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    The 25 highest-paying associate degrees based on starting salaries

    Dr. Michael Nietzel
    Dr. Michael Nietzel

    Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

    The 25 highest-paying associate degrees based on starting salaries
    Contents

      Search Online Associate Degrees

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      Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, we analyzed the average earnings of graduates from thousands of associate degree programs.

      We list the 25 best associate degrees to get in 2023 according to starting salaries.

      We also show you which associate degrees pay $40,000+ 4 years after graduation.

      The latest national data show that while overall college enrollment remains far below its pre-pandemic level, community college enrollment is beginning to see a slight turnaround.

      According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), there were 25,000 fewer undergraduate students nationwide in spring 2023 than a year earlier, a decline of about .2%.

      But at community colleges, the trend was different: enrollment increased slightly, up 0.5%, equal to about 22,000 more students compared to spring 2022.

      That increase suggests that in this post-pandemic period, there may be some movement toward shorter degrees with students showing greater interest in vocationally oriented programs, many of which lead to very good salaries and also happen to be far less expensive than traditional 4-year baccalaureate degrees.

      Here we take a look at the return on investment (ROI) on associate degrees, the most common type of credential offered by community colleges.

      Popular online associate programs

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      This analysis shows the weighted average starting salaries of graduates 4 years after completing their associate degree.

      Note that:

      1. The data are limited to students who received federal financial aid.
      2. We excluded the earnings for graduates from programs with small enrollments in order to protect student privacy.

      The 25 best associate degrees based on salaries

      Here are the top 25 associate degree programs based on starting salaries.

      Associate degree Median earnings 4 years after graduation
      1. Physical Science Technologies/Technicians $84,266
      2. Bioethics/Medical Ethics $77,823
      3. Quality Control and Safety Technologies/Technicians $67,115
      4. Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research, and Clinical Nursing $66,997
      5. Industrial Production Technologies/Technicians $66,794
      6. Construction Engineering Technologies $66,384
      7. Engineering, General $63,385
      8. Electromechanical Instrumentation and Maintenance Technologies/Technicians $63,096
      9. Air Transportation $60,871
      10. Plumbing and Related Water Supply Services $59,655
      11. Mining and Petroleum Technologies/Technicians $59,239
      12. Electrical and Power Transmission Installers $58,632
      13. Fire Protection $57,663
      14. Computer Engineering $56,878
      15. Mechanic and Repair Technologies/Technicians, Other $56,383
      16. Agricultural Engineering $56,359
      17. Heavy/Industrial Equipment Maintenance Technologies $55,752
      18. Electrical Engineering Technologies/Technicians $55,417
      19. Agricultural Mechanization $54,904
      20. Energy Systems Technologies/Technicians $54,763
      21. Mechanical Engineering Related Technologies/Technicians $54,574
      22. Marine Transportation $54,441
      23. Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment Professions $54,027
      24. Engineering Technology, General $53,392
      25. Practical Nursing, Vocational Nursing, and Nursing Assistants $53,034

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      The “best” associate degrees produce graduates who earn $50,000+

      In total, 29 associate-level programs produced graduates with median annual salaries of $50,000 or greater – the 25 above plus:

      • Practical Nursing, Vocational Nursing and Nursing Assistants ($53,034)
      • Civil Engineering Technologies/Technicians ($52,829)
      • Engineering Technologies/Technicians, Other ($52,596)
      • Electrical/Electronics Maintenance and Repair Technology ($51,617)

      This list confirms a trend that’s been apparent for some time. The associate degrees that lead to the best-paying jobs are concentrated in 3 main areas:

      1. STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math),
      2. Healthcare
      3. Construction and infrastructure-related fields

      A very similar analysis, with slightly different figures, has also been conducted by Michael Itzkowitz and can be found here.

      Why the best-paying associate degrees aren’t always the most popular

      Students with degrees in the fields above tend to earn the most on average of any community college graduates 4 years after completing school. One would think that those higher average earnings would translate into an increasing number of students majoring in those fields.

      To a certain extent that’s true.

      According to the latest enrollment figures from the NSCRC, community college enrollments in the following fields have increased enough in the past 2-3 years to push the numbers of students above pre-pandemic levels:

      • computer science
      • science technologies
      • construction trades

      But, of course, future earnings are not the only thing that matters, nor should they be, when it comes to the majors that students choose. In fact, some of the most lucrative majors have seen large enrollment drops in recent years.

      For example, enrollments in health professions majors have declined by about 13% between 2019 and 2022; engineering technology enrollments dropped 20% during that same time period; and engineering majors decreased by 19%.

      In addition, although the majority of students consistently indicate that their main motive for attending college is to prepare for a good career, they don’t necessarily equate a good career simply with a job that pays them well.

      Twice as many community college students are enrolled in liberal arts, general studies, and humanities programs than any other major, despite the fact that these degree programs don’t immediately result in high-paying jobs.

      In many cases, students have enrolled in these programs with the intention of transferring to a 4-year college to complete their degrees in a broad array of fields, leading to many different careers. Some of those careers may yield relatively high pay, but others do not.

      Best of the rest: associate degrees with $40,000+ earnings

      If we go down the list and consider the annual earnings associated with other majors, we find 39 more associate degree programs from which graduates are earning a median of $40,000 or more annually, a reasonably good salary for individuals at the start of their careers.

      Most of these majors fall into the same broad areas as above – STEM, healthcare, and construction and maintenance-related trades.

      However, we also see new areas represented, particularly in various forms of specialized professional services. For example:

      • Funeral and mortuary science graduates earn a median of $42,460.
      • Students who graduate from public relations, advertising and applied communication are averaging $44,746.
      • Homeland security graduates are making a median of $41,780.
      • Education majors, most of whom we can assume are eventually entering the teaching profession, often after completing a later 4-year program, are averaging $40,770.

      Final thoughts

      In the end, the value of an associate degree, just like any other college credential, can be evaluated in several ways. The economic return (ROI), as measured by annual earnings, is one important consideration, and for many students, it’s the decisive factor in their choice of major.

      That’s why we focus on those outcomes in our own ranking of institutions. But for other students, their choice of what school to attend and what field to major in is influenced by more than money. They choose to study what they are interested in most, answering their curiosity and following their imagination, regardless of the financial remuneration they might receive. We applaud those decisions. At the same time, we want to provide the most current information to those students for whom future salary prospects remain an important factor in their college decision-making.

      www.degreechoices.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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