Gone are the days when a baccalaureate degree is a minimum requirement for a rewarding career. Nowadays, many people can already jumpstart a rewarding career without higher education credentials.
Through technology, more academic program offerings, and innovative learning methods, a bachelor’s degree is no longer a crucial requirement in pursuing careers with lucrative salaries.
Pursuing an associate degree will help students boost their chances of landing a high-paying career, especially in the healthcare and aviation industries. An associate’s degree is one of the best stepping stones to a financially rewarding profession. If you want to strengthen your skills and credentials but aren’t willing to go through a 4-year degree, an associate’s program is an excellent alternative.
Check out our list of the best highest paying associate degrees below!
The Bureau of Labor Statistics asserts that many careers requiring an associate degree as an entry-level academic requirement have a minimum of $60,000 as the median annual wage. How will an associate degree set up your career? What are some of the highest-paying associate degree jobs today? Discover everything you need to know regarding an associate degree and all the essential pieces of information.
An Associate Degree Defined
An associate’s degree is a 2-year undergraduate degree, depending on the student’s academic program and commitment.
An associate degree provides students with foundational studies in their specific area of interest. It is a transitional pathway between a high school diploma and a baccalaureate degree. According to many economic and educational experts and professionals, an associate degree is an excellent and more economical alternative to a baccalaureate degree.
With an associate’s degree, students have two possible options. They can either immediately join the workforce with the knowledge and skills obtained from an associate degree or transfer to more advanced studies. Students pursuing an undergraduate degree at a later time can fast-track their degree. Instead of the traditional 4-year track, students can graduate within two years to earn academic credits from an associate program.
Types of Associate Degrees
Associate degrees have three types, with each type featuring unique qualities and advantages.
Associate of Arts/Associate in Arts (AA)
- An Associate of Arts/Associate in Arts degree is the least specific academic program of all the associate degrees. The AA program will require students to accomplish wide-ranging courses that include introductions to music, communication, writing, literature, art, and business with a broad curriculum. The advantage of an Associate of Arts/Associate in Arts degree is that students aren’t restricted to specific academic pathways. After completing the AA program, graduates will have access to different types of AA degree careers.
Associate of Science/Associate in Science (AS)
- Similar to AA programs, the Associate of Science/Associate in Science degree is another broad program. However, it is more specific when compared to the AA program. AS programs are often pursued by students, especially if they plan to enroll in advanced studies in different areas of sciences, including engineering and nursing.
Associate of Applied Science/Associate in Applied Science (AAS)
- The Associate of Applied Science/Associate in Applied Science is all associate degrees’ more specific academic program. It is a technical program that emphasizes a single professional field. It is the best option for students wanting to receive an education and immediately join the labor market with a particular career.
10 Highest Paying Associate Degree Jobs
Median Annual Salary: $61,830
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 14%
A career as a Respiratory Therapist is one of the highest-paying associate degree jobs in the country. One of the primary responsibilities of respiratory therapists is to diagnose patients with breathing disorders and lung problems. These professionals work with patients with breathing difficulties as well as other chronic and acute respiratory conditions.
They are responsible for the treatment and evaluation of their patient’s airways and respiratory systems as well as for conducting chest examinations. They administer various breathing-related care, including assessment for breathing-related difficulties, managing breathing equipment and treatment, determining blood oxygen levels, and intubating patients.
To become an efficient respiratory therapist, students must have at least an associate degree as a starting point. However, continuing education is often mandatory to ensure the quality and proficiency of respiratory care for patients seeking treatment for breathing difficulties. Some programs will require a competency assessment that demonstrates the proficiencies and capabilities essential for the success and effectiveness of respiratory therapy. Also, most programs require a certain number of clinical hours to gain practical experience in the medical field.
While an associate degree is common among many colleges and universities, aspiring respiratory therapists must find an associate program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Respiratory Care. After completing an associate degree in Respiratory Therapy, they are eligible to work in various clinical/medical settings, including corporate offices, private residences, clinics, nursing homes, and hospitals.
Respiratory Therapists with an associate degree can work toward becoming Certified Respiratory Therapists (CRTs). Passing the required credentialing examinations administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care is crucial.
