August 29, 2018
The benefits of earning an associate degree include higher earning potential, better job security and opportunity, as well as advancement.
If you're considering advancing your education, you might wonder what degree best matches your plans for the future. How can you tell if it makes sense to pursue an associate degree?
Let's start with the basics:
Associate degrees are considered 2-year degrees though some students move faster or slower depending on what else is going on in their lives and how much time they want to devote to schoolwork. Generally, associate degrees require 60 credits of coursework, which translates to 20 college courses. That's half the academic requirements of a bachelor's degree.
For the average U.S. worker, there's a clear benefit to getting a two-year associate degree. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2017 workers with an associate degree had median weekly earnings of $836, compared with just $712 for people with a high school diploma alone. They were also more likely to be able to find a job at all. The unemployment rate for associate degree holders was 3.4%, while it stood at 4.6% for workers with no college experience.
You have specific skills, career goals, and interests. That means there are a number of factors to consider in thinking about whether an associate degree is right for you.
Lindsey Levesque, a career advisor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), said people who can benefit the most from an associate degree fall into two camps: those who are still exploring their options, and those who have a definite game plan and don't want to waste any time.
In the first group are people who know they want to continue their education beyond high school but aren't sure what education or career path they ultimately want to follow. If you're in this group, Levesque said, you might benefit from an associate degree in liberal arts or an associate degree in business. These majors offer a good grounding for a future career or further education while also giving students a chance to explore.
"You go in, take a psychology class, and then you take a journalism class, then you take a business class," Levesque said. "You might find your passion along the way."
This process can be particularly beneficial if you want to pursue your education in a cost-effective way. An associate degree is relatively affordable, and if you choose to go on to pursue a bachelor's degree, you're already halfway there.
At the same time, if you end up stopping or pausing your educational career after finishing the two-year degree, it will provide benefits that you wouldn't get if you entered a bachelor's program and then took a break halfway through earning your degree. According to the BLS, people with associate degrees have better prospects for employment and earnings than those who have taken some college courses but haven't received a degree.
If you didn't do quite as well in high school as you now realize you could have, Levesque said, an associate degree program can also offer a way to make up for lost time. Courses within a two-year program can fill gaps in your education and give you a chance to raise your GPA before applying to a competitive bachelor's program.
In the second group of students well suited to an associate degree are those who have already begun their career and know what they need to advance, or who just have a very clear vision of their future.
"Not all careers require a bachelor's degree or higher," she said, adding that many growing fields "only require an associate degree to break in, and the return on investment is higher."
Levesque said some other fields, like construction or electrical work, don't necessarily require formal education beyond high school, but there may still be advantages to getting an associate degree. Jobs may be easier to find with the extra two years of education, and it may be easier to move up the career ladders in these industries.
"It can be a really great avenue for you if you know what you want from your career," Levesque said.
Just as with any kind of degree, the financial benefit of earning an associate degree depends on what you choose to study. For example, according to compensation analysis firm PayScale, workers who majored in information technology earn a median early-career salary of $39,800, and that rises to $63,000 in their mid-careers. Associate degrees in fields like accounting, business administration, and fashion merchandising also lead to entry-level jobs paying more than $30,000 with significant growth opportunities. In many cases, an associate degree can do double duty, demonstrating skills to an employer while also offering a stepping stone to a bachelor's degree.
Of course, college isn't just about increasing your earnings potential. It's also about satisfying your curiosity, becoming a more well-rounded person and developing expertise in an area you care about.
"Sometimes when we have more formalized education, it provides us the perspective to look at things differently," Levesque said.
Whatever your chosen field is, Levesque said, there are steps you can take before, during, and after earning an associate degree that can help you reach your goals:
So, is an associate degree worth it? With the earnings and opportunities it offers and the relatively small commitment of time and money it demands, the answer for many students is a definite yes.
Pete Davies is a marketing and communications director in higher education. Follow him on Twitter @daviespete or connect on LinkedIn.
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