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Nine Associate Degrees That Lead to High-Paying Jobs

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 6/17/2022

Finances may be influencing college students' educational choices more than ever before. With approximately 43.4 million students and graduates owing $1.606 trillion dollars in student loans, many prospective students who haven't yet started down the path toward a college degree are wondering how they can build a sustainable career without taking on the burden of long-term debt.

One possible solution is to earn an associate degree from an accredited college or vocational school, which often costs considerably less than a bachelor's. While some students believe that associate degrees are useless when it comes to landing more lucrative jobs, our most recent Salary Score data shows that there are a number of associate degree jobs that lead to high salaries in the first year out of college. Salary Scores indicate how much alumni of a particular program earn as compared to graduates of similar programs. By combining our insights with information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), we've identified nine promising options that can be earned traditionally on campus or online.

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The Highest Paying Jobs With Associate Degrees

There are a number of occupations that require only a two-year degree, yet offer substantial incomes, and they all happen to be in the healthcare field. The relevant associate degree programs are designed to equip you with highly specialized skills that enable you to work with patients in clinical settings. Depending on which school you choose to attend, you may find yourself earning a respectable income as early as one year after graduation.

Radiologic Technologists and Sonographers

According to the BLS, professionals in these two diagnostic roles earn healthy salaries. The median annual wage for radiologic technologists is $61,980, and for sonographers it's $75,380. What's more, demand for trained professionals is expected to grow by 9%-14% through 2030. These technologists use dedicated equipment, such as MRI machines, to create images that doctors use to diagnose and determine how to treat patients.

Not only do they need to have an affinity for operating sophisticated tools, technologists also need to interact well with people, especially those who are ill. Most work full-time in hospitals or medical laboratories. The following are just a few of the schools offering associate degrees in radiology, sonography, or allied health, as well as the median salaries earned by recent graduates in entry-level positions.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Napa Valley College (CA)  100 $79,902
Bossier Parish Community College (LA)  97 $65,176
University of Alaska Anchorage  93 $60,750
Manchester Community College (CT)  92 $60,504
College of Lake County (IL)  92 $60,254

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists are an integral part of their patients' oral health maintenance. When a patient comes in for a routine check-up, the hygienist uses a number of tools and techniques — often including x-rays — to examine and clean the patient's teeth. The hygienist also updates dental records, educates patients on proper oral care, and consults with the dentist on any oral health issues.

Opportunities for hygienists to work in dental offices are expected to increase by 11% over the next eight years, and their median annual income is $77,810. This table indicates how much graduates of some dental hygiene programs are earning one year after graduation.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Pima Medical Institute - Dillon (AZ)  96 $68,702
Community College of Denver (CO)  93 $65,734
San Joaquin Valley College (CA)  93 $65,493
Hagerstown Community College (MD)  90 $63,624

Medical Assistant

Medical assistants can be found working in doctor's offices, hospitals, and other types of healthcare facilities, and they are often the first person to interact with a patient who has just arrived for medical help. They are responsible for recording each patient's information, taking vital signs, and updating the patient's records so that all of the necessary data is available when the doctor is ready to see the patient.

Medical assisting educational programs vary in length from one-year certificates to two-year associate degrees, and the projected growth rate of 18% suggests there is a pronounced demand for graduates of all types of programs. Although the BLS lists the median annual income for medical assistants as $37,190, we found a number of schools with graduates who are earning significantly more just one year after completing their programs.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Casa Loma College (CA)  98 $53,123
University of Indianapolis (IN)  97 $51,367
Baltimore City College (MD)  97 $50,861
Arkansas State University  95 $49,040
GateWay Community College (AZ)  92 $47,065
Bishop State Community College (AL)  88 $45,012

Pharmacy Technician

Working under the supervision of licensed pharmacists, pharmacy technicians interact with customers, update records, and fill prescriptions using specialized equipment. In some states, pharmacy technicians are required to be licensed or certified. Most work full time, and many work evenings and weekends.

The BLS notes that the expected growth rate for pharmacy technicians is 4% — somewhat lower than the average for all occupations — and the median annual income is $36,740. However, our Salary Score data shows that alumni of some pharmacy technician programs may earn substantially higher salaries, even in entry-level positions.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Howard Community College (MD)  98 $53,398
Oakton Community College (IL)  98 $52,362
Naugatuck Community College (CT)  96 $49,750
Albany State University (GA)  94 $48,072
Florida Gateway College  92 $46,752
Hutchinson Community College (KS)  90 $45,963

Registered Nurse

Nursing programs that train graduates to become registered nurses vary considerably. Although some employers prefer job candidates with bachelor's degrees, many are still hiring graduates of two- or three-year diploma or certificate programs or four-year associate degree programs. Registered nurses can be found in all types of healthcare facilities, and some even travel to patients' homes. After assessing a patient's health condition, they typically collaborate with doctors and other healthcare professionals to provide care, which may include conducting diagnostic tests and administering medications.

