The 15 Highest-Paying Associate Degrees
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- Associate degrees provide effective technical training in a variety of fields.
- Students can enter their chosen field in a relatively short amount of time.
- Associate programs tend to be cheaper than their four-year counterparts.
- Many two-year programs effectively prepare students to transfer into four-year programs.
Not all lucrative jobs require an advanced degree. Students can quickly complete a relatively inexpensive associate program and receive in-demand academic training, practical experience, and professional certification and earn a substantial salary.
If you're looking to enter a technical field but feel unsure about whether a four-year program is right for you, an associate degree could be a useful alternative. These degrees also provide a cost-effective academic track that fulfills many general education requirements, preparing you to tackle a four-year degree down the road.
What Are the Highest-Paying Associate Degrees?
The following associate degrees offer you the technical training needed to begin a career in your field of choice. Many of the highest-paying degrees are technical in nature and rooted in science and math. These programs also provide experience working in the field.
1. Air Traffic Management (Air Traffic Controllers)
An air traffic management degree prepares you to work as an air traffic controller, helping coordinate flights so that planes take off and land safely. An associate degree from an Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative school and several years of progressively responsible experience are usually required to enter the profession.
You may also need to attend the FAA Academy for additional training, earn certification, and work under supervision for the first couple of years of your career.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $132,250
2. Nuclear Technology
Nuclear technicians work in nuclear power plants, monitoring equipment and radiation levels produced during the power generation process.
These technicians usually earn an associate degree in nuclear science or nuclear-related technology and complete additional training in the field. Technicians may also need to get a background check and gain security clearance.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $100,420
3. Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapists operate the machinery used to deliver radiation treatments to cancer patients. They will typically explain treatment procedures to the patient, administer the therapy, observe the patient's reaction to the radiation, and update patient records.
In addition to an associate degree, most aspiring radiation therapists will also need to become certified by passing an exam.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $89,530
4. Nuclear Medicine Technology
Like radiation therapists, nuclear medicine technologists also work with radioactive procedures in healthcare. However, instead of delivering external radiation treatment, these professionals administer internal radiation treatment in the form of radioactive drugs.
They also deliver radioactive pharmaceuticals that can — along with imaging and coordination with a radiologist — help diagnose certain medical conditions. Nuclear medicine technologists usually earn an associate degree in nuclear medicine technology and gain professional certification.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $85,300
5. Dental Hygiene
If you've ever visited the dentist for a routine cleaning, you likely had your teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist before being seen by the dentist. These medical professionals administer oral X-rays, clean your teeth and gums, and provide preventative treatments such as fluoride.
An associate program for dental hygiene typically takes three years to complete. Dental hygienists will also need to earn professional licensure in their state.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $81,400
Popular Online Associate in Dental Hygiene Programs
6. Diagnostic Medical Sonography
Another high-paying healthcare career requiring only an associate degree is diagnostic medical sonography. Sonographers operate the medical equipment that creates images of the inside of patients' bodies using sound waves. Physicians then use the images — also known as sonograms or ultrasounds — to diagnose medical issues.
Diagnostic medical sonographers typically need certification in addition to an associate degree. Certification requires passing an exam and will often designate an area of sonographic specialty, such as pediatric sonography.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $78,210
7. Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technology
Aerospace engineering and operations technologists and technicians help conduct testing of aircraft and spacecraft to ensure that they are operating safely. These aerospace industry professionals may operate equipment that tests plane parts and systems, maintain testing facilities, and record test outcomes.
Depending on the project and employer, some aerospace technicians may need to be U.S. citizens and receive security clearance before starting work.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $74,410
Popular Online Associate in Aerospace Engineering Programs
8. Aviation Maintenance
Getting an associate degree in aviation maintenance is a great step toward becoming an aircraft mechanic or avionics equipment technician. These aviation professionals diagnose aircraft equipment failures, carry out repairs, and conduct preventative maintenance.
An associate degree is often necessary to enter the profession along with certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Many of these technicians also train at a technical school, on the job, or through military service.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $70,740
Popular Online Associate in Aerospace Engineering Programs
9. Respiratory Therapy
Respiratory therapists work with patients who have trouble breathing due to asthma or other illnesses.
