Maximize the ROI of a Certificate or an Associate Degree with a Healthcare Career

With not a lot of time or money, how can you begin a career in healthcare and get a better-than-average return on your investment than other occupations?
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Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
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Gayle Morris has over two decades of nursing practice with a clinical focus in rehabilitation medicine. She has published and lectured throughout her career. Morris founded Indiana's first conference for school teachers focusing on the medical needs ...
Published on November 6, 2023
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  • Healthcare provides several options to maximize your return on investment with a two-year degree.
  • Most healthcare roles without a bachelor’s pay higher median hourly salaries than in other fields.
  • Factors such as education timeline, program, and role impact your return on investment.
  • Healthcare roles that require more than one year of education provide better return on investment.

Did you know there are several ways to advance your career with a certificate or associate degree in the healthcare field?

When you have the time and money for only a certificate or associate degree in healthcare, you can still start your career and get a better-than-average return on investment.

Let's explore the stability of the healthcare field, how to get the best return on your investment, and some of the healthcare jobs you can get without a bachelor's degree.

What Is Job Stability and Projected Growth for Healthcare Roles?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), of the 8.3 million new jobs that are projected by 2031, nearly 25% are in healthcare where it's estimated over 2 million new jobs will be opened during the projected period.

The overall estimated job growth rate for all industries is 5.3%, whereas BLS projects the growth in healthcare to be 12.6% from 2021 to 2031.

The job growth and stability can be attributed, in part, to a growing population of senior adults with chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Within healthcare, the sector with the largest projected job growth between 2022 and 2032 is other healthcare support occupations, such as medical assistants. Other healthcare support occupations are projected to grow eight percentage points faster than average.

Healthcare diagnosing and treating practitioners, like dental hygienists, are projected to grow 6% faster than average. BLS classifies most of the healthcare roles you can get without a bachelor’s degree as healthcare technicians and technologists, which are projected to grow 4% faster than other occupations.

Healthcare jobs you can get without a bachelor's degree include medical assistant, dental hygienist, emergency medical technician (EMT), paramedic, and medical biller and coder.

How Does the Projected Growth of Healthcare Jobs Compare to Other Jobs?

Other Healthcare Support Occupations

Healthcare Diagnosing or Treating Practitioners

Health Technologists and Technicians

Source: BLS, May 2022

Popular Online Healthcare Administration Associate Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

How Much Can I Make In Healthcare Without a Bachelor’s Degree?

Median Hourly Salaries for Healthcare Careers

Median Hourly Salary for All Occupations

The tables below highlight the median hourly wage for certain healthcare careers as compared to the national median hourly wage. Remember that not all positions are full-time. When comparing income against contract and part-time employees, it's important to compare hourly wages.

Your choice of entry-level healthcare careers in a relatively short time can include a list of the careers in the table below. According to the data, most allied health occupations that require a certificate or associate degree make more than the median salary of all occupations.

The lowest-paid 10% of workers in these professions are all paid more than the lowest paid 10% of all workers nationally. This means you have a greater return on investment than if you choose another lower-paying occupation.

With rising educational costs, think tank Third Way analyzed federal data to determine how long it takes students to see a return on their investment after graduation. The data showed that 53% who graduated from a certificate program didn't see a greater economic return than a high school graduate.

Students pursuing associate degrees and certificates can also see high value returns on their investment. As the data showed, most high-paying jobs in the healthcare field require at least an associate degree. Workers in diagnostic, intervention, and treatment professions are paid the most.

Additionally, medical assistant graduates who passed a national certification examination commanded higher salaries whether they graduated with a certificate or associate degree.

"This [national certification] can easily differentiate the professional from other candidates in their field, which is important in this competitive market," said medical assistant Elizabeth Opurum.

Median Annual Salaries of Healthcare Technical and Support Occupations with the Fastest Education Compared to the National Median Wage for All Occupations
Career Minimum Education Required Median Hourly Wage Difference Between Career's Hourly Wage and National Hourly Median
Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) CNA Program $17.19 -$5.07
EKG Technicians Certificate Program $30.30 +$8.04
Emergency Medicine Technicians (EMT) EMT Program $17.64 -$4.62
Pharmacy Technicians Certificate Program $18.17 -$4.09
Medical Billers and Coders Certificate Program $22.69 +$0.43
Phlebotomists Certificate Program $18.53 -$3.73
Source: BLS, May 2022
Median Annual Salaries of Highest-Paid Healthcare Technical and Support Occupations Compared to the National Median Wage for All Occupations
Career Minimum Education Required Median Hourly Wage Difference Between Career's Hourly Wage and National Median Wage
Dental Hygienists Associate Degree $39.14 +$16.88
Medical Sonographers Associate Degree $39.11 +$16.85
Occupational Therapist Assistants Associate Degree $30.89 +$8.63
EKG Technicians Certificate Program $30.30 +$8.04
Physical Therapist Assistants Associate Degree $30.18 +$7.92
Licensed Practical Nurses LPN Program $26.26 +$4.00
Source: BLS, May 2022

* Careers with a fire icon () next to them are the most popular based on how often people search for them in Google.

