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In many cases, higher education leads to higher-paying careers. At the same time, the cost of a college degree is skyrocketing, causing hopeful students to rethink the value they are getting out of a four-year degree.
Data sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and CollegeBoard's Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020 .
For many people, taking four years to complete a bachelor's degree before they can start working simply isn't an option. Associate degrees take half the time to finish as a bachelor's, cost half as much, and prepare you for high-paying jobs.
We used U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data to find the best associate degrees for top-paying jobs.
20 Highest-Paying Jobs With Associate Degrees
Pursuing an associate degree online or at a local community college can lead to a higher return on your investment in your education. These associate degree jobs pay more than the national average salary.
- Air Traffic Controller
- Radiation Therapist
- Nuclear Technician
- Nuclear Medicine Technologist
- Dental Hygienist
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologists
- Funeral Home Managers
- Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technologists and Technicians
- Avionics Technicians
- Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technologists and Technicians
- Computer Network Support Specialists
- Calibration Technologists and Technicians
- Occupational Therapy Assistants
- Respiratory Therapists
- Electrical and Electronics Drafters
- Radiologic Technologists and Technicians
- Electro-Mechanical and Mechatronics Technologists and Technicians
- Physical Therapist Assistants
- Legal Support Workers
1. Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic controllers help direct pilots during takeoff and landing. They update pilots about poor weather conditions and choreograph everything that happens on the tarmac. They're responsible for knowing where planes are in the air or on the ground and reducing delays as much as possible.
These jobs pay six figures, but they are competitive. According to the BLS, emerging satellite technology could help air traffic controllers be more efficient at their job, reducing the need to hire much more controllers in the coming years.
- Median salary: $130,420
- Projected job growth: 3.8%
- Type of associate degree: An associate of applied science (AAS) in air traffic control, aviation technology, or aviation administration from a federally accredited school.
2. Radiation Therapist
For people with cancer, radiation therapy can offer an effective treatment. Radiation therapists operate the equipment used to kill cancer and help explain cancer treatments to patients.
Some radiation therapists earn a bachelor's degree in the subject. Others hold a one-year certificate. According to the O*Net Program , half of radiation therapists have associate degrees. The important thing for students is to ensure your program is accredited by the American Registry of Radiologic Technicians (ARRT).
- Median salary: $86,850
- Projected job growth: 9.1%
- Type of associate degree: An AAS or AS in radiation therapy in an ARRT-accredited program.
3. Nuclear Technician
Nuclear power plants harvest the energy found inside uranium atoms to fuel the grid. The process takes physicists, engineers, and nuclear technicians. Nuclear technicians assist scientists in producing nuclear power, including testing, monitoring radiation, and ensuring the nuclear reaction site's safety.
These jobs pay well, but they're on the decline. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration , nuclear power plants only exist in 28 states.
- Median salary: $84,190
- Projected job growth: -12.4%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in nuclear technology, nuclear power technology, or nuclear energy technology
4. Nuclear Medicine Technologist
Like radiation therapists, nuclear medicine technologists work with patients and physicians dealing with cancer. Nuclear medicine technologists primarily work with radioactive medicine, not equipment. They help ensure that cancer patients take appropriate doses of medication and monitor their progress throughout treatment.
- Median salary: $79.590
- Projected job growth: 7.8%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in nuclear medicine technology
5. Dental Hygienist
Dental hygienists examine patients' oral health, provide preventative dental care, and educate patients about the ins and outs of proper oral hygiene.
Not only is this a two-year degree that pays well, but it also offers flexibility. According to the BLS, many dental hygienists work part-time. Some work for multiple dentists to increase their earnings.
You can become a dental hygienist by completing an associate degree program and passing a national exam. Suppose you want to start working in a dental office even sooner. In that case, you could complete a certificate to become a dental assistant .
- Median salary: $77,090
- Projected job growth: 11.2%
- Type of associate degree: AS or AAS in dental hygiene
Learn more about the dental hygienist salary .
6. Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Physicians sometimes need sonograms or ultrasounds, which use high-frequency sound waves to create images of what's going on inside the body. Diagnostic medical sonographers operate sonograms and ultrasounds and explain the images they produce to patients and physicians.
Sonographers may specialize in particular types of care, including breast health, heart health, pediatrics, and OB-GYN.
