Best Paying Associate Degrees in 2023

Best Paying Associate Degrees in 2023
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Most Americans believe that a college degree is the best chance they could have at a bright future (Public Agenda, 2022). However, high school students collectively have a different opinion. In a report, 85% of current high school students feel forced to obtain a bachelor’s degree (Educational Credit Management Corporation, 2022), and 51% of Americans believe that the cost of college diminishes its benefits (Public Agenda, 2022).

This may be why 47% of Gen Z teenagers, who comprise the high school population today, feel compelled to get a two-year program (ECMC, 2022). More than fast-tracking a student’s timeline, an associate degree can bring high returns on investment (ROI) (Rasmussen, 2022) and even provide students with opportunities that come with high-paying jobs, ranging from an annual wage of $31,000 to $128,000 (Torpey, 2020; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

In this guide, our team analyzes why students choose associate degrees over bachelor’s degrees. We also identify the benefits of two-year programs and provide a list of the best paying associate degrees to help students make the best choice after graduating from high school.

Best Paying Associate Degree Table of Contents

Why do students choose an associate degree?

In a report, 68% of high school students place the cost of tuition as one of their top priorities before applying to college (ECMC, 2022). This is why tuition fees for two-year programs, which cost half of bachelor’s degrees, are more enticing to them. Consider the following statistics that we have gathered:

  • Average tuition fees of four-year institutions range from $9,400 to $37,600 in 2020-2021. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022)
  • Median tuition fees of two-year colleges range from $3,900 to $18,000. (NCES, 2022)
  • The percentage of current high school students who hope to get a four-year degree wavered from 71% in May 2020 to 48% in September 2021 to 51% in January 2022. (ECMC, 2022)

How to get in-state tuition 1


Seventy-nine percent of students wonder how much they can earn in the long run (ECMC, 2022). Since associate degrees are shaped by the current needs of the workforce (Rasmussen, 2022), its ROI can reach up to $167,000 (Cooper, 2022). Moreover, while data shows that those with advanced degrees receive higher earnings (BLS, 2022), it is not always the case.

In Kim and Tamborini’s study (2019, pp. 64-85), “Are They Still Worth It? The Long-Run Earnings Benefits of an Associate Degree, Vocational Diploma or Certificate, and Some College,” they say, “The cumulative twenty-year earnings from high school graduation for individuals with associate degrees in physical and health sciences, computer and information services, and engineering and drafting is equal to or higher than those BA fields except business and STEM.”

Their report, published in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, adds, “These patterns suggest that a bachelor’s degree is not necessarily associated with a higher financial benefit to the investment in education than an associate degree.”

Outlook of Future Jobs

Being digital natives, Gen Z students know how to veer away from redundant and soon-to-be obsolete jobs by staying close to what they know best—technology. These jobs will not only remain relevant in the years to come but will also be easy for them to learn and adapt to.

A study by Chillakuri (2020, pp. 1277-1296) called “Understanding Generation Z Expectations for Effective Onboarding” also states that, “they learn the much-desired skills relevant to their jobs and know that keeping up with technology requires ongoing learning.”

Chillakuri’s report published in the Journal of Organizational Change Management adds, “while they are keen on acquiring additional skills, they also expect the new employer to equip them with the necessary training, so they start contributing from day one.”

Skills Over Degrees

According to a survey we analyzed, 27% wish that their education will allow them to work immediately and enable them to develop new skills on the job (ECMC, 2022). This behavior is reflected in the current Gen Z workforce. Instead of enrolling in costly four-year programs, they can improve through free or inexpensive learning platforms online (Stancampiano, 2022). Alternatively, associate degrees can also be used as stepping stones to bachelor’s degrees, so transitioning credits will be a breeze.

As Gen Zs slowly fill the workforce, companies are also adjusting the way they attract potential employees. Some big names in the industry have removed their four-year degree application requirements and instead offer in-house training or apprenticeship programs (Stancampiano, 2022; Hannon, 2022).

List of the Best Paying Associate Degrees

To further provide understanding to potential two-year program takers, lists down the best paying associate degrees in today’s economic landscape.

The data we have outlined below consists of decade projections of the annual average job outlook. These were gathered from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with additional information from various colleges and institutions.

1. Air Traffic Control

  • Average annual salary: $129,750 to $138,556
  • Annual average openings: 2,400
  • Job outlook: 1% or 100

Air traffic control majors will learn about aviation and airport management rudiments, like the lingo, technology, and regulations. Students must complete around 65 credits and take some general education electives as well. After getting the degree, students must head off to the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to continue their training.

Safety is the top priority of air traffic controllers since they are the ones in charge of monitoring and guiding pilots both on the runway and in the air. In an environment that needs constant focus, air traffic controllers must stay alert to inform pilots about weather changes, flight rerouting, or runway closures. Specific jobs in this career are tower controllers, approach and departure controllers, and en route controllers.

