Associate degrees are hot this year. Hong Kong is following the US, giving secondary school leavers a flexible means of studying towards a degree. The programme adopts a credit-based system, with students earning 60 credits - or an associate degree - in the first two years. A further two years' study - and 60 credits - earn students a bachelor degree. Since the Education Commission gave the green light to associate degrees several months ago, there has been a proliferation of programmes offered by local universities and overseas institutions. The Institute of Advanced Learning was ahead of the game. It began offering associate degrees last year, and currently has more than 100 students enrolled in its distance learning programmes from Utah State University. The institute offers three associate degrees from Utah: business administration, business information systems and computer science. The minimum entry requirement is five passes at HKCEE and 500 points at the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). As Hong Kong students work through the summer, an associate degree can be completed in 15 months full-time, or 20 months part-time. Full-time students attend lectures five mornings a week, and part-time students have evening classes. Utah State University is ranked 120 out of the 4,000 universities in the US. It is accredited by a handful of US bodies, including the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). One of the main attractions of an associate degree is its flexibility. 'When students have completed their associate degree, they have the option of studying more to get a bachelor degree either in Hong Kong or at Utah - depending on their financial position,' said Richard Wong Kin-wah, programme director. In Hong Kong, the 15-month associate degree programme costs $63,000 and can be paid in five quarterly instalments. Part-time students pay the same sum in seven instalments. Students who pass the associate degree are eligible for the bachelor programme. The tuition fee includes the cost of books, and gives students access to the university's online library. Those wanting to study in the US will have to dig deeper into their pockets as tuition fees average US$7,000 a year. Regardless of whether students study in Hong Kong or Utah, they will receive the same degree certificate - from Utah State University. There is no mention of distance learning on the certificate. Mr Wong says students should take advantage of the new financial assistance scheme, to be launched at the end of this month. The scheme will offer full-time students aged 25 and below either grants or loans. Of the three associate degrees offered through the Institute of Advanced Learning, the most popular is the business information systems programme. 'The combination of business and IT make this course a hit in Hong Kong,' Mr Wong said. The computer science programme is heavy on theory, and includes calculus and algebra courses. It is the least popular of the programmes, with the business administration associate degree appealing largely to women, he added.