5 Associate Degree Grads Who Can Out-Earn 4-Year Students

The average median salary for young workers with a bachelor degree is $45,000, as reported by 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).[i]

Depending on where you live and how much money you’re planning to pay for college tuition, that figure might sound pretty good.  Still, not everyone wants to spend 4 years in college – at least not right away.  If you’re one of those people, you’ll be glad to learn that some associate degrees may qualify graduates for jobs with potentially higher than average salaries.

According to the Florida Department of Education, career-track associate degrees and postsecondary certificates are helping recent grads earn up to $11,000 more, each year, than bachelor degree grads from the state’s public universities.[ii]  Similarly, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released a 2011 presentation, The College Payoff, which noted that 28 percent of workers with associate degrees can earn more than the median earnings of those with bachelor degrees.[iii]  That’s more than 1 out of every 4 students.

Earning more money, by investing half as much time in school, is certainly an attractive prospect, but it doesn’t hold true with every field of study.  If you’re interested in an associate degree, the following job titles may be smart options.


It’s tough to pin down exactly what a webmaster’s job description is, since the role can vary so much from one organization to the next.  Some webmasters are directly involved in a website’s creation and evolution; others are more like managers, who coordinate the work done by designers, content writers, architects, and technicians, while overseeing the site’s speed, traffic, and user feedback.  The open-ended nature of the role means there’s some flexibility in terms of who’s suited for the job, and what they should study.  Many webmasters earn a webmaster certification or an associate degree in Web administration.  According to BLS, network systems and data communication analysts (job categories that encompass webmasters and Web developers) earn an average salary of $69,160.[iv]

Radiologic Technologists

Radiologic technologists are the professionals who perform CT scans, MRI exams, x-rays, and mammograms.  By completing a certificate or an associate degree program that’s accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology, RT students are poised to enter a growing field with plenty of advancement potential.  In 2010, the average radiologic technologist earned more than $54,000 per year.[v] That’s not a bad return, considering “an associate’s degree is the most common educational path for radiologic technologists,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).[vi]

Occupational Therapy Assistants

Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) share many of the same goals with teachers or social workers.  They help people to live, learn, work, and play – despite the challenges sometimes associated with illness, accidents, or impairments.  But instead of studying 4 years or more before qualifying for licensure, OTAs can start working and helping people after just 2 years in an accredited*, associate of science or associate of applied science degree program.  BLS reports the median salary for occupational therapy assistants was over $47,490 in 2010.[vii]  Job opportunities are expected to grow, as rising healthcare costs prompt facilities to delegate more long-term, follow-up assignments to OTAs rather than to prescribing OTs.

*OTA degree programs should be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).

Engineering Technicians

If you’re skilled with moving parts, or you like to build things, you might have the makings of an engineering professional.  Unfortunately, full-fledged engineers need to complete at least 4 years of college, which isn’t always enjoyable for tactile, hands-on learners.  Engineering technicians, by contrast, can specialize in many of the same disciplines – like civil engineering, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering – and seek employment after just 2 years of study* along with some relevant field experience.  Construction engineering technology students, for example, can be hired as cost estimators (with a BLS-reported, median salary of over $56,000)[viii] or as building inspectors (with a median salary over $50,000)[ix].  “Most employers prefer to hire someone with an associate’s degree or other postsecondary training in a field such as mechanical design technology,” advises the BLS.[x]

*Associate degrees in engineering technology should be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).  You should also bear in mind: if you study engineering technology versus pre-engineering, you may have a more difficult time transferring credits into a bachelor degree engineering program, should you eventually choose to do so.


In the past, firefighters were hired out of high school, and only received on-the-job training.  Today, as noted by an October 2011 article from Inside Higher Ed, more colleges are developing fire safety degrees at the associate level.[xi]  Many current firefighters still lack postsecondary credentials.  So among the entire industry, the average firefighter’s salary sits just above $44,000 (per BLS)[xii].  But as the Inside Higher Ed piece notes, many firefighters earn “substantial pay bumps” and “promotion points” for completing college programs – like associate of applied science degrees in fire protection technology.   AAS and AS degrees are also good primers for baccalaureate study, which is required by the National Fire Academy for executive officer certification.

Paralegals and Legal Assistants

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegal roles are expected to grow by 18 percent between now and 2020.[xiii] An online associate degree in paralegal studies or an online paralegal certificate—with options available from big-name schools like Boston University and Post University—may help you gain entry into this exciting job sector. Some paralegal students enjoy concentration options in areas like intellectual property law or trade and finance law. If you’re drawn to courtroom drama, you might like to work in litigation support – helping lawyers prepare witnesses, collect evidence, and organize files related to civil or criminal cases.  Some paralegals even work as legal researchers, helping to extract evidence from computer hard drives. In 2010, the median pay for paralegals and legal assistants was over $46,000.[xiv]

Keep in mind, the figures presented here are averages.  Some regions of the country may trend up or down, in terms of local wages.  And no degree is a guaranteed ticket to a specific salary.  Even with one of the associate degrees noted above, graduates may still need to acquire professional licensure, or build up their industry experience, before expecting to earn national norms.

[i] http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=77

[ii] http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/colleges/article1143350.ece

[iii] http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/collegepayoff-complete.pdf

[iv] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm

[v] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/radiologic-technologists.htm#tab-1

[vi] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/radiologic-technologists.htm#tab-4

[vii] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm

[viii] http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos006.htm

[ix] http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos004.htm

[x] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineering-technicians.htm

[xi] http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/10/27/college-degrees-increasingly-help-firefighters-get-ahead

[xii] http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos329.htm

[xiii] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Legal/Paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm

[xiv] http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Legal/Paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm


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