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
The world's first associate's degree, the associate in science, was awarded by England's University of Durham in 1873. The University of Chicago awarded the first American associate's degree in 1898. It offered associate in arts, associate in literature, and associate in science degrees.
- Sir Thomas Dyke ACLAND (1858). Some Account of the Origin and Objects of the New Oxford Examinations for the title of Associate in Arts, and Certificates. For the year 1858 ... Also Letters from J. Hullah ... W. Dyce ... J. Ruskin ... and G. Richmond ... on the connexion of the arts with general education; and selected papers relating to the West of England examination; with Mr. Temple's report. J. Ridgway.
- "Degree Programs". College of DuPage. Retrieved 1 August 2016.
- "Student Zone – College – Finding/Applying". College Zone. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
- Bragg, A. K. Fall 1979 Transfer Study. Report 3: Second Year Persistence And Achievement. Springfield: Illinois Community College Board, 1982. ED 230 228.
- Koltai, L. Redefining The Associate Degree. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, 1984. ED 242 378.
- Wittstruck, J. R. Requirements For Certificates, Diplomas And Associate Degrees: A Survey Of The States. Denver, CO: State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 1985.
- I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006. The Sloan Consortium, 2006.
- Associate degree: Two years to a career or a jump start to a bachelor’s degree (PDF) – More information on associate degrees provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.