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A geographic information system, or GIS, brings locations and information together. If you’re new to the field or hoping to add an academic diploma to your résumé, a GIS associate degree is an affordable way to build foundational knowledge in GIS, geomatics, remote sensing, and surveying.
Earning an associate in GIS is the first step toward one of many GIS job titles, including geographer, cartographer and photogrammetrist, geoscientist, and surveying and mapping technician. As a GIS professional, you might work in the field for part of the day before returning to the office to manage, analyze, and deliver the data. Or you may spend your days inspecting construction sites or flying a drone to collect information on the health of vegetation in a burn area.
Regardless of your eventual career goals in the GIS field, you can begin by earning a GIS associate degree. Read on to learn about these programs and find every community college GIS associate degree program available.
The Role of GIS Associate Degree Programs
A GIS program at the associate degree level is a smart way to explore the range of industries connected to GIS while keeping the door open to specializing in a different but related field. Because GIS is focused on locations and the information tied to those locations, it can be applied to a number of different job types. Your role may involve field work, mapping legal documents, capturing data using drones, as well as coding and developing GIS-based applications.
An associate degree in GIS will cover the different data types: vector and raster. Using GIS software, students learn how to perform data analysis and present the information in maps or data portals. Some associate programs explore computer-aided design, or CAD.
While coursework may differ, a well-rounded GIS associate degree program will prepare students for the next step of their educational journey. For example, students can continue their studies by transferring into a GIS bachelor’s degree program. Or they can get some professional experience under their belts in, let’s say, geography, land surveying, and drafting (for those who enjoyed CAD).
What to Expect from an Associate in GIS Program
An associate degree in GIS teaches students how to examine the world around them by identifying spatial connections. The program introduces commonly used software in the industry and methods of collecting, managing, and maintaining data.
In the end, students will know how to deliver findings in the form of maps and web applications. They also learn how to plan for what data to collect. Prior to collecting field data, they will structure a comprehensive data schema that captures the necessary findings for the project.
Programs may send students into the field to collect data using GPS units. This is great hands-on experience that replicates the type of work an entry-level GIS position may entail. This experience will be helpful if you are interested in branching into other departments like environmental, forestry, and utilities.
Upon returning to “the office,” students will need to process the data and learn how to work with databases, including SQL and GIS specific geodatabases.
In advanced GIS courses, students learn how to analyze the data using existing software tools, or code their own custom scripts with Python. Programs that include Python classes encourage students to explore the option of becoming a GIS developer, someone who creates custom GIS applications.
Program Structure and Timeline
GIS associate degrees go by different titles, covering similar sources and topics, but some programs fall under the arts and others science. Look for degree titles similar to these:
- Associate of Geomatics
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Geographic Information Systems
- Associate in Geospatial Technology
In the first year of most associate GIS programs, courses are a mixture of general education and geospatial. Geospatial courses cover intro GIS and cartography, global positioning systems (GPS), and GIS software.
Highlights of year one include:
- Collecting spatial data with GPS devices
- Migrating field data to a GIS environment
- Designing maps and deploying web applications
- Becoming familiar with GIS software (ESRI’s ArcPro and QGIS)
- Publishing data to the web as maps or web applications
During the second year, students learn the in-depth techniques of GIS, data analysis, and other spatial related topics. Methods of collecting data move from field data collection to remote sensing, possibly with the use of drones.
Here are some highlights of year two:
- Analyzing data and producing actionable results
- Mapping legal documents using coordinate geometry
- Collecting data using remote sensing and drones
- Introduction to surveying and/or CAD
- Coding Python scripts for data analysis
GIS associate degree programs are typically offered by community colleges, meaning students need little to qualify for admission. An application must be submitted, but students don’t need to meet many academic requirements as long as they possess a high school diploma or GED. For example, Roane State Community College simply asks students to submit an application and state their intent to pursue the AAS in GIS program.
While less common, some colleges ask students to complete prerequisite coursework before entering the associate degree program. Lone Star College’s AAS in Geographic Information Systems, for instance, requires students to first complete GIS certificate coursework at the college prior to advancing to the AAS in GIS.
