(See also the companion reference: Associate Degrees)
From 1999 to 2009, the number of students completing associate degrees increased by more than 40 percent. Once perceived as second-tier, “night school” degrees, the 2-year credential is now experiencing a revival, thanks to dynamic, career-track programs and tailored offerings that serve growing numbers of adult and first-generation college students. As our nation looks to extend postsecondary studies to all citizens, the advantages of associate degrees can’t be ignored:
They’re flexible. In a 2003 edition of Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Olivia Crosby noted, “the hallmark of associate degrees is flexibility, both in what to study and how to study it.” Going forward, more associate degrees will include online classes or fully online programs. Indeed, 66 percent of associate degree-granting institutions report that online education is a key part of their long-term strategies (as compared with 33 percent of bachelor’s degree-granting schools).
They’re career-focused. Associate degree programs prepare students for actual jobs. Researchers at Marquette University recently found that students who match their degree to an occupation earn 30 percent more than those whose majors are of little relevance to their job (e.g. philosophy majors working at the Post Office). Granted, not all associate degrees are vocational. Some are designed to segue into bachelor degree programs, addressing general education requirements along the way. But for students who want to know exactly what they’re working toward, career-track associate degrees are smart routes.
They’re within reach. Associate degree grads earn higher median salaries than college dropouts or those who’ve only completed “some college.” This is a crucial consideration, as more and more students heed the advice to pursue higher education and assume it should be at the bachelor level. Nontraditional students (who are more likely to work while in college and less likely to have completed college prep coursework in high school) struggle to finish 4-year programs; only 9 percent of “non-recent” high school graduates earn a bachelor degree within 6 years of starting. In other words, an associate degree is almost always a better investment than a failed attempt at a bachelor degree.
They’re cost effective. On average, associate degree graduates finish school with nearly half the debt accumulated by bachelor degree students. Not only do associate degree students pay for 2 less years of school, they also return to the workforce that much quicker, which means they start earning money sooner, climbing the career ladder sooner, and paying back interest-accruing loans 2 years sooner.
Most importantly, associate degrees are the gateway to dozens of profitable, rewarding careers. All of the following professionals rely on associate degrees to succeed in their chosen fields:
According to a policy brief released by the American Association of Community Colleges, associate degrees in nursing (ADN) programs are integral preparation routes for America’s nursing workforce. Two-year nursing degrees prepare the majority of our country’s new nurses, including 55 percent of minority RNs. As the nursing shortage continues, and as BSN programs struggle to staff their departments, students pursuing associate degrees can bypass the waiting lists and qualify for RN status after paying less than half the tuition of a BSN program.
Veterinary technology is now among the fastest growing career tracks in the country. Vet techs and technologists work in veterinary offices, animal hospitals, and laboratories, and their role in the business of animal healthcare is increasing, just as nurses and medical assistants are undertaking more clinical work with human patients. The American Veterinary Medical Association accredits 172 vet tech programs, including 9 with online education offerings, and the vast majority of them are associate degree programs.
Growing populations and an increased reliance on chemical substances have seriously impacted the world’s soil, waterways, and landfills. Environmental engineers – also noted among tomorrow’s most sought after professionals – test conditions and propose waste management solutions for corporations, conservation organizations, and government agencies. Environmental engineering technicians assist in these efforts, often securing entry-level jobs with an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in environmental engineering technology. Other types of online associate degree are also available in environmental science.
Senior systems administrators often hold bachelor’s degrees, but many entry-level professionals are hired with an associate degree in information technology and relevant experience, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the source, opportunities for systems administrators are “projected to increase by 30% from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations.” Ambitious students are advised to join LOPSA (the League of Professional Systems Administrators), where they can search job posts, network with industry professionals, and even request personal mentoring on school assignments or work-related projects.
Occupational therapy (OT) helps patients to improve their basic life skills after an injury or in response to a disabling condition. OT may involve a series of physical exercises, strengthening routines, and mental exercises designed to bolster coordination and problem solving. Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) facilitate recovery by charting patient progress and supervising exercise plans. Government projections indicate that jobs for OTAs will grow much faster than average in the coming years. In order to be licensed, OTAs must complete an ACOTE-accredited associate degree, many of which are partially available via distance education.
Paralegals aren’t just law office administrators. Increasingly, they’re assuming niche roles and practicing specialties – including e-discovery, intellectual property, and collections/foreclosure – that directly impact policy work and litigation. Today’s law firms prefer to hire paralegals with technical skills and legal software familiarity. While earning your associate degree in paralegal studies, you may learn the underpinnings of legal practice, plus interesting electives in areas like trial graphics or how to collect evidence from defendants’ emails and hard drives. According to a recent article in Paralegal Today, law firms also look favorably on elearning opportunities for paralegal training and continuing education.