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Standards & Guidelines » CAA Guidelines

Guidelines for Associate Degrees in Art and Design

Approved by the CAA Board of Directors on October 23, 2011; Revised February 17, 2019.


Requirements and options in studio education vary greatly from institution to institution throughout the country. The differences in degrees, concentrations, and emphases in art/design subjects, including art history, criticism, and art education, are immense. CAA does not intend to impose a uniform pattern on undergraduate institutions, since a healthy, varied curriculum enriches a field that would weaken if unduly restricted. Art institutions, schools, and departments must therefore assess their educational objectives carefully, making sure that their goals and expectations are realistic and feasible in their existing contexts or are possible in view of projected changes. An institution’s objectives, patterns of requirements, and options should be clearly formulated and published, so students planning to enroll will fully understand what the program they are considering expects from them. The guidelines set forth herein and the standards published in NASAD Handbook by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) represent a logical minimum for faculty to maintain quality and should be surpassed to foster continuing excellence.

General Principles and Goals of the Associate of Arts, Associate of Fine Arts, and Associate of Sciences Degrees

Students attending two-year institutions who are majoring in art and/or design are generally awarded an AA degree, an AS/AAS degree, or an AFA degree. The associate of arts (AA) degree is most commonly a liberal arts degree with a concentration in the study of a broad array of art disciplines. The associate of science (AS or AAS) degree is often awarded in fields intended as career and/or technical education. These degrees are designed to prepare students for entry level jobs but may serve as a means to transfer to another institution as well. These programs may include media arts, graphic design, animation, and/or photography. The associate of fine arts (AFA) degree provides a more concentrated study in art and/or design at the preprofessional level and includes more studio courses. CAA considers both an AFA and AA to be stepping stones to a four-year school with a professional degree program; however, an AFA requires approximately two-thirds of its coursework to be in art and/or design, and an AA more commonly requires one-third of its coursework to be in art and/or design. The AS/AAS degree has a focus in design/media arts with fewer additional non-art courses, and, in some institutions, is seen as a professional degree having a technical or occupational emphasis.

All of these programs should produce graduates that have developed technical competence, aesthetic judgment, and a strong commitment to artistic quality. An understanding of student work in the context of contemporary art theory and the history of art should be considered. Likewise, holders of AFA and the AA degrees should have received sound instruction during their course of study in fundamental academic disciplines such as English, the humanities, and the social, natural, and physical sciences. These guidelines do not address concentrations in art history. For further clarification on degree structures, please see consult the NASAD Handbook, endorsed by CAA.1

The goal is to encourage the development of instruction of the highest quality. These standards are by no means definitive. Within each individual institution, these guidelines will allow for a variety of approaches to the teaching of art and design.

Definition of Credit

Because credits are a unit of measure, reflecting amounts of work over certain periods of time, a precise definition can reconcile a variety of academic structures and record-keeping arrangements. CAA recognizes a standard for studio-based teaching and learning in which one semester credit represents 1.5 to 2 hours of work per week during a semester of at least fifteen weeks. Work toward credit can take place in formal classes, critiques, and technical workshops, or through independent studio activity. Normally faculty contact is greater at the foundation or introductory level. Institutions can also reference the requirements of accrediting bodies and regulatory agencies.2

The curriculum of an associate degree in the arts (AA, AFA, AS/AAS) should include foundation courses in two-dimensional design, color theory, three-dimensional design, and drawing. Additional courses in other media are critical to the education of an artist. Digital approaches to art making should be incorporated into foundational coursework and students should have the opportunity to take courses such as digital photography and/or digital media. A minimum of six credits in art history courses should also be required and may be included in the total number of credits for the studio degree. The minimum number of total semester hour credits required for all associate degrees is 60. In addition, courses outside the art curriculum, in English, the humanities, and the social, natural, and physical sciences, should be included. The precise requirements will vary by degree.

The specific nature and sequence of classes in the various academic disciplines are, of course, subject to the discretion of each individual institution. However, some schools may recommend a level of specialization, while others may take a more interdisciplinary approach to their curriculum. There are valid rationales for either approach in contemporary art practice.

