While many U.S. employers are more likely to choose job applicants with a bachelor’s degree, workers with an associate’s degree are still viable in the workforce, experts say.
“It depends on what field you’re in. Some places require an associate’s degree,” says Ro W. Lee, associate director of career and professional development at Claremont Graduate University in California.
“You have to think about why a company would want someone with an associate’s degree instead of someone with a bachelor’s degree,” Lee said. “They want someone who can hit the mark, but they’re also aware of the position they’re trying to fill. There are no high ceilings. You may be able to promote yourself a few positions, but that’s about it, unless you have further education. The salary is lower and you have fewer opportunities.”
Workers with an associate’s degree earned a median annual income of $44,100 in 2020.That’s $15,500 less than an employee with a bachelor’s degree, but $4,200 more than an employee with some college but no degree, and $7,500 more than an employee with only a high school diploma, according to May 2022 data Report By the Federal National Center for Education Statistics on the State of Education in the United States
However, according to a 2021 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce, 28 percent of workers with an associate’s degree earn more than half of those with a bachelor’s degree.
Although earnings depend on a variety of factors, many jobs that require only an associate’s degree or post-secondary non-degree training typically pay relatively well, such as computer user support specialists, auto service technicians and mechanics, and licensed practical nurses and licensed professional nurse.One analyze Published in 2020 by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Advantages of an Associate’s Degree
An associate’s degree is most often earned at a community college and can usually be completed in two years, while a bachelor’s degree usually takes more than four years. Faster program completion times allow associate degree recipients to start their careers faster.
“What we’re seeing at the national level is that big companies are looking to community colleges to advance their workforces,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.
“I’m talking about big tech companies like Google, Dell, Intel, Amazon Web Services that are looking to community colleges to meet their diverse workforce needs,” she said.
“These programs start at the certificate or certificate level, and some universities have mapped them to associate degrees and beyond. In this age of employees working remotely, that’s really a benefit for the nation.”
Construction, real estate, manufacturing, nursing, hospitality and retail “really appreciate” people with associate degrees, said Ken McQueen, who recruits oil, gas and other industries for Richard Wayne & Roberts in Houston.
“Companies in these industries are also now recognizing that many potential candidates may have already started a bachelor’s degree and may not have the option to complete it,” he said. “Previously, these candidates would not have been considered. But with current market conditions and high demand for workers, employers are reconsidering and hiring people who may have suspended their four-year degree programs and need to go to work.”
Multiple studies and federal government data show that, in general, the more educated a worker is, the higher the income. Chris Geary, a senior policy analyst at the New America Center for Education and Labor, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., noted that the wage gap between high school and college graduates has widened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re also seeing lower unemployment rates for people with an associate’s degree compared to people who never went to college,” he said. “People actually benefit from completing an associate’s degree, which is rewarded in the labor market through employers.”
However, Geary points out that these rewards generally vary regardless of the type of certification a worker receives. “The economic benefits of graduating from college vary widely by race, gender and program of study. Despite the average economic benefits of a college education, we see significant racial and gender inequalities in employment and the earnings of college graduates.”
Workforce-oriented associate degrees tend to deliver the greatest rewards, especially those in nursing, engineering, technology and computer programming, Geary said. “I do think there are opportunities for an associate’s degree in these fields and related fields and new fields that haven’t come yet. I think there’s a way for an associate’s degree to play a big role in getting people good jobs.”
Lee notes that associate degrees in fields such as nursing, paralegal, web development, and internet technology can get employees “to work faster. I think it’s included in a lot of courses, and you’ll get hands-on experience while you’re learning.”
An associate’s degree can also help employers identify potential hires who choose to specialize in just one discipline, McQueen said.
“Typically, associate degrees are designed to provide employees with the tools of their trade,” he said. “There is less focus and focus on social studies and other four-year degree-required courses. With this micro-focus, on-the-job training is often provided. Students graduate directly into the work environment using the same equipment as their new job.”
Disadvantages of an Associate’s Degree
The perception of hiring managers and top management can be a significant disadvantage of having an associate’s degree compared to a four-year degree, McQueen said.
“They have their own four-year degrees, and management typically wants to see the same in their employees. Often, top management looks at education or lack of education…to determine if an employee is a good fit for their company culture or team.”
Community colleges “generally have less prestige, fewer degree options, so you have less earning potential, and definitely a lower ceiling for management positions,” Lee said. It’s like a promotion checklist — the higher the degree you have , the greater your earning potential.”
Among the clients McQueen has worked with, employees with a bachelor’s degree are more popular than those with an associate’s degree, he said. Even in fields such as technology, where an associate’s degree may be the minimum job requirement, “the chances are greater with a bachelor’s or advanced degree,” he said.
This may be because companies generally want to keep costs down, Lee said. “So instead of training someone and paying for their education, it might be cheaper to hire someone with a bachelor’s degree”
Advice When Seeking an Associate’s Degree
Whether to pursue an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree depends on a student’s career goals, Lee said. “Degree majors matter when students consider associate degree programs.”
Lee adds that it’s important to gain relevant work experience alongside your associate’s degree. “For example, if you want to be a paralegal or a nurse, you should do an internship or part-time in those industries so you can be more competitive.”
It’s also important to “believe in yourself” and join the union, Geary said.
“Unions improve workers’ economic outcomes. I want anyone with an associate’s degree to find a workplace that values their skills and life experience. Look for jobs with worker protections and adequate pay. It’s about knowing and believing in what you do as The value of a person and an employee.”
Employers generally prefer employees with associate degrees over those with only a high school diploma, Geary said.
“I think that will definitely increase over time,” he added. “Employers are really looking for people with post-secondary credentials. We’re seeing this in almost all occupations. Going forward, it’s likely that an associate’s degree in more fields or other post-secondary degrees below a bachelor’s degree will be Great rewards for workers. At the same time, I think most jobs, fair or not, will still pay a premium for workers with a bachelor’s degree.
Whether someone chooses a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree, the most important thing is to complete it, McQueen said.
“A degree opens doors. You still need to work and prove that you are successful. A degree usually tells future employers that you can accomplish something. You are not a quitter. It means a lot to future employers. Open that door , and take it wherever it leads you.”