Although many U.S. employers are more likely to choose job applicants with a bachelor’s degree, workers with an associate degree are still viable in the workforce, experts say.
“It depends on which field you are in. Some places want an associate degree,” says Ro W. Lee, associate director for career and professional development at Claremont Graduate University in California.
“You have to think about why a company would want someone with an associate degree compared to someone with a bachelor’s degree,” Lee says. “They want someone who will hit the ground running, but they also realize the positions they are trying to fill don’t have high ceilings. You may be able to promote yourself up a couple of positions, but that’s about it unless you have further education. The salaries are a little lower and you have less opportunities.”
The median annual earnings in 2020 for workers with an associate degree was $44,100. That’s $15,500 less than employees with a bachelor’s degree but $4,200 higher than workers with some college but no degree, and $7,500 higher than workers with only a high school diploma, according to a May 2022 report by the federal National Center for Education Statistics on the status of education in the U.S.
However, 28% of workers with an associate degree earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s, as reported in a 2021 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Although earnings depend on multiple factors, many jobs that require just an associate degree – or postsecondary nondegree training – often pay comparatively well, such as computer-user support specialists, automotive service technicians and mechanics, and licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, according to an analysis in 2020 by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Advantages of an Associate Degree
Associate degrees are most commonly earned at community colleges and usually can be completed in two years, compared to often more than four years for a bachelor’s degree. The faster time to program completion allows associate degree earners to begin their careers faster.
“What we’re seeing at the national level is large companies looking at community colleges to advance their own workforce,” says Martha M. Parham, senior vice president for public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
“I’m talking about large technology companies like Google, Dell, Intel, Amazon Web Services that are looking at community colleges to fill their needs for a diverse workforce,” she says.
“The programs start at a certificate or a credential level and some colleges have mapped them out to associate degrees and beyond. In this age of remote work for employees, it’s really a benefit across the country.”
The construction, real estate, manufacturing, nursing, hospitality and retail industries “are very appreciative” of individuals with associate degrees, says Ken McQueen, who recruits talent for oil, gas and other industries for Richard Wayne & Roberts in Houston.
“Companies within these industries are also now recognizing that many potential candidates may have started down the path to a bachelor’s degree and may not have chosen to complete that degree,” he says. “Previously, these candidates would not have been considered. But with current market conditions and the heavy demand for workers, employers are reconsidering and hiring that individual that may have put their four-year degree plan on hold and needed to get to work.”
Multiple studies and federal government data show that generally the more education a worker has, the higher the earnings. Chris Geary, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Education & Labor at New America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., notes that the wage gap between high school and college graduates has increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We also see that unemployment rates are lower for people with associate degrees compared to people who never attended college,” he says. “In real terms, people benefit from completing associate degrees, and that is rewarded in the labor market through employers.”
However, those rewards often vary regardless of what type of credential a worker earns, Geary notes. “The economic benefits of college completion differ substantially by race, gender and program of study. Despite the average economic benefits of a college education, we see significant racial and gender inequities in employment and the income outcomes of college graduates.”
Workforce-oriented associate degrees tend to pay off the most, especially those in nursing, engineering, technologies and computer programing, Geary says. “I do think there are opportunities for associate degrees in those fields and related fields and new fields that haven’t come yet. I think there is a way for associate degrees to play an important role in providing people with access to good jobs.”
Lee points out that associate degrees in fields such as nursing, paralegal, web development and internet technology allow workers to “hit the ground running faster. I think it’s built into a lot of the curriculum that you will do practical experience while you are learning.”
An associate degree also can help employers identify prospective employees who have chosen to focus solely on one subject, McQueen says.
“Usually, associate degrees are designed to provide employees with the tools of their trade,” he says. “There is less focus and attention given to social studies and other classes that are a requirement for a four-year degree. With this micro focus, on-the-job training is usually provided. Students are able to graduate and walk directly into a work environment using the same equipment used at their new jobs.”
Disadvantages of an Associate Degree
The perceptions of hiring managers and upper management can be a significant disadvantage of having an associate degree as opposed to a four-year degree, McQueen says.
“Having received a four-year degree themselves, often times management want to see the same in their employees. Often, upper management looks at education or lack of education … to determine if an employee may fit into their company culture or group.”
Lee says community colleges “in general have less prestige, less degree options, so you have less earning potential and definitely you have a lower ceiling for managerial positions. It’s like an elevating list – the higher degree you have, the more earning potential you have.”
Workers with bachelor’s degrees are preferred over those with associate degrees among clients McQueen has worked with, he says. Even in fields like technology where an associate degree may be a minimum job requirement, “your chances are better with a bachelor’s or advanced degree,” he says.
This may be because companies typically want to keep their costs down, Lee says. “So, instead of training somebody and paying for their education, it will probably be cheaper to hire somebody with a B.A.”
Advice When Seeking an Associate Degree
Whether to pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s depends on a student’s career goals, Lee says. “When students are considering associate degree programs, the major of the degree matters.”
It’s important to get relevant work experience alongside an associate degree, Lee adds. “For example, if you want to be a paralegal or a nurse, you should intern or get a part-time position in those industries, so you are more competitive.”
It’s also important to “believe in yourself” and join a unionized workforce, Geary says.
“Unions raise economic outcomes for workers. I would want anyone with an associate degree to find a workplace that is going to value their skills and life experiences. Seek out jobs that have worker protections and adequate pay. This is related to knowing and believing in your value as a person and as an employee.”
Employers typically prefer employees with associate degrees to those with only a high school diploma, Geary says.
“I think that will absolutely increase over time,” he adds. “Employers are really looking for people with a post-secondary credential. We see evidence of that nearly in all professions. Looking towards the future, it’s likely there will be more fields where an associate degree or other post-secondary credential that are less than a bachelor’s degree will pay off quite well for workers. And at the same time, I think most jobs, unfairly or not, will still pay a premium for workers with bachelor’s degrees.
Whether someone chooses a bachelor’s or associate degree, the most important thing is to finish it, McQueen says.
“A degree opens the door. You’ll still have to work and prove yourself to be successful. A degree often tells a prospective employer that you can finish something. You’re not a quitter. That means a lot to a prospective employer. Open that door and then take it wherever it leads you.”