Is an Associate’s Degree the Best Path to a Lucrative Career?

The romantic ideal of going to college to study what you love and to learn how to be a learner, so to speak, is rapidly falling by the wayside. 

As college costs soar and new graduates struggle to find a job as well as pay off student loans that average $25,000 per student, many people are arguing whether going to a four year university is even worthwhile.

Another option that many don’t think about is pursuing a two year associate’s degree. 

A community college is often seen as a lesser quality, less expensive option to a four year college.  Many see it as a stepping stone for a mediocre high school student to improve his academic record to transfer into a four year college.

However, this thinking denies the student another important, cheaper, option–attending a community college to earn a practical degree and begin working right away.

How An Associate’s Degree Can Be Better Than a Four-Year Degree

All the Benefits without the Debt


The argument is that those with associate degrees won’t make as much as those with a bachelor’s degree, but this is no longer true.

Consider Berevan Omer who graduated from a community college one week and started working “the following Monday as a computer networking engineer at a local television station , making about $50,000 a year” (CNN Money).  His salary is $7,500 more than the average starting salary for 4 year college graduates (CNN Money).

Sure, some may say, a graduate with an associate’s degree may make more in the beginning, but eventually a graduate with a bachelor’s degree will catch up.

This is true, but think of what happens in those years.

An associate's degree can turn out more valuable for some.Consider the case of Joe who recently graduated with an associate’s degree and Ellen who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree.  Joe may buy a house at 23 and make house payments while Ellen, who is searching for a good job, will rent for several more years, not buying a house until she is 30.  Theoretically, Joe will be able to pay off his house by the time he is 53, while Ellen won’t pay hers off until she is 60.

Because Joe is making a decent living earlier in life, he can begin investing sooner than Ellen.  This may be many years sooner because he likely isn’t saddled with huge student loan debt that he must repay, as Ellen is.  Perhaps Ellen finally feels able to invest at 30, but she is still paying down student loans, so she can’t invest as much as Joe.  Thanks to the power of compounding interest, those extra years Joe had to invest help narrow the gap between how much money he makes in his lifetime and how much Ellen makes.

Enviable Incomes

Because community college programs often teach students specific skills rather than theories, those with associate’s degrees may be better able to make a decent salary right from the beginning.  Many of the jobs that only require a two year degree yet offer an excellent salary are in the medical field.  Some of the enviable salaries new graduates with associate’s degrees make include $70,408 for dental hygienists and $65,853 for registered nurses (CNN Money).

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However, there are also lucrative jobs outside the medical field.

An electrical technician, for instance, earns a median salary of $46,426, but “‘electrical technicians have the highest increase in earnings over a 15-year period’ according to Wendy Cullen, vice president of employer development for Everest College” (Bankrate).

Meanwhile, unfortunately, many with recent bachelor’s degrees are making your coffee at the local Starbucks.  In fact, “many people with bachelor’s degrees are working in fields other than the ones in which they majored, according to a new report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity” (CNN Money).

Related: Best Careers for the Future

A Smart Path to a Bachelor’s Degree

If a person graduates with an associate’s degree and lands a plum job, a smart path to a bachelor’s degree, if she would like one, is to have the employer pay for it as part of professional development.  Not only does she side step the debt that comes with a four year degree, but she continues to earn a good salary while continuing her education.  Once she earns the four year degree, she’ll make even more money.  The income stream continues and grows from the time she first earns her associate’s degree.

Finally

If you or your children are considering attending college, don’t automatically assume that a bachelor’s degree is necessary to earn a good salary.

Now, in many cases, an associate’s degree may offer significant advantages over earning a bachelor’s degree.

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Published or updated March 21, 2013.

Comments

  1. Hi Melissa,
    Very interesting article. I had some friends in high school that never even went to college still making more than me. I have a bachelor’s degree and will be getting my master’s in December if all goes well. The thing is, when you go to college, the people that do not go end up getting jobs and accumulating work experience. So by the time the college person gets out, the non-college student already has 4 years of work experience plus no student loans.

    • I’ve seen this happen often. Let’s face it, there are times when a 4 year degree doesn’t really prepare you for the job you eventually get. You end up learning on the job anyway.

  2. I like the idea of using community college to complete your first 2 years of college. It is a inexpensive way of completing your requirements and you can finish up at a better 4 year school.No one ever asks if you spent all 4 years at the university that grants your degree.

    • I kinda wish I thought of doing this when I started college. You can rock a 2-year school and if you want to continue, use those grades to get into a good 4 year program. I know people that have done that.

  3. I have an Associates Degree and I was working on a Bachelor’s degree when I realized that it wouldn’t make any difference in my pay. If I transfered into the field of my 4 year degree, I would have to start out at the bottom of the pay scale or even as an unpaid intern. Ultimately, I decided to put my four year degree on indefinate hold. Maybe I’ll go back to finish it one day but not with the expectation of career opportunities or increased pay.

    • IT really depends on what field you go into but it sounds like where you are there isn’t any advantage to the 4 year degree. Take that time you won’t be in school and rock your job.

  4. I am confident that my children will be able to maintain their A+ grades until they graduate from high school. Regardless, I will still recommend them to attend community college and get an associate degree and work right away before getting a bachelor’s degree. I believe that the skills they will learn in community college is a step towards good-paying job. Unless they get a full scholarship in the university where they intend to go to, I may allow them to enroll in a four-year course right away.

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