In the US, approximately 130,000+ Respiratory Therapists are currently working across the industry. 70% of Respiratory Therapists have associate degrees, while 22% have bachelor’s degrees. In 2021, 59.3% of Respiratory Therapists will be women, while only 36.9% are males.
Top Respiratory Therapy Associate Programs:
- St. Augustine College – Associate of Applied Sciences – Respiratory Therapy
- Gwynedd Mercy University – Associate of Science in Respiratory Care
Median Annual Salary: $77,810
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 9%
Dental Hygienists are licensed dental professionals working closely with other dental care professionals in the dental team, including dentists, dental assistants, and other clinical staff, to provide their patients with comprehensive oral health care. Although they mostly work in dentists’ clinics or offices, dental hygienists can also find employment in other roles, including dental advocates, managers or administrators, researchers, or dental instructors. These professionals can pursue a rewarding career in numerous dental settings, including residential or nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, or independent practice facilities.
Dental Hygienists have obtained education and training that specialize in the prevention and care of different oral diseases. Some of the dental hygienists’ responsibilities include:
- assisting the dentists with several patient procedures and services,
- advocating proper dental care to patients,
- diagnosing patients’ mouths for signs of oral problems,
- and cleaning the gums and teeth of patients.
Dental hygienists also perform periodontal therapy for their patients, including periodontal charting, scaling and root planning and prophylaxis. Other technical roles of dental hygienists include administering fluoride and sealants, taking intra-oral radiographs, performing X-ray procedures, and utilizing ultrasonic tools to perform their duties effectively.
Students must enroll in an associate dental hygiene program that derives its accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation since it is a prerequisite requirement for licensure. With an accredited associate degree in Dental Hygiene, graduates can easily land one of the highest-paying associate degree jobs in the country.
In addition to general coursework in the associate program, aspiring dental hygienists must accomplish a specific number of supervised clinical hours. Once they have completed their program, students must become members of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, an essential step in passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination.
There are 60,000+ Dental Hygienists in the US, with 9% being men while 87.7% are women. Although most of these professionals are working in Chicago and New York, San Diego in California is one of the states where Dental Hygienists are high in demand.
Top Dental Hygiene Associate Programs:
- The University of Pittsburgh – Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene
- Remington College – Dental Hygiene Associate Degree
Web Developer/Digital Designers
Median Annual Salary: $78,300
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 23%
Web Developers and/or Digital Designers are professionals who work to create or develop applications and websites. They ensure that their client’s requests are 100% achieved in usability, interface, traffic performance, and responsiveness. These professionals’ job responsibilities include writing code, helping clients determine what information is displayed on the site/app, testing apps or websites, and providing technical support.
With almost every industry and business depending on technology to efficiently work, web development is undoubtedly one of the highest-paying associate degree jobs in the country. Some web developers handle all elements of website development; hence, they’re often associated with full-stack developers. On the contrary, other web developers prefer specializing in a particular programming language. A career in web development will let students perform a variety of roles in the IT industry.
Web developers can design new apps or websites for different clients, integrate or track new features for an e-commerce app, or create reports for the marketing and sales team. They can also become a tech architect to improve and evaluate the website’s performance, systems analysts to help their clients identify their business needs, or consultants to guide many businesses through a web app or website as part of their business solutions.
Aspiring web developers can pursue one out of five web development jobs:
- API Developer
- Back-End Developer
- Front-End Developer
- Full-Stack Developer
- UI/UX Developer
Regardless of their chosen track, students must have at least an associate degree to start their web development career. In addition to coursework completion, they will spend extensive hands-on web development training with computers to become more proficient in their chosen field.
While associate degrees can already help them jumpstart their career in the IT industry, graduates can strengthen their skills and credentials through various certifications. Depending on their preferred programming languages, they can pursue certifications, including Google Developers Certification, AWS Certification, Microsoft Azure Certifications, CompTIA Security+, or Professional Certifications for Emerging Tech from ICCP.
Top Web Development Associate Programs:
- Northeast Wisconsin Technical College – Web Development Associate Degree
- Champlain College – Associate Degree in Web Design & Development
Median Annual Salary: $82,790
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 6%
Radiation Therapists are healthcare professionals who are part of the oncology nurses, medical physicists, and oncologists. They conduct radiation therapy on cancer patients, operating the machines that are part of the procedure. As an essential part of the healthcare system, radiation therapists are responsible for administering prescribed doses of radiation through radiation therapy devices. They also explain specific procedures to their patients, monitor them for unusual reactions related to radiation therapy, and obtain detailed pieces of information regarding their patients’ treatment plans.
