Is an associate's more valuable than a bachelor's?

Value Of An Associate's Degree

With the rising costs of tuition and high unemployment rates today, is an associate's degree more valuable than a bachelor's degree?

By Jennifer Berry

When you think about earning a postsecondary degree, what motivates you? The desire for a more stable career path? The hope that you'll be more attractive to potential employers? The prospect of a better paycheck? All excellent motivations. But with the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and still high unemployment rates, a college degree might feel like a risky gamble. So should you roll the dice or not?

"It depends on the student's goals and financial situation," says Tawan Perry, college completion expert and author of "College Sense: What College and High School Advisors Don't Tell You about College." He advises students think about the return on investment with regard to the degree they're considering pursuing.

Investing in an associate's degree, for example, has become a popular option among prime-age workers these days. According to a recent report titled "Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020" by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, in 2010 as many as 5.6 to 10.4 percent of workers between the age of 25 and 54 had an associate's degree.* And the number of associate's degree holders could increase in coming years, as the Georgetown report projects 12 percent of all jobs, or 6.6 million, will require an associate's degree by 2020.

As you can imagine, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. But there are some questions you can ask - about your own situation, career aspirations, and time or money constraints - that could help point you in the right direction. Is an associate's degree right for you? Keep reading to learn more.

Associate's degree or bachelor's degree - which makes most sense?

When you're thinking about going back to school, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. Not only should you consider your desired career and how much education is required to pursue it, you need to look realistically at tuition costs and how likely it is that you'll be able to pay off your student loans upon graduation. A bachelor's degree may provide greater job opportunities, but an associate's could require fewer years to complete, saving you years in tuition. So how do you decide?

"Can you make the same amount of money in the same field with an associate's degree versus a bachelor's degree?" Perry asks. "A good example may be a degree in criminal justice. Criminal justice degrees are preferred by law enforcement professionals. The pay doesn't vary all that much between [an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree]."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, many agencies require a college degree or some college coursework for police officer positions, which have a median annual salary of $55,270. The Department of Labor adds that agencies might offer financial assistance to officers who pursue degrees in criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related field.

Of course, money isn't the only consideration. A bachelor's degree could open the doors for career advancement in a way that an associate's degree might not. For example, an associate's degree in accounting could help you prepare to pursue a career as a bookkeeper, whereas for most accountant positions, at least a bachelor's in accounting or a related field is required, according to the Department.

Criminal Justice Is One Associate's Degree That Makes Sense:

Potential Career
Police officer***
Median Salary
Top 10% Salary
Bottom 10% Salary

In addition to responding to calls and enforcing laws, the U.S. Department of Labor says police officers might write detailed forms, prepare court cases, and appear in court to testify, too. At a minimum, candidates must be high school graduates (or GED earners), at least 21 years old, and able to successfully pass a rigorous physical exam. Candidates must also graduate from the local police academy. According to the Department of Labor, many law enforcement agencies require some college coursework or a college degree.

Next Step: Click to Find the Right Criminal Justice Program.

Can you really earn more with an associate's degree than a bachelor's degree?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, those with a bachelor's degree make $281 more per week on average than those with an associate's degree. However, there are some careers requiring an associate's degree that earn more than careers requiring a bachelor's degree - and this is not a new phenomenon.

"That associate's degree in technical fields can out-earn liberal arts bachelor's degree holders has been known for forty or fifty years," says Stephen Katsinas, director of the education policy center at the University of Alabama.

Nicholas Langlie, a national expert on innovation, professional development, and career readiness and implementation at Longwood University in Virginia, agrees. "When a student chooses a specific trade or skills-based program at a community college, there really is no parallel," he says. Skills-based programs prepare students for specific careers like nurse, diagnostic medical sonographer, or dental hygienist - trades that offer competitive salaries right out of the gate.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, registered nurses earn a median annual salary of $65,470, diagnostic medical sonographers a median salary of $65,860, and dental hygienists a median salary of $70,210. Keep in mind that you could prepare to pursue these careers with as little as two years of school, as according to the Department, an associate's degree is one possible educational path.

That's not to say earning a bachelor's degree in liberal arts isn't still valuable. As Katsinas notes, such degrees help hone your critical thinking and communication skills, which could be crucial to your success later in life. "In a world where workers change careers three times and jobs 10 or 12 times over their working lives, the value of the learning-how-to-learn skills obtained in liberal arts areas cannot be overestimated," he says. "But the payoff is not as immediate."

Dental Hygiene Is One High-Earning Associate's Degree:

Potential Career
Dental hygienist***
Median Salary
Top 10% Salary
Bottom 10% Salary

The U.S. Department of Labor says dental hygienists often clean and examine teeth to look for signs of oral disease. They may also educate patients on proper oral hygiene and ways to prevent diseases. While every state has specific certification requirements, an associate's degree in dental hygiene is typically needed to pursue a career as a dental hygienist, according to the Department of Labor. Every state also requires dental hygienists to be licensed.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Dental Hygiene Program.

Will your chances of employment be better with an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree?

The field you choose will have a biggest impact on your employment prospects - whether you earn an associate's or a bachelor's degree. But, for many fields, an associate's could be just as helpful when it comes to employment opportunities - and it could get you on the job market faster than a bachelor's degree.

