You can build a prosperous career without pursuing higher education. But a degree certainly doesn’t hurt your chances of landing a high-paying job—and that includes an associate’s degree.
An associate’s degree can lay the foundation for a financially rewarding career. But how can pursuing an associate’s degree set you up for success—and what are some of the top-paying roles you can land with your associate’s?
What’s an Associate’s Degree and Why Would You Get One?
An associate’s degree is a two-year undergraduate degree. Associate’s degrees give students a foundational education in their area of study. From there, they can either take their associate’s degree and transfer to a four-year university to pursue their bachelor’s or take the skills and knowledge they gained over those two years and head straight into the workforce.
So why would someone want to pursue an associate’s degree—rather than skip post-secondary education altogether? “Many employers are requiring that candidates possess a minimum of an associate degree for all types of job openings,” says Glenda Walters, global career development facilitator (GCDF) and career counselor at Tri-County Technical College in South Carolina. “Earning an associate degree can lead to more opportunities, whether it involves advancing in your existing career or preparing for a new one.”
An associate’s degree doesn’t just pave the way for more opportunities; it can lead to more lucrative opportunities. “[Associate’s] degrees open doors for higher wages and graduates are less likely to be unemployed,” says Shannon Trefts, career center coordinator and counselor at Oxnard College in Southern California.
An associate’s degree can also have some advantages over a bachelor’s degree—starting with the fact that it’s less costly and time-intensive. “Since it takes less time to complete an associate degree than a bachelor’s degree, associate degree programs typically cost less,” Walters says. Plus, “the shorter time it takes to complete an associate degree program allows graduates to enter the workforce and start earning sooner.”
Associate’s programs also typically offer more flexibility in how and when you pursue your degree—and that convenience can be a major draw, particularly for non-traditional students. “Many associate degrees can be earned online, making it a great option for working adults and those who have a busy schedule,” Walters says.
Now that you know why you might consider getting an associate’s, let’s jump right into some high-paying roles you can land with an associate’s degree. For the purposes of this article, we’re defining a high-paying role as a job where the average salary, based on data from the compensation resource Payscale, is above the median salary for all occupations in the U.S.—which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $41,950 as of May 2020. (Note that Payscale updates its database nightly; the numbers below reflect the latest figures as of March 2021.)
1. Software Engineer
Average salary: $86,978
Salary range: $62,000–$128,000
Software engineers (also known as software developers) are responsible for creating (or, you might say, engineering) the software solutions people use every day—including designing, coding, and testing the software.
To get your foot in the door as a software engineer, it’s less about what degree you have, if any, and more about what you can do. So if you learn how to code and develop software through your associate’s program—and then can prove your skills during a technical interview—you should be able to land a job.
2. Network Engineer
Average salary: $74,817
Salary range: $51,000–$108,000
Network engineers plan, design, build, and manage everything related to an organization’s computer network. This includes a variety of IT-related tasks: managing network performance and security; maintaining hardware and software; installing equipment (such as routers and VPNs); and continually updating, improving, and optimizing the network.
Because network engineers have such a technical job, a deep understanding of IT, computer science, and computer networks is an absolute must—an understanding you can absolutely get from an associate’s program. And because most network engineering roles don’t have any specific educational requirements, as long as you have the knowledge, you can typically get your foot in the door with an associate’s degree.
3. Dental Hygienist
Average salary: $60,457
Salary range: $40,000–$81,000
Dental hygienists work in dentists’ offices and are responsible for all things dental hygiene, including cleaning patients’ teeth and gums, evaluating the mouth for signs of oral disease, educating patients on proper dental care, and assisting the dentists with a variety of patient services and procedures (for example, X-rays).
To get started as a dental hygienist, you’ll need an associate’s degree from a reputable dental hygiene program. From there, you’ll need to pass board exams and get licensed through your state before you can land a job and start working with patients.
4. Graphic Designer
Average salary: $46,116
Salary range: $34,000–$65,000
Graphic designers are the creatives envisioning and developing all the visual assets for a company—which, depending on the company’s needs, may include branding assets (like a company logo), product packaging, marketing materials, website design, or other digital assets. It’s a path that offers a good amount of career flexibility; designers can work directly for a brand, work for an outside agency or studio that designs for a variety of clients, or become freelancers who have more freedom to pick and choose their projects.
Graphic designers need to have creativity and design chops, but they also need the technical skills to bring their designs to life with a variety of design software—which many GDs learn as part of their associate’s degree studies.
Average salary: $48,935
Salary range: $34,000–$71,000
Paralegals provide a variety of support services to lawyers and law firms. They conduct research, edit and review legal documents, manage client communications, and help prepare for court trials or hearings.
