General Education Degrees: Associate, Training & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a general studies program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of an associate degree and a certificate, and potential careers.
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General Studies Associate Degree and Training at a Glance

For those interested in getting started with their college education, but who have not yet developed a clear sense of purpose, a degree like an Associate of General Studies, or even a certificate of general studies, may be good choice. These programs are designed to cover broad coursework that will both introduce students to disciplines from across the institution and prepare them for success in further studies. Generally, courses from the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences will be required for these programs.

Certificate Associate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in pursuing college-level coursework who have not yet decided on a focus, as well as students completing coursework for transfer to another institution Same as certificate, and also people preparing to transfer general education credits to a 4-year program that has an agreement with their current institution.
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Median income with some college ($33,000)* - Median associate degree holder ($37,000)*
Time to Completion Up to 1 year full time 2 years full time
Common Graduation Requirements 6-10 courses at the associate's or bachelor's degree level Approximately 32 courses at the associate's degree level
Prerequisites None or high school diploma Same as certificate
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *National Center for Educational Statistics (2010 figures).

Certificate in General Studies

A certificate in general studies is usually designed to prepare students for more advanced coursework, creating a framework for a broad spectrum of study. The coursework itself doesn't generally prepare students for a specific profession, although programs may occasionally be found that are designed with specific careers in mind. These programs may be useful for students looking to complete core requirements before transferring to more expensive 4-year programs at other schools. Certificates in general studies are usually offered by 2-year schools.

Pros and Cons


  • Completing a certificate program in general studies can generate an interest in college education and a sense of accomplishment.
  • The distribution of courses for a general studies certificate can be used to fulfill core curriculum requirements in transfer to 2- or 4-year programs.
  • A broad approach to course selection can help clarify a student's interests and areas of strength.


  • A Certificate in General Studies is designed to cover a broad spectrum of coursework, and doesn't prepare students for a specific career.
  • Some courses may not transfer from one school to another.
  • As these programs are often designed for those who are at the beginnings of their educational careers, the self-motivation required for online programs may be a hurdle for some students.

Common Courses and Requirements

Because of the nature of these programs, the courses required are often spread across several disciplines. In addition to basic courses in English and mathematics, a student may choose from a series of electives in the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Other courses may be required, such as classes in the fine arts or art appreciation. With careful selection, these courses may be used to fulfill the requirements of programs at other schools. Additionally, the wide choice of courses means that students may use these programs to address deficiencies in previous schooling by strengthening areas of weakness.

Online Degree and Course Options

Online general education certificates are available, since colleges and universities have put high-demand courses online and thus opened them up to a wider audience. As these programs aren't bound by geographical region, and some courses may be available asynchronously, they can be useful for working adults looking to begin expanding their educational horizons.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

For those looking to get ahead with this degree, careful selection of coursework can strengthen career skills with courses in English composition, mathematics, or basic computing, while making certain that selected courses will transfer to other schools by communicating with the registrars of both the current school and the prospective schools. For some students this will be their first experience with college classes and expectations, so they may wish to take advantage of institutional support programs, such as writing centers, as well as working closely with professors to make certain they understand and complete expectations. Focusing on success in early coursework establishes good habits and can develop your reputation as an effective student.

Associate in General Studies

As with the certificate in general studies, the associate degree offers students the option to simply fulfill basic requirements before transferring to a 4-year program at another school. Additionally, through 2-year schools, students who are uncertain of their career directions may take this opportunity to explore their academic strengths and weaknesses at a much lower cost than many 4-year colleges and universities.

Pros and Cons

Because of the broadness of the curriculum in many general studies programs, students may discover educational weaknesses.


  • Some general studies associate degree programs are designed specifically to prepare students for transfer to specific schools and even programs.
  • Associate in General Studies degree programs cover many of the same areas as core curricula in 4-year schools, and community colleges are usually a less-expensive option.
  • The courses of general studies programs have often been selected to increase reading comprehension, communication, mathematical skills, research methods, and critical thinking.


  • Transfer credits are at the discretion of the receiving institution, so unless there is a pre-existing arrangement, some coursework may not transfer.
  • Students looking to transfer may need to proactively engage with the registrars of both institutions.
  • Unlike some other associate degrees, an Associate of General Studies isn't generally a pre-professional degree, and it doesn't prepare students for a specific career.

Common Courses and Requirements

Courses required by general studies programs usually include a core curriculum covering such areas as basic composition, communication, and mathematics, as well as a range of electives drawn from the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Beyond the core courses, students will have a certain amount of leeway in selecting courses that apply to their interests. At the same time, students will be required to take courses from a variety of disciplines across the college.

Online Degree Options

The courses required for general studies are often common requirements in many programs. This increases their transferability between schools. As these courses are also of interest to a broad range of students both on and off campus, many 2-year schools now offer Associate of General Studies degrees as online programs.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Even if you're uncertain what degree you are interested in pursuing after transfer, you may be able to complete core requirements required by the school. Through careful selection of courses, preplanning and proactive communication with both the community college and 4-year institution to which you want to transfer, you may be able to maximize the number of classes that will transfer, saving yourself time and money in your pursuit of higher education.

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