- Median salary: $75,920
- Projected job growth: 19%
- Type of associate degree: AAS or associate of arts (AA) degree in diagnostic medical sonography, diagnostic ultrasound, or cardiac sonography
7. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologists
MRI technologists are experts in using massive magnetic machines to display images that doctors rely on to diagnose and treat problems inside the body. They also work to ensure patient safety within the magnetic fields produced by MRI scanners.
- Median salary: $74,690
- Projected job growth: 8.1%
- Type of associate degree: AAS or a certificate from an American Registry of MRI Technologists-accredited program
8. Funeral Home Managers
If you're interested in jobs that work with the dead , becoming a funeral home manager can be a fulfilling and well-paid path for you. In this role, you'll work with families to ensure they have the smoothest, most peaceful experience possible surrounding a loved one's death.
Funeral home managers work around the clock, frequently on weekends and evenings. They run the business, manage employees, coordinate arrangements, and spend lots of time consoling and planning with grieving families.
- Median salary: $74,200
- Projected job growth: 3.2%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in funeral service or a mortuary science program that includes business management and human resources coursework.
9. Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technologists and Technicians
Before astronauts launch into space, engineers have rigorously tested the spacecraft for safety and performance. Aerospace engineering and operations techs assist engineers in testing, building, and monitoring all things related to spacecraft and aircraft.
- Median salary: $68,520
- Projected job growth: 8.9%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in aerospace technology or aeronautical engineering technology
10. Avionics Technicians
If you have what it takes to become an auto mechanic and you love the idea of working with the computerized parts of a plane, then consider the job of an avionic technician. These techs make above-average salaries by maintaining and repairing an airplane's systems. In fact, they make over $20,000 a year more than auto techs, on average.
- Median salary: $67,840
- Projected job growth: 9.7%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in aircraft/aviation electronics
11. Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technologists and Technicians
Electrical and electronic engineering techs build, assemble, and calibrate different machines that use electricity, from computers to telecommunications devices. They take the design of an engineer and translate it into the real world. When blueprints don't go according to plan, they have to adapt.
These techs have some of the same interests and skills as electricians , but they have gone to school for an associate degree. After that, they have options to earn bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering or even get a master's degree to become an electrical engineer .
- Median salary: $67,550
- Projected job growth: 1.6%
- Type of associate degree: AS or AAS in electronics engineering
12. Computer Network Support Specialists
These positions differ from the IT help desk. Rather than managing customer tickets, they primarily focus on locating and troubleshooting issues in computer networks, such as servers and internet systems.
According to the BLS, one in five computer network support specialists works for computer system design companies. But these jobs exist in every industry that relies on computerized networks, including finance, education, and business.
- Median salary: $65,450
- Projected job growth: 7.5%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in computer networking, computer and local area network technology, or technical and network support.
13. Calibration Technologists and Technicians
Calibration techs perform many of the same roles and responsibilities as electrical engineering techs, but their work mostly focuses on repairing manufacturing equipment and performing regular maintenance or calibration of measurement technology.
- Median salary: $64,190
- Projected job growth: 4.4%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in instrumentation technology, calibration technology, metrology, or instrumentation, measurement, and control technology.
14. Occupational Therapy Assistants
Occupational therapy (OT) assistant jobs are growing almost five times faster than the rest of the job market, making this the fastest-growing on our list of highest-paying jobs with associate degrees.
OTs help people who are injured or disabled to improve their ability to play, work, sleep, and do other daily activities. OT assistants help occupational therapists design and execute a treatment plan for patients. They have a lot of face time with patients and help monitor their progress.
If you become an OT assistant, you can always add on to your associate degree and become an occupational therapist to take on more responsibility and even more income.
- Median salary: $62,940
- Projected job growth: 36.1%
- Type of associate degree: AAS or associate of occupational science (AOS) from an occupational therapy assistant program
15. Respiratory Therapists
If you want to become a respiratory therapist , you should have a desire to help people. Respiratory therapists help patients complete therapeutic exercises, educate patients on lung health, advocate for lung cancer research, and lead smoking cessation workshops.