Many employers already consider applicants with an associate degree in radiation therapy. With an above-average annual income, a radiation therapist is one of the highest-paying jobs you can pursue with an associate degree. However, aspiring radiation therapists shouldn’t settle for an associate degree only. In the foreseeable future, some employers will require continuous learning in radiation therapy to ensure consistent quality and up-to-date practice within the field.
Alternatively, graduates must aspire to become licensed or certified. To get certified, they must pass the certifying exams offered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists. Depending on the state where you plan to pursue a radiation therapy career, you must verify whether a license is needed to work as a radiation therapist. Some states like Pennsylvania don’t require a license to practice, while other states will require their radiation therapists to get licensed.
As of 2021, the United States has more than 14,700 employed radiation therapists. Most of these professionals work in Houston and New York. However, North Dakota is the best state for radiation therapists to reside in. Regarding gender statistics, radiation therapists in the US comprise 62.3% of women, while 34.7% are males. 40% of radiation therapists have an associate degree as an entry-level requirement.
Top Radiation Therapy Associate Programs:
- Nassau Community College – Associate of Applied Science in Radiation Therapy Technology
- Florida State College at Jacksonville – Associate in Science in Radiation Therapy
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Median Annual Salary: $75,380
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 10%
Diagnostic Medical Sonography is one of the allied healthcare professions with the crucial role of obtaining accurate images through a DMS or digital medical sonography. This imaging equipment directs sound waves to form images of the body’s organs. The sonographic images will help medical professionals diagnose a variety of medical conditions. Diagnostic Medical Sonographers assist the doctors, helping them narrow down their patients’ diagnoses and administer the right treatment plan.
While a diagnostic medical sonographer’s job varies from employer to employer, some of the common responsibilities include operating imaging equipment to receive accurate diagnostic results, preparing and positioning their patients for the imaging procedure, evaluating the findings, analyzing diagnostic images, explaining clearly to patients regarding the procedure, and communicating with physicians about the preliminary results.
Diagnostic medical sonographers have different types, and they are as follows:
- Breast Sonographer
- Cardiac Sonographer
- Musculoskeletal Sonographer
- Pediatric Sonographer
- Gynecologic Sonographer
- Vascular Sonographer
Regardless of the field of sonography students pursue, an associate degree in diagnostic medical sonography is a surefire way to jumpstart your profession. Take note. Many employers will hire DMS professionals based on industry certification, proficiencies, and expertise. Therefore, pursuing higher studies isn’t necessary. Whether you’re pursuing an associate program or bachelor’s degree, make sure that the program has several hands-on experiences and must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
After completing a program, graduates must obtain an allied health certification to earn a higher income, and career advancement, and pursue more rewarding job opportunities. The ARDMS – American Registry For Diagnostic Medical Sonography is a highly recognized licensing organization in the US and worldwide for diagnostic medical sonographers.
Top Medical Sonography Associate Programs:
- Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences – Associate in Applied Science – Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- Miami Dade College – Associate in Science in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
Median Annual Salary: $56,230
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 14%
Paralegals offer a diverse range of support services to lawyers, law firms, and other professionals in the criminal justice sector. A day in the life of paralegals includes the process of preparing court trials and hearings, managing client communications, editing and reviewing a variety of legal documents, conducting legal research, interviewing witnesses and clients, and investigating facts related to specific legal cases.
Take note, that legal assistants aren’t authorized to provide legal advice and must always work under an attorney’s supervision. However, they are crucial to the legal sector since they assist lawyers in almost all case preparation and research.
A paralegal is one of the highest-paying associate degree jobs for students wanting to pursue a legal career but not interested in pursuing law school. Since law schools can be very expensive and time-consuming, finding paralegal work is a more economical option.
While no licensure or legal certification, or requirement in the paralegal profession, the standards are often set by law offices and other related offices. Some law firms or offices prefer graduates with experience in the related industry, while others immediately hire graduates and train them on the job.
