Is an Associate’s Degree Relevant Today?

As an online instructor, I have been teaching courses for first-term students at the associate’s level for many years. I find among the expectations of new students that many believe they will be able to “buy a big house, purchase a new car, and secure a high-paying job” after completing their programs. My initial thought is often: it’s great that you have made this step towards a new career; however, are your expectations realistic? I encourage students to think through these expectations by exploring their career interests. This raises an interesting question: is an associate’s degree still relevant today in the workplace?

From my experience, many students enroll in an associate’s program as a way to get started towards their academic and career goals. Some students commit to this degree because it requires the least amount of time and expense when compared to other degree programs. Other students may start their associate’s degree and work on the general education requirements while they decide on a long-term degree major. Almost all students that enter the associate’s program have indicated a belief that a degree is necessary for most jobs in the marketplace.

Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, confirms that “in this economy, some form of postsecondary education and training, degreed or not, is the prerequisite for middle class earnings now.” The Occupational Outlook Quarterly (Winter 2002-03) describes an associate’s degree as a program that prepares “students for a career following graduation or allows them to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program,” and it is “awarded after the completion of about 20 classes.”

My research for this article began with information that is made available to students by schools about their career prospects after earning an associate’s degree. A majority of the information provided on the school websites I reviewed has a focus on associate’s degrees with an emphasis on or concentration in business. Here is a sample of the career information provided, which includes business and other areas of specialization:

“¢    With an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration, students “can pursue entry-level opportunities as accounting clerks, bookkeepers and management trainees.”

“¢    Upon completion of a Business Management Associate Degree, students “may find an entry-level position in business, industry, or government. These positions tend to pay well, and with experience you may expect to move into higher-level management roles in these various fields. If your interest is to start and operate your own business, entrepreneurs define their own job description and set their own salaries. In other words you can create your own job.” There is a follow up statement for prospective students that indicates “you can work in an established business or create one of your own. With the right credentials, you can earn an average of $47,000 per year in a career expected to grow 20% by the year 2010.”

“¢    By obtaining an Associate of Arts with a concentration in Foundations of Business, students will find that they “are educationally qualified for: First-Line Supervisors/Managers of Office and Administrative Support Workers.”

“¢    An Online Liberal Arts Associate Degree will allow students “to work in a broad range of positions, including: retail or sales manager, purchasing agent, teacher’s assistant, human resources assistant, and administrative support specialist.”

“¢    An Online Associate’s Degree will allow students to “get started on the path toward your career goals sooner, without committing to a 4 year degree program. Should you choose to continue your education at a later date, you could apply the credits earned towards a more advanced degree, putting you on the fast track to earning a bachelor’s degree.” There is a reminder at the bottom of the page that states these “programs are designed to prepare graduates to pursue employment in their field of study, or in related fields. However, the University does not guarantee that graduates will be placed in any particular job, eligible for job advancement opportunities, or employed at all. Additional training or certification may be required.”

As you can see from the information provided above, there are many possibilities provided and most schools indicate that an associate’s degree provides a start towards meeting your long-term career and academic goals.

Next, I wanted to find out what prospects the job market holds for a student who graduates with an associate’s degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics developed a report in 2003, Advantages from an Associate Degree, and concluded that “compared with workers whose highest level of educational attainment was a high school diploma, workers with an associate degree averaged an extra $128 a week in 2001.” In January 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics provided an updated Employment Situation report announcing that:
“¢    For a high school graduate without college the employment to population ratio is 54.2% and the unemployment rate 9.5%.
“¢    For a high school graduate with some college, or an associate’s degree, the employment to population ratio is 64% and the unemployment rate 7.5%.

The last question I wanted to answer dealt with the relevance of a degree concentration or specialization at the associate’s level. What degrees hold the greatest potential in the job market? Here are the answers I found:

“¢    Within the salary advice section on, the article Nine High-Paying Jobs You Can Get with an Associate’s Degree states that “by training for a specialized healthcare, technology or trades job or heading for the police academy, you can be out of school and quickly working at a high-paying job where Monster’s Salary Wizard puts the median salary at $45,000 or more.” The list of specialized jobs includes: registered nurse, dental hygienist, respiratory therapist, programmer, telecom installer, industrial engineering technician, police officer, HVAC mechanic, and paralegal.

“¢    An interesting article on, Fast Growing Jobs That Require Associate Degrees, states that “some of the hottest jobs in the country only require an associate degree, “and while you can have a higher degree to fill some of them, only an associate degree is a requirement.” The list of jobs is similar to the information provided within; however, these jobs were also included: veterinary technologist or technician, environmental engineering technician, occupational therapy assistants, and industrial maintenance technician.

“¢    Finally, a 2010 report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors – Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow – reports that “the fastest-growing occupations are those that require education beyond high school. However, a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree is not necessary to enter many of those fields.” The specific examples provided included: Health Information Technology Associate’s Degree, Medical Assisting Associate’s Degree, Paralegal Associate’s Degree, Radiologic Technology Associate’s Degree, and a Web Development Associate’s Degree.

The information contained in these sources provides good news for students who only want to commit to an associate’s level degree. This isn’t necessarily good news for online schools as many of the degree programs needed for these jobs may require hands-on training and a blended learning approach, rather than a program that can be taken strictly online.

The answer to the question, is an associate’s degree relevant today, is yes – provided that it has a specialization in one of the career fields listed above. An associate’s degree with a general focus may not produce the same career results. This is a very good reminder that you should always weigh your options when choosing a degree program. If you believe that a degree will provide you with job opportunities and financial rewards, be certain that belief is based upon research you’ve conducted. If you have already begun an associate’s program in a career field other than one mentioned above, continue to explore what current employers in your field are looking for and work with your school’s career services/placement office if available.

What do you plan to do with your associate’s degree? Share your feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Gregor Schuster/Corbis

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