These therapists perform breathing tests on patients, design treatment plans, administer and monitor treatment, and work in conjunction with other healthcare professionals to coordinate care. Respiratory therapists need a license as well as an associate degree.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $70,540
10. Radiologic and MRI Technology
Getting an associate degree in radiology or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can set you up for a career as a radiologic or MRI technologist. Radiologic technologists conduct X-rays and other imaging tests. MRI technologists take diagnostic images via MRI machinery.
Like other medical technologists on this list, both radiologic and MRI technologists carry out testing procedures but don't diagnose patients — they work closely with physicians and other healthcare personnel who review the results and provide diagnoses.
Radiologic and MRI technologists may need licensure or certification in addition to an associate degree, though this varies by state.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $67,180
11. Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technology
Another highly technical but lucrative career path requiring only an associate degree is to work as an electrical or electronic engineering technologist or technician.
This path may be a good fit for those interested in product design, as jobs in this field often involve evaluating electrical equipment components and prototypes in the communications, computing, or medical device industries. In addition to testing, they may also assemble and repair electronic equipment and systems.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $66,390
Popular Online Associate in Electronics Engineering Programs
12. Occupational Therapy Assistance
Occupational therapy assistants work under the direction of occupational therapists, helping to carry out patient treatment plans. Occupational therapy assistants may work with a variety of cases, supporting those with chronic illness, helping patients navigate learning or developmental disabilities, and providing rehabilitation after an injury.
Occupational therapy assistant programs usually include several months of fieldwork so that students can gain practical experience before joining the workforce.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $63,450
13. Mechanical Engineering Technology
If you have a strong interest in how things fit together and a knack for engineering, mechanical engineering technology may be the degree for you. Technologists in this field assist mechanical engineers, working with blueprints, 3D design software, and mechanical equipment. They may help design, repair, and test tools.
An associate degree or certificate from an accredited program is typically all you need to work as a mechanical engineering technologist.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $61,990
Popular Online Associate in Mechanical Engineering Technology Programs
14. Industrial Engineering Technology
An associate degree in industrial engineering technology can help you land a job as an industrial engineering technologist or technician, a role that helps troubleshoot and streamline manufacturing processes. These technicians typically help industrial engineers design efficient production workflows and facilities.
Look for an industrial engineering technology program that has been accredited by ABET, as these programs will likely make you a strong candidate when entering the job market.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $61,210
15. Electro-Mechanical and Mechatronics Technology
Fans of BattleBots and drone enthusiasts rejoice — with a two-year associate in electro-mechanical and mechatronics technology, you can pursue a career working with robots and make upwards of $60,000 a year.
Technologists and technicians in this field test, maintain, repair, and operate unmanned automatic machinery used in production settings. They need to have a handle on both mechanical systems and electrical components, so this career is not for the faint of heart.
Median Annual Salary (BLS, 2022): $60,570
Popular Online Associate in Mechatronics Technology Programs
Why Get an Associate Degree?
An associate degree may be all you need for certain careers, including the high-paying options discussed above. An associate degree is also a great option for saving money on a bachelor's degree — you can start at a low-cost community college and then transfer to a four-year college.
You will usually complete all of the general education prerequisites you need for many bachelor's programs as part of your associate degree. If you're looking to change careers quickly, an associate degree may also be right for you. Some online associate degrees can be completed in as little as six months.
Frequently Asked Questions About High-Paying Associate Degrees
What is the highest-paying associate degree in healthcare?
The highest-paying associate degree in healthcare is in radiation therapy. Radiation therapists administer radiation treatments to patients with cancer and earn a median income of almost $90,000 per year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from 2022.
What are the highest-paying jobs with an associate degree in business?
An associate degree in administration and management can set you up for several relatively high-earning business careers, such as working as an executive assistant or a food service manager.
Executive assistants earn an average salary of $62,660, according to Payscale data from September 2023. Food service managers earn a median salary of $61,310 as of May 2022, according to the BLS.
What are the highest-paying jobs with an associate degree in science?
Many of the highest-paying associate degrees are in science fields. Nuclear technologists need an associate degree in nuclear science and earn a median income of just over $100,000 as of 2022.