Demand for RNs is expected to increase by 9% through the end of the decade, on par with all occupations. The median annual income for registered nurses is $77,600, which is supported by our findings, some of which are shown in the table below.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Santa Barbara City College (CA)  100 $80,727
Cochran School of Nursing (NY)  99 $78,787
Sumner College (OR)  94 $71,902
Santa Monica College (CA)  93 $70,951
Charter College Online  93 $70,909

Three Other Degrees of Interest

Healthcare is not the only field in which associate degrees add value to a graduate's career. In reviewing our most recent Salary Score data, we found three other degree programs that may lead to a wide range of job opportunities with respectable entry-level salaries. Although a bachelor's degree may be the preferred level of education for some of these related occupations, an associate degree might be the ideal first step on your career path.

Business

Associate degree programs in business are designed to give graduates a foundation in managerial functions, such as planning, organizing, and measuring success. They also introduce students to the fundamentals of business operations, including accounting processes and financial documentation. With a broad background in business, graduates can pursue management, operations, purchasing, sales, and marketing roles in a wide range of industries. According to the BLS, these occupations may require bachelor's degrees, but our Salary Score data indicates that some graduates with associate degrees are still able to land good-paying jobs.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Fisher College (MA)  100 $47,472
Florida State College at Jacksonville  99 $44,655
Front Range Community College (CO)  99 $43,813
SUNY Empire State College   97 $41,849

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice associate degree programs introduce students to the legal system, including criminal law, court procedures, and corrections. With a two-year degree in criminal justice, graduates may be qualified for a range of jobs. For example, the best associate degree jobs in this field include police officers or detectives, who earn a median annual income of $66,020. Other options include probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, with a median annual salary of $60,250, and correctional officers and bailiffs, with a median annual salary of $47,920. The following table reveals some of the entry-level salaries earned by criminal justice associate degree graduates around the country.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Red Rocks Community College (CO)  100 $66,863
Grand Rapids Community College (MI)  99 $47,335
College of Southern Idaho  96 $43,775
Southwestern Illinois College  93 $41,907
Beal College (ME)  92 $41,540

Computer Science and Information Technology

There is a great deal of diversity in technology-related degree programs. Some possible areas of focus in associate-level programs include computer science, data science, information technology, and programming. Overall, salaries are strong in this high-growth field. According to the BLS, computer support specialists earn a median annual income of $57,910 and even higher salaries go to network architects, programmers, database administrators, and web developers. The tech industry is highly competitive so students may want to enhance their skills by earning a bachelor's degree, but our data confirms that tech associate degree earners may be able to command good salaries in their entry-level jobs.

School Salary Score Median Income 1 Year After Graduation
Anne Arundel Community College (MD)  100 $58,439
Indiana Hills Community College (IA)  97 $53,639
Strayer University (DC)  96 $48,720
Colorado Technical University  94 $43,500

Employers That Hire Associate Degree Holders

Graduates with associate degrees may find themselves working for small, local organizations or larger regional or even national corporations. For example, healthcare workers of all types may find employment with some of the many multi-state hospital chains, including HCA Healthcare in the South, Dignity Health or Kaiser Permanente in the Southwest, Ascension Health in the Midwest, and CommonSpirit Health and Trinity Health across the country.


General business and IT professionals may also find work with some of the largest multinational corporations, such as retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and Target as well as professional services providers like Deloitte and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

A Degree With Many Benefits

After reviewing all of these jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, it's clear that an associate degree from an accredited college may offer several advantages. Perhaps the most important of these is the return on your initial financial investment. According to recent College Board data, annual tuition fees at two-year schools range from a low of $1,430 in California to a high of $8,600 in Vermont, with a median of $3,800. Thus, tuition for two years of education ranges from $2,860-$17,200.

Meanwhile, BLS data indicates that associate degree holders earn an average of $154 more per week than those with high school diplomas, which adds up to $8,008 more in annual income and at least $320,000 in lifetime income. Of course, you'll also need to pay for books, supplies, and other fees, but the net result is still an extremely high ROI, given the nominal amount paid to earn your degree.



Associate degree holders earn an average of $154 more per week than those with high school diplomas, which adds up to $8,008 more in annual income.

Also keep in mind that you may not have to pay the full price of tuition and other expenses to earn an associate degree. Students who demonstrate financial need may be eligible for grants and scholarships provided by federal and state governments and the schools themselves. There may also be private scholarships available for students in specific majors, such as nursing or criminal justice. Most states also offer "promise" programs that provide additional funding for students pursuing associate degrees.

Can You Make a Living on an Associate Degree?

In short, if your career aspirations lie in healthcare, business, criminal justice, or computer technology, there really is no downside to earning an associate degree. Even if you decide you need or want to earn a bachelor's degree a few years down the road, many of your credit hours accumulated while earning your associate degree from an accredited school and program will transfer over to your bachelor's program, reducing the number of credit hours and courses you'll need to graduate. Depending on your career goals, an associate degree may be the perfect place to start.

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