- Median salary: $62,810
- Projected job growth: 23%
- Type of associate degree: AAS, AS, or AOS in a respiratory assistant program
16. Electrical and Electronics Drafters
Before electrical installers can build wiring systems in a new building, someone needs to plan for how wires, parts, and electrical distribution systems will all come together to provide power. Electrical drafters create those diagrams, usually using computerized drawing systems.
Electronics drafters create diagrams, just like electrical drafters, but they work on machines and devices rather than buildings.
- Median salary: $62,100
- Projected job growth: 2.3%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in electrical/electronic drafting or drafting technology
17. Radiologic Technologists and Technicians
Radiologic techs perform many of the same roles as an MRI tech, but they work with other types of scanners, such as X-rays and CT scanners.
Jobs for radiology techs are projected to grow at about the same rate as MRI tech jobs. However, there are much more positions available for radiology techs — 18,300 nationwide, compared to MRI techs' 3,400.
- Median salary : $61,900
- Projected job growth: 8.6%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in radiologic technology
18. Electro-Mechanical and Mechatronics Technologists and Technicians
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicted that up to 75% of cars would be self-driving by 2040. That's good news for electro-mechanical and mechatronics technicians — a long job title that essentially describes people who operate, inspect, and test the performance of automated electrical machines.
Whether or not autonomous vehicles take over the roads, these techs have other work to do on machinery used in oil rigs, farms, buildings, oceans, and other diverse settings.
- Median salary: $59,800
- Projected job growth: -1.7%
- Type of associate degree: AAS is electro-mechanical technology or electro-mechanical engineering
19. Physical Therapist Assistants
Physical therapy helps people build or rebuild strength or movement through an exercise program. Physical therapist assistants help physical therapists by assisting patients with treatment and completing other tasks like paperwork, cleaning patients' stations, exercise equipment, and tools.
Physical therapist assistants complete their associate degree. They can continue their education to earn a doctorate . Then, they can become a licensed physical therapist .
- Median salary: $59,700
- Projected job growth: 35.4%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in physical therapy assisting
20. Legal Support Workers
The BLS includes this category of workers in the legal field who are not lawyers or paralegals. According to Purdue University Global , there are several legal jobs for non-lawyers, including:
- Legal secretaries
- Document examiners
- Online research specialist
- Conflict of interest and new business managers
The roles are different, but you can get a sense of what a career in a legal field is like by reading about how to become a paralegal .
- Median salary: $59,540
- Projected job growth: 0.5%
- Type of associate degree: AAS in legal support services
How to Choose the Best Associate Degree Program
Even though these degrees cost less than a bachelor's, preparing for associate degree jobs still requires investing money and time. Do your research to make sure you apply to the best associate degree programs for you. Follow these tips for choosing the right program:
We use national data to find the average salaries for different positions. You can find more specific information by asking at a local career center or even looking up information online for your state or county.
Before starting a program, ask a college admissions counselor how most people pay for their associate degrees, what scholarships or financial aid is available, and where graduates end up working. You shouldn't have to sacrifice quality for lower tuition.
Jobs in health care, medicine, and technology top our list. This may be due to a couple of factors:
- Technology is always evolving and improving, creating a need for tech-focused positions.
- The population is getting older, meaning that we need more healthcare workers to care for people as they age.
Again, your local career center or workforce board can help you understand what jobs are in-demand in your area. Some of these positions may not even require an associate degree but a vocational certificate or diploma that takes less than a year .
Many of these highest-paying associate degree jobs require you to become certified or licensed to practice in your profession. To do that, you need to have a degree from an accredited program. This information should be readily available on a degree program's website. If you can't find it, ask an admissions counselor for proof of accreditation from a valid organization.
Testimonials in advertisements are one thing, but did you know that you can find hard evidence of student graduation rates or how many students pass national exams? Some colleges list student outcomes on their website. Other times, you can find this on a state government website or by asking an admissions counselor.
Make sure you’re investing wisely in a career that doesn’t just pay well, but matches what you want to get out of life. If you’re curious about other career paths that suit your professional personality, you can take the free Lantern Career Interests Quiz to discover your options.
Why would a student elect to complete an associate degree, certificate, or diploma instead of a bachelor's degree in terms of potential?
Is it possible for students to make as much money with one of these credentials?
How can students with associate degrees, certificates, or diplomas best leverage their educations?
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