Although anyone can be a paralegal given the right program, certain skill sets must be honed. Some of the highly desirable skills in the paralegal profession include writing, communication, internet skills for researching, and organization skills.
In addition to an associate program and paralegal experiences, graduates can pursue paralegal professional certifications to become top-notch candidates. The three major paralegal organizations that administer professional certifications include the following:
- National Association of Legal Assistants
- National Association for Legal Support Professionals
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations
The US is home to more than 294,000 employed paralegals, with 72.8% of the population being women while 22.9% are men. The most common entry-level academic credential of the said profession is an associate degree.
Top Paralegal Associate Programs:
- National University – Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies
- Rasmussen University – Paralegal Associate Degree
Air Traffic Controller
Median Annual Salary: $129,750
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 1%
Air Traffic Controllers is undoubtedly one of the highest-paying associate degree jobs in the US today. They coordinate safe movement and air traffic movement in the aviation industry; hence, the profession requires rigorous training and physical examinations. Air traffic controllers will guide pilots during landing and takeoff and monitor the hundreds or even thousands of aircraft traveling through the skies in a day.
These professionals manage communication by accepting control of arriving flights and transferring departing flights to different traffic control facilities. Despite primarily working with pilots, air traffic controllers also control all ground traffic in the airport, including maintenance employees and baggage vehicles.
Air traffic controllers are responsible for providing accurate and up-to-date information to pilots regarding weather updates, runway closures, and other critical flight details. They also alert airport personnel when an aircraft emergency is approaching. They are proficient in operating radars, computers, and other visual equipment to direct and monitor the flow of air traffic and ground traffic.
While an associate’s degree is acceptable as part of the entry-level requirement for air traffic controllers, graduates must undergo several medical examinations and training. After completing their degree, they must meet the Federal Aviation Administration requirements by passing a background verification, drug screening, and medical evaluation, and must accomplish a training course at the FAA Academy before turning 31.
Once the FAA training is completed, they will be assigned to an air traffic control center to obtain more experience in the field. After two to four years of on-the-job training as a developmental controller, candidates must get certified by passing a practical exam and knowledge test administered by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Air traffic controllers in the US consist of 73.3% of men, while 22.8% are women. In 2021, more than 9,000 air traffic controllers will be employed in the country. While Delaware is the best state to live in for air traffic controllers, California has the highest demand for these professionals.
Top Aircraft Control Associate Programs:
- The University of Alaska Anchorage – Associate of Applied Science in Air Traffic Control
- Thomas Edison State University – Associate in Science in Air Traffic Control
Funeral Service Worker
Median Annual Salary: $58,900
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 8%
Although managing and handling the operations of funeral homes can seem morbid to some, a career as a funeral service worker can be fulfilling. They must be proficient in handling a diverse range of tasks performed at funeral homes in preparation and servicing. Some of the responsibilities of a funeral service worker include:
- assisting the bereaved family members during funeral services,
- working as a casket-bearer,
- escorting and accommodating mourners,
- setting up funeral venues,
- preparing the remains,
- and helping the funeral directors with other essential tasks.
Depending on the funeral home, some funeral service workers maintain records of deceased people, maintain and drive funeral vehicles, and transport flowers and other essentials.
Unlike other typical businesses, jobs in the funeral service industry require high levels of compassion and care in dealing with bereaved families. Aspiring funeral service workers must have a desire to fulfill their duties in a way that will comfort the families of the deceased. They must have excellent customer service backgrounds as part of fulfilling their roles.
While an associate degree is more than enough to pursue a career in the funeral service industry, graduates must eventually pursue further studies and training for career advancement. Before enrolling in a specific program, students must also verify state licensing requirements to ensure the courses will fulfill the requirements for state licensing.
The demographics of funeral service workers in the US include 81.8% male and 13.6% female.
Top Funeral Service Associate Programs:
- Dallas Institute of Funeral Service – Associate of Applied Science in Funeral Service
- University of Arkansas – Hope & Texarkana – Associate of Applied Science in Funeral Service Education
Median Annual Salary: $99,340
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: -12%
A nuclear technician’s day-in-the-life scenario often involves radiation monitoring. Other responsibilities include assisting engineers, physicists, and other nuclear energy production and nuclear research professionals. These professionals must be proficient in operating diverse equipment for nuclear experiments.