Paralegals need a baseline understanding of the legal system and the different legal tasks required to succeed on the job—which is why candidates need an associate’s degree in paralegal studies before they start working with a law firm or independent attorney.
6. Registered Nurse
Average salary: $65,641
Salary range: $45,000–$92,000
Registered nurses (RNs) provide medical care for patients. In terms of opportunity, RNs have some of the most flexible options in the medical field. RNs can work in a huge variety of settings, including hospitals, doctor’s offices, schools, surgery centers, and patients' homes. They can also specialize in working with a variety of patients (for example, as labor and delivery nurses, emergency room nurses, or pediatric nurses). Depending on where they work and what kind of patients they’re dealing with, RNs may manage everything from monitoring a patient’s vital signs to assisting a surgeon in an emergency surgery (and just about everything in between!).
It goes without saying that RNs need a strong educational foundation before they start their nursing career—and that foundation starts with an associate’s degree in nursing. Once you graduate, you’re eligible to take your exam, get licensed, and start working as an RN.
7. Software Sales Representative
Average salary: $50,886 (plus commissions!)
Salary range: $32,000–$101,000
Software sales reps are responsible for selling software solutions to their company’s target customers—which, depending on the company, may include other businesses, independent professionals, or consumers. While different companies have different sales procedures, responsibilities include cold-calling potential clients, scheduling sales meetings, running those sales meetings, selling the software, and closing the deal.
Sales is less about the degree and more about your ability to sell—but because software sales reps sell technology products, having an associate’s degree in a tech-related field (like computer science) can help you get your foot in the door.
8. IT Specialist
Average salary: $58,875
Salary range: $39,000–$99,000
IT stands for information technology—and IT specialists are responsible for managing all of their employer’s internal information technology processes and products. Depending on the company, this can include responding to employee IT requests, troubleshooting issues and solving problems, installing hardware and software, and just generally maintaining IT operations to make sure everything is running smoothly.
While having IT skills is the most important part of landing a position, many companies also want their IT specialists to have a degree in information technology or a related field—and an associate’s degree can definitely help you get your foot in the door.
9. Fashion Buyer
Average salary: $65,000
Salary range: $41,000–$97,000
A fashion buyer is responsible for choosing which items a store keeps in stock—and what volume of each item will allow the store to keep up with consumer demand. To be successful, fashion buyers typically need a balance of both creative and analytical skills; while they need a creative eye to source items and anticipate fashion trends, they also need to be able to analyze sales data, create sales forecasts and budgets, and manage the logistics of ordering and fulfillment (for example, negotiating prices and managing delivery timelines).
If you love all things fashion and retail—and also have some serious analytical skills—an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising can help you get started in a career as a buyer.
10. Respiratory Therapist
Average salary: $56,753
Salary range: $41,000–$80,000
Respiratory therapists work with patients who struggle with breathing issues, whether they’re chronic, such as asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), or acute (for example, during a hospital visit for a heart attack). Respiratory therapists may work in a hospital, clinic, private office, or home-care setting. They are responsible for a variety of breathing-related care, including intubating patients, providing emergency respiratory care, administering breathing treatments, and testing for breathing-related conditions.
In order to land a job as a respiratory therapist, you’ll need to go through an associate’s degree program for respiratory therapy and then pass your board exams.
Tips for Landing a High-Paying Job With an Associate’s Degree
Ready to parlay an associate’s degree into a high-paying career? Here are some tips to help you land a lucrative role:
Leverage Your College’s Career Counseling Resources
Virtually every college where you can pursue an associate’s degree offers career counseling services to students—and you should make use of them. “Build a relationship with a career counselor and job placement specialist at your college,” Trefts says. “These individuals will support you through all stages of career development, while providing tools and resources in support of career/major exploration and all components of the job search.”
Start Networking Early
Landing a high-paying job is, in large part, about what you know. But it’s also about who you know—which is why you want to start networking from the get-go. “Start building your professional network the moment you step on campus,” Trefts says, or right off the bat when starting an online program. “Your fellow students and professors can be your first stop. From there, build your network of professionals by pursuing job and internship opportunities and joining related professional organizations and virtual networking sites such as LinkedIn. You never know when someone will think of you for a position, but they need to know who you are first.”
Choose a Degree That Will Allow You to Earn More Over Time
If compensation is a top priority, you might want to choose an associate’s degree that will help you get into an industry that will not only pay you a decent salary right out of the gate, but also provide high long-term earning potential. “Find a degree that allows you to use your knowledge and experience to grow in the field,” Walters says. “For example, a student with a computer information technology degree will receive increasing compensation based on experience and knowledge—usually without having to earn an advanced degree.”