Are Associate Degrees Underrated?

Are associate's degrees underrated? We looked at this often overlooked education path for career changers.

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Updated March 30, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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Are Associate Degrees Underrated?


Feeling stuck in the wrong job? Believe it or not, an associate degree might be your ticket to a better career.

For a long time, earning a four-year degree seemed like the only way to unlock great career opportunities. Many companies made degree requirements a standard hiring practice, even for jobs that didn't need them. As a result, many competent, talented people were routinely shut out from those jobs.

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But hiring practices are shifting. Even before the pandemic, major corporations like Walmart and Amazon were ditching degree requirements for entry and mid-level positions. Today, the job market is becoming increasingly skills based, which makes now a great time to get an associate degree.

An associate degree is a two-year college degree that graduates can use to enter a specific industry or build credits before pursuing a more advanced degree.

Is an Associate Degree Worth It?

Associate degrees are widely underrated. Just two years in a sub-baccalaureate program could land you a cool job in a lucrative industry like healthcare, tech, or business.

“Too many people discount the value of an associate's degree, which can be a great way to access a new field and on-the-job training”

"Too many people discount the value of an associate's degree, which can be a great way to access a new field and on-the-job training," said Jeff Zhou, personal finance expert and CEO of Fig Loans.

"Associate's degrees are low-cost options that may even be free for qualifying students. They allow people to start earning a higher income with very little financial risk."

Associate degrees often provide a better early return on your investment because they are faster and cheaper than a traditional four-year degree. allowing you to earn income earlier than you would have had you pursued a bachelor's degree.

Associate degree Bachelor's degree
Average credit hours 60 credit hours 120 credit hours
Average cost per year $3,570 $27,000

You're also less likely to graduate with massive student loans: Fewer than half of associate degree recipients took out any loans at all in 2019.

And associate degrees pay off:

That income bump is even greater for people who graduate with career-oriented associate degrees. Picking the right degree program can have a major impact on your future earning potential.

How Do I Pick the Right Associate Degree?

Not all associate degrees are created equal. Most programs aim to fulfill one of two purposes: transferring to a bachelor's degree or getting a job.

Students with technical associate degrees earn double what their academic associate degree counterparts make. For instance, earnings among graduates with technical or career-oriented associate degrees in Colorado earn $15,000 more than those with AA or AS degrees in the same state.

Top 5 highest-paying careers with a technical associate degree in 2021

  • 1. Air Traffic Controller: $92,000/yr
  • 2. Radiation Therapist: $73,554
  • 3. Nuclear Medicine Technologist: $70,111/yr
  • 4. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist: $69,702/yr
  • 5. Aerospace Engineer and Operations Technician: $68,570/yr

Insider Monkey

Will I Be Able To Compete For Good Jobs With an Associate Degree?

Yes: Especially now, when employers are struggling to fill trade positions that require more than a high school diploma but don't call for a four-year degree. An associate degree can help land you in a hiring sweet spot.

And while it's generally true that more education means more money, that isn't always the case.

Some short-term higher education credentials are worth just as much as long-term credentials.

“Some short-term higher education credentials are worth just as much as long-term credentials.”

A recent report by the Center on Education and the Workforce found that 28% of associate degree holders actually earn more than half of workers with a bachelor's degree.

When Is an Associate Degree the Best Choice?

A technical associate degree might be the most strategic choice if:

Remember: Even if you do want to complete a bachelor's degree in the future, you don't have to do everything at once. An associate degree might still be the best way to make a career change right now.

It can provide entry into a good career path. Once you're securely on that path, you can take some time to assess whether going back for schooling would be useful.

By then you'll already have half the credits you need, as well as a regular income. Maybe you'll even have landed a role working for a company that offers tuition reimbursement.

But you may also find that the best way to climb the ladder in your new industry is to embrace less traditional learning options like online training courses, bootcamps, or certification programs.

Whatever you decide, an associate degree can provide a solid foundation on which to build a successful and satisfying career.


Feature Image: Joyce Diva / E+ / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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