Also, they often work with power generations and monitor the type and levels of radiation produced by these infrastructures. Nuclear technicians are essential in the production of nuclear weapons and testing them. They are also responsible for testing soil, water, and air samples as indicators of radioactive contamination.
Aspiring nuclear technicians must have at least an associate degree as part of their entry-level academic credentials. However, working in the US Navy, military, or major nuclear facilities will require prior experience. After completing an associate degree, they can seek employment opportunities at nuclear power facilities.
Some employers will require a security clearance from candidates to authorize access to nuclear facilities. To excel in the industry, additional training and continuing education are recommended.
Approximately 85.7% of nuclear technicians in the US are male, while 14.3% are women.
Top Nuclear Technician Associate Programs:
- Arkansas Tech University – Associate of Science in Nuclear Technology
- Bismarck State College – Associate in Applied Science in Nuclear Power Technology
Radiologic and MRI Technologist
Median Annual Salary: $61,980
Job Outlook Through 2020 – 2030: 6%
Another highest-paying associate degree job in the healthcare industry is the Radiologic and MRI Technologist. The latter is skilled and knowledgeable in operating MRI scanners to create diagnostic images for identifying the staging of diseases and developing accurate medical diagnoses for patients. On the contrary, radiologic technologists conduct diagnostic imaging exams on patients.
The majority of these professionals work in healthcare facilities, with more than half of the population in the hospital setting. Both professions will require at least an associate degree for employment. MRI technologists must have several years of professional experience, and only a few states require licensure. However, radiologic technologists must have state licensure or certification for employment.
As of 2021, the US is home to more than 64,700 MRI technologists employed. Among the population, 54% are women, while 43.3% are men. The country has 162,328 employed professionals for radiologic technologists, with 38.7% men and 57% women in the overall statistics. Both professions often have associate degrees as part of their academic credentials.
Top Radiologic and MRI Technologist Associate Programs:
- The California University of Pennsylvania – Associate of Science in Radiologic Technology
- Fort Hays State University – Associate of Science in Radiologic Technology
Frequently Asked Questions
How many credits will I complete in an Associate Degree?
Regardless of the area of study, the majority of associate degree programs will require 60 credit hours. In many academic institutions, most of the credits consist of the general education requirements. However, the remaining academic credits will be used for the major study area, including elective courses.
Is an Associate Degree worth investing in?
Without a doubt, yes, an associate degree is worth investing in for many specific reasons. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce data, associate degree holders will have the opportunity to earn $400,000 more in their profession compared to candidates with solely a high school diploma. Associate degree graduates will also have a wider employment selection compared to trade or high school diploma holders.
Students won’t have as expensive student loans because it only takes two years to earn an associate degree. With minimal to zero student debts, completing an associate degree is the most economical option that eventually helps students earn a reasonable income easily. Even some states pay for an associate degree. It is worth looking into!
Now that you already know everything about an associate degree, here are the ten highest-paying associate degree jobs you can pursue. In this article, we are referencing the data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for salary and job outlook reports and Zippia for the demographics of each role.
What are the Pros and Cons of an Associate Degree?
Since some people consider an Associate degree program useless, weighing the pros and cons of pursuing one can help decision-making. After all, it will depend on every student’s academic and professional goals and financial resources. Here are some of the most well-known pros and cons comparisons of an associate degree:
- Associate degree graduates are job-ready. If applicable, they can easily transfer their academic credits to more advanced degrees, i.e., bachelor’s studies.
- Enter the job market ahead of baccalaureate graduates
- More affordable tuition expenses
- Students can easily earn an associate degree compared to a baccalaureate or master’s program.
- If you will eventually pursue a professional degree, an associate degree may not be ideal.
- Pursuing management, leadership, or higher positions in the company will require more time.
- Salary can become lower compared to bachelor’s degree candidates.
- The job market may be more competitive for an associate degree holder, especially if competing against a candidate with a baccalaureate degree.
- An associate degree program is an abbreviated college educational experience designed as a stepping stone to earning your bachelor’s degree; however, many career options ONLY require an associate degree to excel.
- Often, professional certification is all you need to begin a lucrative career and get out into the job market FAST!
- The highest-paying associate degrees are often offered through a university, community college, or local trade school.