By Michael d’Estries
If you’re a student on the verge of finishing high school, pursuing an associate degree may be the perfect next step.
Associate degrees are an increasingly popular and affordable alternative to traditional higher education degree programs. Designed to be completed in about half the time of a regular degree and on a flexible schedule, associate degrees provide one of the most convenient paths to a stable, well-paying job.
The financial rewards of an associate degree job can be surprisingly lucrative, with some median salaries reaching six figures.
Interested to learn more about these degrees and how they can set you up for success without incurring tremendous debt? Here are a few of the reasons associate degree jobs can provide a smooth pathway.
How Long Does It Take To Get an Associate Degree?
An associate degree can be completed in two years. For some programs, the time frame can be even shorter. Compare that to a traditional bachelor’s degree, which takes four years — and often much longer. Consider this fact: Only 63% of four-year college students graduate by year six.
Many associate degree programs cater to non-traditional students, for whom work/life balance can be more of an obstacle than it is for full-time students. Many institutions include online or hybrid learning options, with evening or weekend options.
How Much Does an Associate Degree Cost?
Thanks to their shorter completion time, associate degrees are more affordable. Tuition and coursework costs are lower when compared to a four-year degree.
Associate degrees are typically earned at community colleges and technical schools, which charge less per credit hour than four-year institutions. Consider: A student at a typical public community college pays roughly $141 per credit hour, while an in-state student at a public university pays roughly $390 per credit hour, according to the Education Data Initiative. That adds up!
And if you decide to continue your education, most credits earned from an associate degree can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree.
Are Associate Degree Jobs Worth the Effort?
Education pays off. If you’re looking for a solid return on investment, an associate degree is an excellent place to start.
Associate degree jobs earn on average $963 per week ($50,076 annually) compared to $809 per week ($42,068 annually) for jobs that only require a high school diploma, according to a May 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Over the course of a career, that advantage adds up and opens up new opportunities.
One former university president, writing for Forbes, looked at similar numbers from a different angle. About 28% of those who earn an associate degree earn more than half of the workers with a bachelor’s degree.
What Are the Types of Associate Degrees?
Not sure which associate degree you want to pursue? Below are the three most common types and related careers.
Associate of Arts degree
If you’re looking for some career inspiration, an Associate of Arts (AA) degree offers broad exposure, from the arts and social sciences to business and the humanities. Common Associate of Arts degree jobs include preschool teacher, paralegal, human resources manager and customer service representative.
Associate of Science degree
An Associate of Science (AS) degree prepares students to pursue careers in STEM fields such as healthcare, engineering and information technology. It is less broad than an AA degree and focuses on technical skills. An AS degree may serve as a stepping stone toward a bachelor’s degree. Common Associate of Science degree jobs include aerospace engineering technician, cardiovascular technologist, web developer, dental hygienist and architectural drafter.
Associate of Applied Science
Another popular degree is the Associate of Applied Science (AAS). Similar to an AS degree, an AAS degree is more occupation-focused. It caters to students who know what they want to do and want to start working upon graduation. (Not surprisingly, there is overlap in the types of jobs associated with these last two types of degrees.) Popular Associate of Applied Science degree jobs include chemical technician, nursing, various criminal justice roles, physical therapy assistant and IT support and other computer information and network roles.
3 Examples of In-Demand Associate Degree Jobs
1. Dental Hygienist
With a median salary of $77,810, this is one of the top-paying healthcare jobs you can get with a two-year degree. Dental hygienists are responsible for cleaning teeth, taking X-rays, examining mouths for disease, and providing advice on good oral health.
Students interested in this career can pursue either an AS or an AAS degree. Courses include liberal arts and basic dental science, plus hands-on clinical experience.
2. Wind Turbine Technician
With a projected job growth of 44% over the next decade, wind turbine technicians will play a critical role in the expansion of renewable energy sources. Responsibilities for this in-demand, clean energy job include regular maintenance, testing and occasional upgrades or repairs of wind turbines — often at heights anywhere from 100 to 400 feet. As of 2021, the median salary is $56,260.
Students interested in this career can pursue an AAS degree and can expect courses in industrial electrical control, wind turbine systems, technical writing, and power distribution and control systems.
3. Preschool Teacher
With expected job growth of over 15% for the next decade, preschool teachers are in-demand — and for good reason. Preschool teachers teach children the fundamentals of learning. They teach shapes, colors, early reading skills, numbers and counting to children younger than 5. As of 2021, the median salary for this career is $47,000.
Students interested in this career can pursue an AA or AAS degree in Early Childhood Education and can expect courses in sociology, communication, psychology and writing.
Where To Look for Associate Degree Programs
If an associate degree makes sense for your next step, you’re in luck: there’s likely an excellent program available near you.
Many community colleges have invested tremendous resources in making associate degrees accessible to students of all backgrounds and financial situations.
To help you narrow the search, SkillPointe has an extensive database of AA, AS and AAS degree programs available around the country. To find a program near you, explore our skills-based training directory.
Michael d’Estries writes about innovation, arts and culture for a variety of outlets. When he’s not online, Michael runs his large apple farm and honey business in the Finger Lakes region of New York.