Popular Online Medical Assisting Associate Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Should You Look for in Your Certificate or Associate Degree Program to Get the Best Return on Investment?

Consider several factors when determining the best return on investment for a certificate or associate degree program in healthcare. The aspects you'll look at are similar to what creates the best ROI in any college. However, in healthcare, one metric has the greatest influence — accreditation.

Another difference is that you won't question if there are job opportunities available, only if the program can adequately prepare you for the available jobs. As you look at programs, consider the following factors.


Your certificate or associate healthcare program must be accredited through a national organization. This ensures that your education meets quality standards and you are eligible for licensure or certification.

Students who attend an accredited program are eligible for federal aid, can transfer credits to another program, and can advance their degree if they choose. Programmatic accreditation is essential but all accrediting bodies are not equal.

The Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee accrediting agencies, which are listed in the ED and CHEA databases. All schools listed on Best Colleges are accredited.

“Employers are more likely to allow students to take on increased responsibilities if/as they are waiting to take their certification exam because they trust the knowledge the student has gained from the accredited institution.”

Elizabeth Opurum

Cost and Financial Aid

The cost of your certificate or associate program can vary depending on several factors. These factors include whether a student is:

  • Living in state or out of state
  • Eligible for financial aid, scholarships, or grants
  • Eligible for military status after serving or currently serving in the military
  • Taking classes in-person or online
  • Learning full time or part time
  • Working for an employer that offers tuition assistance
  • In a public or private institution
  • Eligible to transfer credits from another program
  • Graduating with a certificate or associate degree

There are several types of financial aid available for students in a certificate and associate degree healthcare program. These include:

  • Federal and state grants
  • Grants and scholarships from specialty organizations
  • Scholarships based on academic or athletic performance
  • Demographic and community service scholarships
  • Loan forgiveness programs
  • Employer-based tuition assistance programs

Graduation Rate

Your return on investment begins after you get a post-graduation job. The graduation rate of the programs you are considering indicates how likely it is you will graduate and begin reaping the rewards of your education. Consider comparing the school's acceptance rate against the graduation rate.

Schools with a high acceptance rate and low graduation rate indicate the school's admission criteria are low and attending students are unable to complete the program. Schools with a high graduation rate but low certification or licensure pass rate can mean the school does not adequately prepare students.

Certification or Licensure Exam Pass Rates

Some careers — such as LPNs and CNAs — require licensure before you enter the job market. Other careers, such as medical assisting, require certification to work. Your return on investment is poor if passing a certification or licensure exam is essential to work and you do not pass.

Certification and licensure examinations test the minimum knowledge or skill level required to perform a role. A program's certification or licensure exam pass rate is an important metric that identifies how thoroughly students are prepared to function in their roles.

“This will be extremely helpful so students can narrow down their choices and seek out programs that teach and prepare them on how to pass the certification exam.”

Elizabeth Opurum

Employment Rate

Certificate and associate programs should maintain data on graduates’ employment rates. This metric demonstrates how quickly students are employed. While the healthcare field is growing, programs that support students' job search increase the potential to secure a good-paying job in the field.

Programs may offer resources to bolster a graduate's potential to be hired. These include clinicals or practicums that provide experience in the field. Other resources that improve a student's employment rate include job fairs, mentors, resume and interview coaching, and alumni networking.

“For example, if a student desires to join a particular program and that institution has not had a steady increase of new hires from their program, then they may want to consider choosing a different place of study.”

Elizabeth Opurum

Average Earnings After Graduation

Another metric that programs often record is the average income of the graduate in their first job out of school. This helps potential students identify programs where they have a better chance of securing a high-paying job after graduation.

Your earning potential after graduation helps offset the cost of your certificate or associate program. The return on investment is low if you spend $10,000 on a program but the average earning is roughly the same as a high school graduate would make.

The average earning after graduation indicates how long it may take to pay for your education based on the available jobs.

How Long Will It Take to Start My Healthcare Career?

Several types of jobs in healthcare require 6-12 weeks of education with a high school diploma or equivalent to enter the job market. However, there is a correlation between the length of education, salary potential, possible autonomy, and responsibility.

For example, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), who performs clinical duties under the supervision of an LPN or RN, has a few steps before they can start to work.

A CNA needs a high school diploma or equivalent, and then must finish a certificate program that can take from 4-12 weeks to complete. As a CNA, you must then pass the certification exam through the certifying agency in your state.

While an LPN and CNA are both important to the healthcare team, an LPN spends an additional eight months in school preparing to take on greater clinical and administrative tasks. These tasks can include:

  • administering medication
  • doing dressing changes
  • updating medical records.

In the 4-12 week CNA program, you learn how to help people eat and bathe when they cannot do so independently.

A CNA also tells the nurse about health problems, takes and records vital signs, transports patients, and stocks supplies.

If you want the greater autonomy, authority, and pay that LPNs have, you’ll need to spend longer in school to master the more technical skills they need.

