Value of An Associate Degree Vs. Bachelors Degree

Value of an Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree

Logic dictates that higher a qualification, the more money it will subsequently generate for its holder. While that remains true, in some cases, an associate’s degree might provide similar perks to that of their four year graduate counterparts. In other cases, it might not.

Keep in mind that the value of a degree is dependent on two factors: Cost and Salary Potential. Let’s take a look at why these factors vary and how these variations might determine the actual return on the two levels of education for different students.

Cost – Time and Money

Tuition costs are increasing constantly. From $8,438 in 1981-82, college costs for all educational institutes have gone up to $19,339, an increase of over a hundred percent, within a period of 20 years. Interesting to note is the difference in the cost increase for bachelor degrees as compared to associate degrees. According to data provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the cost for all 4-year institutions has gone up by a staggering 141% whereas the cost for 2-year associate degree institutions has gone up by nearly 55.5% only, during the same 20 years.

These increasing higher education costs can be attributed to the decrease in the amount of funding received by colleges. Subsequently, the burden of maintaining quality standards shifts on to the students, in terms of higher tuition fees. In addition to raising tuition fees, colleges try to balance out the cost increase over various expenses for the students. These include room and board, books, society fees, lab fees etc. With these efforts they fetch up to thousands of dollars, all at the expense of their student body.

The cost of college education going up would not have had such a huge affect if the median household incomes would have increased by the same proportion. The situation is worsened as the gap between annual household income and the college cost continues to widen. In the years from 1973 to 2008, the tuition per student had increased by 350%, whereas the income of the median household deviated slightly around its original value. Only the top 1% of US households have been somewhat able to keep up with the rising costs of education.

With tough economic conditions, increasing costs of higher education can be hard on the pocket of the average American. Due to this reason, many people are either not sending their children to college altogether, or are choosing other, relatively cheaper options for undergraduate studies. This is where there is value for an associate degree.

Cost is not only measured in terms of the money spent on the education itself. It should also be accounted for in terms of money not earned by virtue of being enrolled in a program that takes more time than an associate degree: in simple words, opportunity cost. Time is money. A bachelor’s degree takes four years, whereas an associate degree takes around two years. The time-saving factor is also a major concern when it comes to determining value.  

Salary Potential

Salary potential increases with the educational qualification. That’s a no brainer. But here’s what not so obvious. The amount of money you are capable of making is dependent on a lot of other factors as well, such as skills learned during your degree, particular courses studied and personality traits.

High Paying Careers with an Associate Degree

With an associate degree, you can work in a vast variety of fields, including medicine, engineering, computer science, electronics, nuclear technology and marketing sales. Below are the top five highest paying careers that you can go for with an associate degree in the relevant field. (Ranking is based on the data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012)

1-Air Traffic Controller

Median Annual Wage 2012: $122,530

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 11,400

Description: These professionals are responsible for monitoring and directing air traffic. They issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots using radar, computers or visual references.

2-Radiation Therapist

Median Annual Wage (2012): $77,560

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 8,400

Description: Radiation therapists check equipment, and supervise patients, log patient reactions to treatments, explain treatment plans to the patients, examine machines to ensure they are working properly and keep detailed records of treatments.

3-Dental Hygienists

Median Annual Wage (2012): $70,210

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 113,500

Description: Dental hygienists’ duties revolve around cleaning teeth, examining patients for symptoms and provide overall preventive dental care.

4-Nuclear Medicine Technologists

Median Annual Wage (2012): $70,180

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 7,200

Description: Nuclear medicine technologists create images of various areas of a patient’s body using a scanner. They are responsible for preparing radioactive drugs and administering them to patients undergoing scans.

5-First-line Supervisors of non-retail sales workers

Median annual wage (2012): $70,060

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 50,300

Description: These individuals perform a supervisory role in a non-retail setting.

High Paying Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree

With a bachelor’s degree, you can enter into practically any field. Most entry level jobs require a bachelor’s degree in their minimum qualification criteria. You can pursue different careers including architecture, marketing, finance, engineering, sales, medicine, construction, biomedical sciences and so on.  Below is a list of the top five highest paying careers with a bachelor’s degree as per data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012:

1-Chief Executives

Median annual wage: $168,140

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 87,800

Description: These are high level management positions in different corporations. They are in charge of the overall health of an organization. These executives ensure that the organization meets its goals and objectives by planning, directing and coordinating operational activities of companies and organizations.

2-Petroleum Engineers

Median annual wage: $130,280

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 19,600

Description: Petroleum engineers are in-charge of designing and developing methods for extracting oil and gas from deposits beneath the earth’s surface. 

3-Architectural and Engineering managers

Median annual wage: $124,870

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 60,600

Description: These professionals are responsible for planning, coordinating and directing activities in architectural engineering companies.

4-Computer and Information Systems Managers

Median Annual Wage: $120,950

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 97,100

Description: Often referred to as information system managers, these professionals plan, coordinate and direct all computer-related activities in an organization. They help determine the technology related needs of the organization and strategize the best possible way to fulfill them.

5-Marketing Managers

Median Annual Wage: $119,480

Projected Job Openings (through 2022): 61,700

Description: As the name suggests, these managers are responsible for advertising, promoting and marketing products in ways that generate sufficient public interest. Their work requires them to coordinate with art directors, financial staff members and sales agents.

How to Choose between a Bachelors and an Associate Degree?

That’s a tough question! Ultimately, the decision to pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree depends on not only the cost, but also the requirements of the desired career pathways and the amount of time you are willing to invest in your education.

Looking at the BLS data, it is evident that a bachelor’s degree creates greater earning potential and offers a better return money wise. However, cost and benefit tied up to an educational qualification are correlated to a lot of constantly varying aspects, other than earning potential, such as economic conditions, affordability factor, income groups of applicants, conditions of the job market, requirements of the career field, actual learning derived from the degree and opportunity cost. The value of a degree will vary according to the requirements of each prospective student, thus making this decision a unique one for every individual. 


States with the highest employment level in this occupation:



Employment per thousand jobs

Location quotient

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

California 1660 0.11 1.26 18.13 37720
Florida 1130 0.14 1.68 17.97 37370
Illinois 960 0.16 1.92 17.9 37240
Texas 760 0.07 0.78 16.62 34570
New York 650 0.07 0.85 20.12 41840


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