Studio Curriculum

CAA recognizes statewide articulation initiatives where foundational course objectives and sample syllabi are agreed upon to facilitate transfer. This is not meant to undermine diversity or specialization in higher education curricula, but to promote continuing education within a statewide system. Credit distribution must be left to individual institutions in the belief that they will capitalize on their strengths and resources in order to provide the soundest education possible. Every institution need not offer coursework in every conceivable art or design discipline. It is more important to teach fewer areas thoroughly than to cover a larger number of them superficially. Once an institution’s faculty and staff agree on the general curricular structure for their art degrees, they should carefully consider the needs of individual students and provide conscientious direction when planning an appropriate course of study for them.

Exhibitions of Student Work

The opportunity for all students to have their work displayed in public significantly enhances their understanding of personal achievement and growth. Therefore, CAA strongly encourages institutions to regularly stage solo and group exhibitions of student work and to encourage student participation in these exhibitions as part of a student’s experiential learning. The process of selecting, installing, and exhibiting work strengthens the ability to think critically, express ideas creatively, and work conceptually and with thematic consistency. Other student outcomes include professionalism and technical proficiency.

Though policies regarding exhibitions of student work vary from institution to institution, every effort should be made to provide satisfactory spaces for such shows. In associate degree programs, graduation exhibitions for majors are highly desirable, though not mandatory. A final exhibition serves as public evidence of the levels of competence each student has achieved and provides an opportunity for fellow students and teachers to evaluate the work. 

Institutions should make and retain images of works shown in all student exhibitions as an ongoing record. In addition, institutional resources may, if possible, be used to purchase outstanding examples of student work (including digital media). In a resolution dated April 29, 1972, CAA declared the all-too-prevalent—and illegal—practice of demanding, without compensation, examples of work by students to be unacceptable. If images of student work are used for publication, permission from the student should be obtained in advance.


In many institutions, admission to art and/or design programs is open to all enrolled students, who may declare their intention to specialize after completing a number of introductory level courses. Some institutions use portfolio reviews or other screening practices to ensure an acceptable level of quality in their students, access his or her level of preparation, and gauge the student’s potential for success in the program. Either arrangement is satisfactory. Institutions may wish to develop protocols for Advanced Placement (AP) credit, high school-to-college pathways, or other programs that allow high school students to receive college credit.

Transfer and Articulation Agreements

If students completing a two-year program intend to transfer to a four-year institution, the two-year institution may find it helpful to develop a transfer agreement (also called an articulation agreement) with local and/or sister institutions and to provide information to students regarding course requirements and other expectations. Many states are developing articulation initiatives where foundational course objectives and sample syllabi are agreed upon to facilitate transfer. CAA encourages transfer agreements so that students have the opportunity to transition seamlessly between the two- and four-year institutions. For further information on structuring articulation agreements, please review the standards published by NASAD, which CAA endorses.3


Institutions are obligated to provide a careful advising system to students in art and/or design programs to help determine their strengths, weaknesses, and interests in the discipline. Individual advising should support institutions using Guided Pathways or other automated systems. Furthermore, advising programs should provide students with a realistic assessment of job opportunities and professional requirements as appropriate to the nature of a student’s program, such as transfer to a four-year institution, individual aptitude, professional interest, and academic progress.

Once enrolled, students should receive guidance, advising, and mentoring from faculty members in order to support the development of their creative work. Assessment of students should be consistently scheduled to ensure that satisfactory levels of progress toward professional competence are being achieved.

Faculty and Staff

The core art and design faculty at degree-granting institutions should consist of full-time, continuing members who are, by training and experience, qualified to teach at the postsecondary level, preferably with an MFA degree. Faculty should be actively engaged in a studio practice and/or research.4 They should also be producing creative work of the highest quality. All faculty and staff members—including part-time instructors and graduate teaching assistants, as applicable—must demonstrate their qualifications to teach by earned degrees (the MFA or comparable degree), professional experience, and/or demonstrated instructional competence in the subjects and levels they are teaching. 

