Is an Associate Degree Worth It?

The benefits of earning an associate degree can include higher earning potential, better job security and opportunity, as well as advancement.
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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:

How Many Credits is an Associate Degree?

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 2-year associate degree. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018 workers with an associate degree had median weekly earnings of $862, compared with just $730 for people with a high school diploma alone. They were also more likely to be able to find a job at all.

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.

What Can I Do with an Associate Degree?

Lindsey Ranstrom, 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, Ranstrom 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.

Lindsey Ranstrom and the text Lindsey Ranstrom“You go in, take a psychology class, and then you take a journalism class, then you take a business class," Ranstrom 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 2-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, Ranstrom 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.

Getting Good Jobs with an Associate Degree

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,” Ranstrom said, adding that many growing fields "only require an associate degree to break in, and the return on investment is higher.”

Ranstrom 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,” Ranstrom said.

What’s the Best 2-Year Degree?

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 $41,600, and that rises to $66,500 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,” Ranstrom said.

Whatever your chosen field is, Ranstrom said, there are steps you can take before, during, and after earning an associate degree that can help you reach your goals:

  • Before enrolling: Do your research. Ranstrom said it’s easy to find the requirements for jobs in your industry on the government website BLS or job-listing sites like Glassdoor. “It will give you a better sense as to what the requirements are, and salary expectations,” she said.
  • During your time in college: Get experience. Many associate degree programs require that students complete internships, but even if they don’t, Ranstrom said it’s in your interest to seek out experience in your industry. “You’ll be able to have access to really great internship opportunities if you’re enrolled in a higher education program,” she said. “That can be a game-changer, because now you have the degree and the professional experience, and you’ve built your network in the field.”
  • After earning your degree: Build your brand. Depending on your field, an associate degree may let you meet the minimum requirement for many jobs, but actually landing a good spot on your career ladder of choice takes more than that. Ranstrom said it’s important to demonstrate both technical skills and “vital skills” like collaboration, emotional intelligence, and creativity. That means finding ways to advocate for yourself and tell your own story in a way that harmonizes with your potential employer’s goals. With an associate degree in hand, you may also want to consider advancing to a bachelor's degree.

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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