An associate degree has two main purposes. It can either be earned as a career preparation degree or as the first half a bachelor degree. Either way, an associate degree involves roughly 20 courses. In most cases, an associate degree program is designed to be completed in about 2-years.
As a career preparation degree, an associate degree can stand on its own. Associate degree graduates who study medical coding or paralegal studies,for example, can find jobs without pursuing further study. Many of them do exactly that. Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment rates are 30% lower among associate degree holders, as opposed to high school graduates. 
On the other hand, associate degree graduates who study liberal arts or general studies, for example, are usually working toward a full bachelor degree. The general education courses they take are often transferable, meaning that most bachelor degree programs will recognize the credits earned. With an additional 2-years of study (approximately), associate degree holders can become bachelor degree holders.
More and more people are heading to college, and the surge of college graduates has created a shift in employers' expectations. Years ago, there were plenty of work opportunities for students coming straight out of high school. These days, most positions require a college degree.
Still, not all jobs require a bachelor degree. Some jobs focus on a very specific skill set. Think of an auto mechanic, a dental hygienist, a court reporter, or a radiologic technologist — these are just a few examples of task-oriented careers.
Professionals in these fields have a clear and consistent idea of what each work day will bring them. Their job descriptions are more defined, which means they don't necessarily need to develop broad backgrounds in business or philosophy. For them, an associate degree provides the right balance of general education and career knowledge.
For students who earn an associate degree as a precursor to a bachelor degree, the 2-year program is an effective bridge between high school and college work, even if high school was many, many years ago. Liberal arts and general education courses may help undecided students to zero in on a major. Plus, if associate degree students decide to stop after 20 courses, they have a degree to show for their efforts (as opposed to an incomplete bachelor degree transcript).
Associate degrees vary from school to school, but most programs require the completion of 60 college credits. Since most college classes are worth 3 credits each, a 60-credit requirement would involve about 20 classes. A full-time student, working on a traditional semester schedule, could complete all 20 courses in 2-years (taking 5 classes each semester, with 2 semesters each year).
Still, your timeline may be very different, depending on your choices. You may choose not to study on a full-time basis. Or, you may choose to attend an online school that offers year-round course options, allowing you to enroll in classes back to back. Many colleges will give credit for certain types of military experience. And standardized exams, like the CLEP (College Level Examination Program which gives you credit for life experience), can also be used to bypass some college credits, which speeds up overall degree time. Bottom line: if you are motivated and committed, a 2-year timeline (or less) is not outside your reach.
You can pursue any number of careers with an associate degree, especially if you have a plan in mind. The most common types of associate degrees are the AA (Associate of Arts), AS (Associate of Science), and the AAS (Associate of Applied Science). Depending on which option you choose, you can take your associate degree in one of two directions. You can either:
In the first case, the associate degree might be called a terminal degree, because it's intended to be the last stop on your educational route. It might also be called an occupational degree, because the degree is designed to prepare you for immediate employment. AAS degrees are more commonly classified as terminal degrees, but that doesn't mean AAS graduates can't change their minds and later use their credits towards further educational goals. Other occupational degrees include the AAA (Associate of Applied Arts) and the AAT (Associate of Applied Technology).
As mentioned, terminal degrees focus on specific occupations. Students of these programs do take courses in general studies, but greater emphasis is placed on daily job functions. Here's an example: an AAS in Accounting focuses mainly on tax forms, accounting-related computer applications, and the preparation of financial statements. Each class corresponds with some element of an accounting clerk's job. A more generalized degree might instead involve coursework in accounting theory, or a survey course on various business systems.
In the second case, an associate degree is sometimes called a transfer degree, because the student's long-term goal is to transfer into a bachelor degree program. Transfer degrees are less career-focused than terminal/occupational degrees. In fact, transfer degrees sometimes involve the exact same classes a student would take during the first 2-years of a full, 4-year program. These classes can include general study subjects: communications, arts, sciences, and social sciences. They might also include required introductory classes, like an introduction to college composition (writing) or college math. Depending on the school, associate degree students may select a major, or may be advised to wait.
Since transfer degrees are so similar to bachelor degrees, people often wonder why a student would bother enrolling in an associate program,especially if she intended to complete the bachelor degree eventually. But there are many reasons why some students opt to start with an associate degree.
First, associate classes are designed for students who are testing the waters, so to speak. The pace is more manageable, and class instructors are usually sensitive to students' beginner status. If the workload does prove to be overwhelming, students can still graduate with a degree after just 2-years (as opposed to bachelor degree dropouts, who leave school without any formal credential to show for their work).
Secondly, an associate degree can be used as a stepping stone. If your high school grades weren't very high, you may encounter some difficulties when applying for bachelor degree programs. An AA or AS lets you prove yourself, and your new commitment to learning. Admissions committees will look favorably on your efforts, and you'll be able to advance.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, associate degree holders earn $38,200 per year, on average. Your specific associate degree might be worth even more. Meanwhile, high school graduates earn nearly $8,000 less. On average, the difference adds up to about $650 per month.  And that figure doesn't even include the potential for raises and promotions that come with a college degree. It also doesn't factor in the job security, benefits, and career satisfaction that result from higher-quality jobs.
Even though community colleges offer 2-year degrees with competitive price tags, thousands of students still prefer online associate degree programs. Here are a few reasons why: