As college tuition continues to rise and student loan debt grows just as quickly, the number of students earning an associate’s degree each year is growing too. According to a 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of associate degrees awarded annually rose from 579,000 in 2001 to 1 million in 2018, an increase of 74 percent.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that workers with associate degrees typically don’t earn as much as those with higher post-secondary degrees, a two-year program may be the fastest and most convenient way for those who’ve entered the workforce with a high school diploma to continue their education and increase their potential earnings, and ultimately forge a career.
In fact, many occupations that offer salaries above $70,000 per year hire associate’s degree holders—a healthy step up from the median annual pay of $52,830 for associate’s degree holders in 2017.
Since several of the most lucrative career paths on this list are trade-based and hands-on, many related associate’s degree programs—like nursing, radiation therapy, and dentistry, to name a few—require a specific amount of supervised fieldwork, technical training, or clinical experience.
What’s more, a number of professionals in these careers may go on to earn bachelors and masters degrees to dig deeper into their specialization, further boost their pay, land leadership roles, or pursue other opportunities. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. If you want to earn well above average with an associate’s degree, consider these fields.
Median annual pay: $124,540
- What they do: Maintain the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of air travel by ensuring commercial and private aircraft move safely through the global air traffic control system
- Average job growth rate: 7%
- Education requirements: Associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program; Three years of progressively responsible aviation-related work experience or four-year college degree or a combination of both
- Related coursework: Aviation weather; Airspace; Clearances; Reading Charts; Federal Regulations
- Certifications: FAA-facilitated Control Tower Operator (CTO) certification
- Skills required: Communication, concentration, decision-making, math, organizational, problem-solving
- Top states for this career: Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas
Median annual pay: $82,330
- What they do: Treat cancer and other diseases in patients by administering radiation treatments
- Average job growth rate: 9%
- Education requirements: Associate or bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy recognized by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT)
- Related coursework: Human anatomy and physiology; Physics; Algebra, Computer Science; Research methodology
- Certifications: ARRT Certified Radiation Therapist designation
- Skills required: Detail-oriented, interpersonal, physical stamina, technical
- Top states for this career: California, New Jersey, Oregon, Florida
Median annual pay: $79,180
- What they do: Oversee the general operations of a funeral home business. Duties include planning and allocating funeral home resources, managing staff, and handling marketing and public relations
- Average job growth rate: 5%
- Education requirements: Associate degree in funeral service or mortuary science from an American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) accredited program; up to three years of training under the direction of a licensed funeral director or manager
- Related coursework: Ethics; Grief counseling; Funeral service; Business law; Embalming; Restorative techniques
- Certifications: Available from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA), and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA)
- Skills required: Business, compassion, interpersonal, time-management
- Top states for this career: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan
Median annual pay: $79,140
- What they do: Some operate special equipment to monitor the levels of radiation generated during nuclear energy production. Others assist physicists, engineers, and other professionals in nuclear research.
- Average job growth rate: 4%
- Education requirements: Associate degree in nuclear science or a nuclear-related technology; equivalent military experience
- Related coursework: Nuclear energy; Physics; Chemistry, Electricity, Radiation; Mathematics
- Certifications: Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program (NUCP) certification from the Nuclear Energy Institute; Industrial Radiography and Radiation Safety Personnel (IRRSP) certification from the American Society for Nondestructive Testing ; Registered Radiation Protection Technologist certification from the National Registry of Radiation Protection Technologists (NRRPT)
- Skills required: Communication, computer, critical thinking, math, mechanical, monitoring
- Top states for this career: New Hampshire, California, New Mexico, Maryland
Median annual pay: $76,820
- What they do: Perform nuclear imaging tests on patients to detect diseases and abnormalities in how organs function
- Average job growth rate: 7%
- Education requirements: Associate or bachelor's degree in nuclear medicine technology; Those who’ve completed an associate’s or bachelor's degree in a related health field, such as radiologic technology or nursing have the option to pursue a 12-month certificate program in nuclear medicine technology.
- Related coursework: Human anatomy and physiology; Physics; Chemistry; Radioactive Drugs; Computer science
- Certifications: Available from ARRT and the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB)
- Skills required: Technology, analytical, compassion, detail-oriented,
- Top states for this career: California, Maryland, Washington, New Jersey
Median annual pay: $74,820
- What they do: Examine patients for signs of oral diseases, such as gingivitis, and provide preventive care, including oral hygiene
- Average job growth rate: 11%
- Education requirements: Associate or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from a Commission on Dental Accreditation-accredited program; Certificate program in dental hygiene
- Related coursework: Oral biology; Community dental health; Dental materials; Nutrition in dentistry; Legal responsibility in dentistry
- Skills required: Critical thinking, communication, detail-oriented, dexterity, interpersonal, problem solving
- Top states for this career: Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada
Median annual pay: $72,510
- What they do: Use ultrasound high-frequency sound waves to produce images of patients’ internal body tissues, helping physicians and surgeons diagnose and monitor a variety of conditions such as heart disease, pregnancy, and cancer
- Average job growth rate: 19%
- Education requirements: Associate or bachelor's degree in sonography or cardiovascular and vascular technology; Those with a degree in a related field may pursue a certificate program in diagnostic medical sonography and then receive on-the-job training.
- Related coursework: Anatomy; Physiology; Medical terminology, Applied sciences
- Certifications: The ARRT offers certification in a variety of specialties, including radiation therapy, radiography, nuclear medicine technology, sonography, and magnetic resonance imaging.
- Skills required: Detail-oriented, hand-eye coordination, interpersonal, physical stamina, technical
- Top states for this career: California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado
Median annual pay: $71,730
- What they do: Provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and offer advice and emotional support to patients and their family members
- Average job growth rate: 12%
- Education requirements: Associate degree in nursing (ADN), a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing (BSN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program
- Related coursework: Anatomy; Physiology; Microbiology; Chemistry; Nutrition; Psychology, Other social and behavioral sciences
- Certifications: Nurses may become certified through professional associations in specific areas, such as ambulatory care, gerontology, and pediatrics, among others. Specific positions may require certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support (BLS) certification, or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS).
- Skills required: Critical-thinking, communication, compassion, detail-oriented, emotional stability, organizational, physical stamina
- Top states for this career: Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, New Mexico
Median annual pay: $71,670
- What they do: Operate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning machines to capture images of patients' bodies for physicians to use when diagnosing medical problems
- Average job growth rate: 11%
- Education requirements: Associate degree in magnetic resonance imaging; certification from an MRI technologist training program
- Related coursework: Anatomy; Pathology; Patient care; Radiation physics and protection, Image evaluation
- Certifications: Available from the ARRT and the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists (ARMRIT)
- Skills required: Detail-oriented, interpersonal, math, physical stamina, technical
- Top states for this career: Washington, California, Hawaii, Nevada
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