Community college GIS curriculums vary, so our program listings at the end of this guide link to various associate GIS programs around the country and their coursework requirements. But broadly speaking, a reputable associate degree will cover the following pillars of GIS:
- Creating data schemas: You will learn about attributes and the best method of storing their information (e.g., attributes of traffic signs include the sign height, text, the x- and y- coordinates).
- Field data collection: Learn how satellites and base stations can improve data accuracy.
- Managing geodatabases: Understand relationships between different layers and data structures.
- Obtaining remote sensing data: Learn how to get remote data from sources like USGS.
- Analyzing raster data: Analyze raster data using geospatial analysis tools in ArcGIS Pro.
- Capturing data with drones: Understand what type of data different sensors capture and methods of interpretation.
- Data analysis: Perform sequences of data analysis to discover crucial information.
- Web Applications: Distribute data and maps to decision-makers through the use of web applications and portals.
- Coding custom scripts: Learn how to use ArcPy and how to write custom scripts
Associate vs. Bachelor’s GIS Programs: Which Should You Pursue?
Stuck between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree in GIS? Luckily both of these programs are solid first steps toward a career in GIS.
An associate degree will introduce you to GIS and other related geospatial career paths. You may even have the opportunity to earn your drone license or gain professional experience through an internship in the industry—experiences which set students up for success in the long term.
Alternatively, a bachelor’s in GIS will cover a wider variety of topics, from geography and the environment to globalization and GIS. Stand-alone GIS programs exist, but you’re more likely to find bachelor’s in geography degrees with a GIS specialization. You’ll begin with basic GIS foundational coursework before moving on to advanced GIS coursework not found in associate-level programs. Compare AS to BS in GIS curriculum schedules to get a better sense of the additional requirements found in bachelor’s programs.
One benefit of an associate degree is the option to transfer into a bachelor’s program. Community college tuition is much more affordable (and sometimes free) than four-year university tuition, so it can be fiscally smart to complete a GIS associate degree and transfer into a GIS bachelor’s degree. We recommend sitting down with an academic advisor if this is your ultimate goal. You’ll want to confirm that your GIS courses will transfer and be applied to your bachelor’s degree.
If you are confident in your passion for GIS and cost isn’t an issue, going directly into a bachelor’s program for a GIS degree may be the better option. This would eliminate the risk of losing credits while transferring from one program to another and give you access to a wider variety of specialized courses.
Finally, you’ll want to consider your eventual career aspirations. Many GIS job postings require a bachelor’s degree in geography or a similar field. Demonstrating an understanding of GIS with an associate degree and having experience from an internship may be enough to be invited for an interview opportunity, but a bachelor’s will open more doors.
Are There Online GIS Associate Degrees?
Yes, online GIS associate degrees are available, but they are less common than online offerings at the bachelor’s or master’s levels. If online learning suits your needs best, we have options for you to consider.
Some programs, like Central Pennsylvania Community College’s AS in Geospatial Technology can be completed entirely online. Does this make it less effective than an on-campus program? Not at all. The curriculum is purposefully designed to fit with the Geospatial Technology Competency Model created by the U.S. Department of Labor and the National GeoTech Center. This rigorous program prepares students hoping to transition into a professional role after graduation.
What’s the difference between online and on-campus AS in GIS programs? Campus-based programs often have field data collection classes and real-world exercises built into the curriculum. This hands-on experience with GPS devices or GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receivers is difficult to replicate online. Troubleshooting equipment and understanding how the surrounding environment impacts data accuracy are common skills required of entry-level GIS professionals, so make sure your online program doesn’t cut corners.
Another potential drawback to online programs is forgoing the opportunity to work with drones, but we’re happy to report that many schools incorporate drone education into their online programs. For example, Central New Mexico Community College and Lansing Community College (LCC) both offer drone courses. LCC even offers a UAS Remote Pilot and Maintenance certificate that counts toward their Geospatial Technician Associate in Applied Science degree.
Finding an online program that incorporates field data collection and drone experience may be more challenging, but such programs would make them competitive with in-person programs. Review coursework, inquire about real-world experiences, and speak with a program advisor before deciding on an online GIS program.