In addition, all faculty and staff members must be able to communicate their knowledge and insight effectively to students through demonstrations and critiques. Teachers of any studio subject normally are, or have been deeply involved as, practicing artists or designers in the particular disciplines or specializations they are teaching.

For proper instruction to take place, the institution should hire sufficient faculty members to ensure that all students receive the full attention they deserve. Classes in creative work generally should not exceed twenty-five students. A class size of twenty or fewer students is pedagogically preferred. In some cases (e.g., in sculpture studio courses), safety considerations and limitations for specialized equipment will require classes of fewer than fifteen students. 

Teaching loads should give faculty members the opportunity to produce and exhibit their own professional work. A full load for a single instructor should consist of no more than eighteen contact hours per week. Coursework in art history may be adequately covered by either a full-time art historian or a part-time faculty member with appropriate expertise.

Facilities and Resources

An institution should offer art and/or design programs only in those areas that are fully and adequately equipped with a full range of available technology, and only if it can provide safe, secure working spaces suitable for specialized or complex work by students and faculty.

Along with accomplished faculty, high-quality facilities and ample, appropriate equipment will best serve the needs of students. Institutions must allot sufficient space and equipment to accommodate the number of students enrolled. Specialized equipment and technology resources are absolutely necessary in some areas; students should become technically competent in their use and also be trained to understand fully and practice diligently all safe shop and studio procedures. An institution should establish a concrete plan to support health and safety practices that meet local, state, and federal requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It should also formulate a plan to improve, replace, and upgrade its facilities and equipment with appropriate budget provisions.

Institutions should thoroughly inform students about the many hazards to their health found in their studios and in the materials they work with—including solvents, toxic synthetic material, and inadequate ventilation—and provide a means of protection from such hazards, such as proper ventilation and safety equipment. If possible, institutions should offer private or semiprivate studio arrangements to advanced students, though studios should be designed to encourage student conversation and the exchange of ideas. 

Digital technologies should also be a priority in any studio art program. The computer is the most general of all tools and should be integrated directly into traditional foundation coursework. Institutions should be prepared to regularly update software and keep current with new technologies. Specialized equipment such as CNC routers, 3D printers, and the digital software that supports these technologies should be considered.

No strong associate degree program in art can thrive without an adequate library, computer technology, a visual-resources collection, and exhibition spaces or opportunities to fit the scope of the department. If the institution does not have an art museum, it must provide opportunities for students to visit neighboring collections, where they can become familiar with historical and contemporary works of art. Institutions, especially those that are remote from cultural centers, should consider establishing access to image databases and film and video collections. Access to online resources about contemporary art and artists broadens student contact with major issues in the arts today. As with facilities and equipment, institutions should draft plans to regularly replace and improve these resources.


1 See VI.A.1, “Two-Year Degree-Granting Programs, Purposes and Protocols,” National Association of Schools of Art and Design, Handbook 2017–18 (Reston, VA: National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 2017), 89.

2 For example, see III.A., “Credit and Time Requirements,” NASAD, Handbook 2017–18, 73–74.

3 See VI.A.4, “Two-Year Degree-Granting Programs, Articulation,” NASAD, Handbook 2017–18, 89–90.

4 For further information pertaining to faculty hiring and retention guidelines, please see CAA’s Guidelines for Retention and Tenure of Art and Design Faculty.

Authors and Contributors

Committee on the Guidelines for Associate Degrees in Art and Design (2017–18): Susan Altman, Middlesex County College (cochair); Dianne Pappas, Northern Essex Community College (cochair); Christopher Badger, Santa Monica College; and Charles E. Boone, College of DuPage.

Task Force on the Standards for the Associate of Fine Arts Degree in Studio Art (2009–11): Bertha Gutman, Delaware County Community College (chair); Carmina L. Cianciulli, Tyler School of Art, Temple University; Sandra Esslinger, Mt. San Antonio College; Martina Hesser, Mesa College; David Koffman, Georgia Perimeter College; and Christina McNearney, Pima Community College.