"Several two-year degrees are technical or skill-related with the end result of providing students with gainful employment in a short period of time," Perry explains. For many related skills-focused careers, an associate's degree is all the preparation you might need. Take health care, for example.

"The health care industry is responsible for much of the new job growth in America," says Marcia Bankirer, president of the Denver School of Nursing in Colorado. "Placement and employment are high for our nursing students," she adds, sharing that from December 2011 to September 2012, their associate's in nursing graduates had a placement rate of 97 percent, while their bachelor's in nursing graduates had a placement rate of 95 percent. It's a small difference, but says a lot about the demand for some associate's degrees.

But not all associate's degrees are created equal. "Students use community colleges for two distinctly different types of for-credit programs that lead to associate's degrees - general education and programs that lead to employment," Katsinas says. "The general education fields include English, business, history, and disciplines that transfer to baccalaureate programs. Programs that lead to employment include nursing, allied health, engineering technology, and similar programs."

Health Information Technology Is One Associate's Degree That Could Increase Your Chances of Employment:

Potential Career
Medical records and health information technician***
Projected Job Growth, 2010-2020
Median Salary

These technicians may not generally log a lot of hands-on patient time, but they can play an important role in documenting patients' medical histories such as symptoms, examination results, or treatment methods, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. To pursue a career as a medical records and health information technician, you usually need a postsecondary certificate in health information technology, although an associate's degree may also be acceptable.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Health Information Technology Program.

Which associate's degrees are the most in-demand right now?

If you look at your education as a business decision, it makes sense to acquire the skills that will make you a desirable candidate for employment down the road. But how do you know which degree today will be in demand tomorrow?

Look at available positions and work backward, says Langlie. Some of the most popular associate's degrees will probably not be surprising, but they do have a lot in common: "They set a specific, short-term path that will lead to a clear occupation," Langlie explains.

"More often than not, an effective community college trade program will empower and certify students for real application based on industry need. This is far different than the traditional liberal arts experience that students might encounter in a four-year program that values self-exploration and discovery."

According to Katsinas, technical fields are very popular today. As a few examples, she lists nursing, allied health, information technology, engineering technology, computer aided graphic design, statistical control (robotics), and automotive technology.

Computer Science Is One Associate's Degree That's In Demand:

Potential Career
Network and computer systems administrator***
Projected Job Growth, 2010-2020

Network and computer systems administrators manage the daily operation of an organization's computer networks, which involves organizing, installing, and supporting data communication systems, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They often have a bachelor's degree, although some positions may only require an associate's degree along with related work experience, notes the Department of Labor.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Computer Science Program.

If you get an associate's degree but then want a bachelor's, will you have to start over?

Don't panic. The time and effort you invest in earning an associate's degree won't be wasted. In fact, starting with an associate's degree could be a great way to save money by studying at a community college first, then transferring to a more expensive four-year college for your bachelor's.

"Students are now more likely than ever to begin their higher education experience at a two-year college," says Jim Eck, vice president for academic life at Louisburg College, and Stephanie Tolbert, vice president for enrollment at Louisburg College. They cite a study by the National Center for Education Statistics that reports from 1999/2000 to 2009/2010, the number of students who have earned associate's degrees has increased by 50 percent.**

"Attaining your associate's does not rule out the possibility of a bachelor's degree," says Dennis Barrera, former admissions officer at Villanova and Temple Universities and now assistant director of admissions at Montgomery County Community College. "For example, more and more institutions are offering RN [registered nurse] to BSN [bachelor of science in nursing] programs where our graduates from the nursing program can attain a BS in nursing - in some cases in one year and completely online."

Here is one word of caution, however: If you're considering starting at a community college and then transferring to a baccalaureate-granting institution, it's worth it to stay at your community college until you've earned your associate's degree, says Katsinas. "There are institution to institution and statewide transfer agreements, and you are less likely to lose credit transferring if you complete the associate's degree first," he explains.

Mechanical Engineering Is One Associate's Degree That Could Lead to a Bachelor's:

Potential Career
Mechanical engineering technician***
Median Salary:
Potential Career with a Bachelor's
Mechanical engineer***
Median Salary

Mechanical engineering technicians help mechanical engineers design, test, and develop consumer products, industrial machinery, and other equipment, says the U.S. Department of Labor. They may sketch layouts, record and analyze data, and report their findings. The Department of Labor adds that an associate's degree or other postsecondary training in this field is preferred by most employers. Completing an associate's degree in mechanical engineering technology could lead to studying for a bachelor's degree, which could prepare students to pursue careers as applied mechanical engineers.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Engineering Program.

* The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce "Recovery" report figures on the number of workers holding associate's degrees come from three different surveys conducted by the 2010 Current Population Survey, the American Community Survey, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

** The NACE study, released in June 2012, is titled "Digest of Education Statistics 2011."

*** All projected job growth rates and potential careers listed from the 2012-2013 U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook. The Department of Labor cites the associated degrees as common, required, preferred, or one of a number of degrees acceptable as preparation for the potential career. In some instances, candidates might require further schooling, professional certifications, or experience, before being qualified to pursue the career. All salary information from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment and Wages data, May 2012."

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