More Education Leads to More Responsibility

Most healthcare positions also require a specific level of education to function in the role. For example, there is a vast difference between a dental hygienist, an emergency medical technician (EMT), and an LPN.

While an EMT can finish their program within six months, a dental hygienist’s education can take three years.

An LPN completes a one or two-year program and must pass a licensure examination to practice in the state. According to the BLS, in 2022 the median annual salary for a CNA was $35,760 and for an LPN was $54,620.

The average LPN is estimated to earn roughly $20,000 more per year than the average CNA with roughly 8 months more education.

The extent of required education is associated with the position's responsibilities regarding:

  • patient care
  • scope of practice
  • salary potential

The exception to that rule is an EKG technician, who can enter the job market with an associate degree, earned a median annual salary of $78,210 in 2022.

Many Healthcare Programs Require the Same Prerequisites, No Matter Your Career Path

In the healthcare field, there are common coursework prerequisites that can make programs longer than some of the shortest programs in other fields.

Many programs require psychology, English, anatomy and physiology, and a strong math background before starting the program. These mandatory courses provide a foundation for understanding patient care.

For example, psychology helps improve a healthcare professional’s relationship with patients, improves communication with colleagues, and enables them to recognize the signs that a patient may need mental or emotional assistance.

After Graduation, You’ll Need to Get Licensed or Certified

Additionally, licensure and certification affect when a person can begin their healthcare career. After graduating from a certificate or associate program, it typically takes several weeks to study for and pass the examination.

Once the test results are available, the proper state agency must receive the results before they can issue your license. This process can take several months before you can begin work after graduation.

The healthcare industry rewards continuing education. Even if you choose a career with an education timeline as short as six months, you should consider spending an extra year or so in school, if you have the time and money.

Completing the recommended education rather than the minimum education pathway usually leads to more pay, higher success rates on your licensure and certification exam, and more job and advancement opportunities.

The Typical Education Timeline and Requirements Healthcare Roles with the Fastest Education
Career Education Timeline Required Education Employer-Preferred* Education
Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) 4-12 weeks CNA Program CNA Program
EKG Technicians 3-6 Months High School Diploma or Equivalent Certificate or Associate Degree
Emergency Medicine Technicians (EMT)* 3-6 Months EMT Program EMT Program
Pharmacy Technicians <1 year High School Diploma or Equivalent Certificate or Associate Degree
Medical Billers and Coders <1 year Certificate Associate Degree
Phlebotomists* <1 year Certificate Certificate
Source: BLS, May 2022
The Typical Education Timeline and Requirements for the Highest-Paying Healthcare Roles
Career Education Timeline Required Education Employer-Preferred* Education
Dental Hygienists 3 Years Dental Hygienist Program Dental Hygienist Program
Medical Sonographers* 1-2 Years Certificate Associate Degree
Occupational Therapist Assistants 2 years Associate Degree Associate Degree
EKG Technicians 3-6 Months High School Diploma or Equivalent Certificate or Associate Degree
Physical Therapist Assistants 2 years Associate Degree Associate Degree
Licensed Practical Nurses 1-2 years LPN program LPN program
Source: BLS, May 2022

* The employer-preferred education may increase your job opportunities, advancement opportunities, pay, responsibilities, and autonomy.

Popular Online Medical Coding Associate Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Frequently Asked Questions About Getting a Job in Healthcare Without a Bachelor’s Degree

Is healthcare a stable career?

The healthcare field is a stable job market and can offer a variety of stable career opportunities. As the baby boom population ages, the number of senior adults increases. This impacts the size of the population needing health education and treatment for chronic health diseases.

What is the easiest healthcare degree to get?

The easiest degree is the one that you find interesting, since the easiest things to learn are what interests you. EKG technicians are more technical, while CNAs spend more time with patients. Dental hygienists are well-paid, but spend most of their day digging around in someone's mouth. Medical billing and coding require one year or less to learn highly detailed information about insurance billing and coding.

What is the shortest degree in healthcare?

The shortest degree is a CNA, which takes 4-12 weeks of education and clinical experience. A CNA can launch your career in healthcare, since you can work as a CNA while completing an LPN or ADN to improve your salary potential.

How do I start a career in healthcare?

Start your healthcare career in a field that interests you and a program you can afford. For example, an EKG tech program can take six months and provide you with a good-paying job. If you want to advance your education, you can become a nurse or get a degree in healthcare administration. The fastest way to become a healthcare administrator is to pursue a certificate program.

What is the fastest way to be in the healthcare field?

The fastest way to work in healthcare is to become a CNA. Opurum says that getting certified gives you a competitive edge with your employers and establishes professional credibility. These factors can equate to small employers who are willing to offer other benefits, such as tuition reimbursement for those who want to advance their education and move into a new position.


Chevron Down

Morona, Amy. (2021). Health care certificate programs vary widely in return on investment. Work Shift

Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2023). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Opurum, E. (2023). Personal interview.

Payscale homepage. (2023). Payscale

Which college programs give students the best bang for their buck? (2021). Third Way

Page last reviewed on October 15, 2023 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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