2. Nuclear Engineering Technology

  • Average annual salary: $95,200 to $99,340
  • Annual average openings: 400
  • Job outlook: -17% or -900

Nuclear Engineering Technology requires students to have 60 credit hours and a broad knowledge of math, physics, engineering, and computer science. Some areas of focus are general chemistry, thermodynamics, and radioactive safety. Electives and courses in humanities and social sciences are also expected during the freshman year.

Nuclear technicians work with scientists and researchers in the operations, experimentations, and maintenance of nuclear facilities. Being in a hazardous environment, they must undergo rigorous training to ensure that safety procedures and protocols are in place. Nuclear technicians can be equipment and machine operating technicians and radiation protection technicians.

3. Radiation Therapy

  • Average annual salary: $82,790 to $94,000
  • Annual average openings: 800
  • Job outlook: 6% or 1,00

Schools offering radiation therapy need students to complete 70 to 80 credits. Students will be tackling various biology courses, such as anatomy, physiology, and health clinic sciences. Additionally, graduates of this degree need to secure a license from accredited state boards.

Radiation therapists operate machines and work with physicians and nurses who deal with radiation treatments. Because they assist and monitor cancer patients, they must also possess good interpersonal skills and compassion to provide the best patient care. Radiation therapists are also exposed to harmful substances, so they must be cautious and detail-oriented to avoid accidents.

4. Nuclear Medicine Technology

  • Average annual salary: $78,760 to $84,850
  • Annual average openings: 1,000
  • Job outlook: 2% or 300

Nuclear Medicine Technology involves students pursuing nuclear medicine technology study about human anatomy and physiology, as well as core courses in pharmacy, chemistry, radiation biology, and patient care. Credits range from 30 to 130 as most institutions offer summer semesters and a number of prerequisites. Apart from that, students need to clock in rotating clinical or lab hours in partner hospitals for hands-on learning.

Nuclear medicine technologists assist doctors and surgeons in preparing and administering radioactive drugs to patients as part of the diagnosis or treatment. They also operate machines that scan the effects of these medicines in a patient’s body. In addition, they can also care for patients by explaining medical procedures, or they may need to act as first responders in case of a disaster.

5. Funeral Services

  • Average annual salary: $74,000 to $82,900
  • Annual average openings: 7,900
  • Job outlook: 8% or 5,300

Not for the faint-hearted, applicants of associate degrees in funeral services must render around 70 to 90 credits that include courses in embalming, cremation practices, and restorative art. Additionally, students will tackle non-science courses, such as business law, mortuary law, and even finance or business management. Externships and refreshers for the board exam toward the end of the program are also integrated into the curricula.

Funeral home directors are in charge of organizing business resources, as well as managing staff and service workers. Apart from this, they also plan marketing and public relations strategies for their businesses. They also ensure that the safety and health protocols of funeral homes are met and monitor quick responses to their clients.

funeral home manager employment

6. Dental Hygiene

  • Average annual salary: $77,810 to $81,360
  • Annual average openings: 16,300
  • Job outlook: 9% or 19,000

One of the highest paying associate degrees is dental hygiene, which requires anywhere from 70 to 100 credits to accomplish. Core courses in oral anatomy, dental hygiene practice, local anesthesia are a must while general education electives can include psychology, microbiology, or academic writing. Students also need to complete clinic or summer hours if they wish to pursue this program.

Dental hygienists assist dentists in performing oral care and treatments. They also operate dental equipment typically used for light procedures, such as removing teeth plaque, applying fluorides for teeth protection, and calibrating dental X-ray machines. Dental hygienists are required to have a license and must have great interpersonal and technical skills.

7. Diagnostic Medical Sonography

  • Average annual salary: $77,740 to $80,680
  • Annual average openings: 10,100
  • Job outlook: 10% or 14,700

An associate degree in diagnostic medical sonography entails 60 to 80 credit hours with rigorous training in ultrasound and vascular learning. Apart from this, students must learn how to be detail-oriented during their clinical training since they need to pay attention not only to the patient but also to the equipment that they will be using.

Diagnostic medical sonographers operate equipment that generates images, such as sonograms and ultrasounds, of internal organs. They assist surgeons and doctors by preparing the machines and other tools needed for diagnostic purposes. Apart from this, they also ensure that patients follow proper procedures when using the equipment and assist doctors in analyzing the image results.

8. Web Design and Development

  • Average annual salary: $77,030 to $79,890
  • Annual average openings: 21,800
  • Job outlook: 23% or 45,400

Web design and development, one of the most in-demand associate degrees, gives students the opportunity to be creative while still adhering to quality standards. This degree typically needs 60 to 80 credits in core courses like digital design, scripting, networking, and other web essentials. In addition, the degree also requires students to complete general education courses in math, academic writing, or algebra.

Web developers and digital designers mostly design, create, and sustain websites and their interfaces. They perform tests and trial runs to check a website’s performance. Apart from that, they also work with other teams to incorporate visuals, audio, and video into websites. Web developers and digital designers could be back-end or front-end web developers or webmasters.

9. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technology

  • Average annual salary: $77,820
  • Annual average openings: 16,600
  • Job outlook: 6% or 17,000

An associate degree in MRI technology will help students understand the fundamentals of medical ethics, anatomy, patient care, and MRI operation and safety. Apart from this, students need to accomplish several clinical externships to expose themselves to the everyday grunt of the job. Graduating with this degree also pushes students to acquire a license or certificate.

Apart from operating scanners, MRI technologists also work with physicians in getting the correct images from the body and making accurate diagnoses and gathering other medical data. They also need to have good patient care and communication skills since they must interview, explain proper MRI procedures, and administer contrast dyes to patients.

10. Nursing

  • Average annual salary: $77,600
  • Annual average openings: 203,200
  • Job outlook: 6% or 195,400

Getting an associate degree in nursing is a much quicker way of becoming a registered nurse. The curriculum entails learning core lessons in immunology, patient care, pharmacology, and health assessments. Most schools also prefer students to have science-related prerequisites like biology, anatomy, or physiology. A total of 100 credits or more, plus, clinical service hours, are required for degree takers.

Nurses assist physicians in monitoring priority patients and in administering their treatments. They also keep records safe and update doctors on patient conditions. Since nurses work in high-pressure environments, a clear mind is a must in order to make sound judgments and decisions.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

11. Aerospace Engineering

  • Average annual salary: $73,510
  • Annual average openings: 1,200
  • Job outlook: 6% or 700

Students taking aerospace engineering, one of the best paying associate degrees, must meet the requirement of 60 to 80 credit hours. Additionally, they must be adept with math skills since the program includes concentrations in geometry, calculus, physics, and engineering mechanics.

Graduates of this program can be aerospace engineering and operations technologists and technicians. They are in charge of the assembly, operations, and upkeep of aircraft and spacecraft equipment. They work with aerospace engineers in testing machines and fine-tuning systems to ensure that airplanes and spacecraft work perfectly. In addition, they run maintenance checks and simulations not only on the equipment but also in the facilities that they use.

  • Average annual salary: $73,000
  • Annual average openings: 45,800
  • Job outlook: 14% or 49,900

With 60 to 90 credits, an associate degree in legal support and services means learning about diverse law studies such as torts, criminal law, civil litigation, and legal technology. Additionally, good writing and researching skills are also needed in potential applicants. Graduates of this degree become legal support workers, such as paralegals.

They help lawyers by conducting research, organizing, drafting, and filing legal documents. They also assist lawyers in gathering data or evidence, liaising with clients, and preparing for trials, hearings, depositions, and other meetings. Legal support workers must be knowledgeable in computer software that organizes and stores files, and they must be able to keep up in a fast-paced environment.

13. Computer Networking

  • Average annual salary: $57,910 to $62,760
  • Annual average openings: 75,000
  • Job outlook: 6% or 56,400

Students taking up this degree need to complete around 60 to 100 credits and become computer network support specialists. They must know the basics of computer and information technology, as well as advanced topics like information security, network server administration, and hardware technology.

Computer network support specialists mainly help in the maintenance of computer networks. They conduct tests and timely maintenance checks to ensure network systems are up to date. Additionally, they also work with computer systems administrators in checking other network systems.

14. Geology and Hydrology Studies

  • Average annual salary: $48,310 to $62,280
  • Annual average openings: 1,400
  • Job outlook: 4% or 500

An associate degree in geology and hydrology entails around 60 to 70 units. Students must have a keen attention to detail since core courses include environmental safety and sustainability, physics, chemistry, and resources technology. Additionally, some schools may also require students to accomplish some lab work or technical writing and research.

Geological and hydrologic technicians assist scientists in studying and analyzing natural resources. They are in charge of operating machines or tools to collect and observe soil, gas, and water samples. They also help scientists perform experiments and tests in laboratories. Apart from this, geological and hydrologic technicians also explore potentially abundant sites for testing, and they help record or store important data.

15. Respiratory Therapy

  • Average annual salary: $61,830
  • Annual average openings: 9,400
  • Job outlook: 14% or 18,400

An associate degree in respiratory therapy may require students to log in 70 to 100 credit hours or more. In addition to completing lab hours, degree takers will learn about respiratory care, clinical diagnostics, and microbiology in their classes. Acquiring additional certificates or a license may also be required for graduates.

Respiratory therapists work with nurses and doctors in providing the best care for patients who have trouble breathing. They conduct diagnostic tests and observe patient progress. Apart from that, respiratory therapists also perform procedures, such as taking blood samples or clearing airways, and inspecting machines to ensure that they are working properly.

respiratory therapist employment

16. Physical Therapy

  • Average annual salary: $49,180 to $61,180
  • Annual average openings: 25,500
  • Job outlook: 24% or 33,900

Associate degree takers of physical therapy need to complete around 70 to 90 credits and attend seminars or internships in clinics or hospitals. Additionally, students learn about anatomical kinesiology, rehabilitation principles, and the rudiments of physical therapy. Those who complete the degree become assistants who help physical therapists in the care and recovery of patients.

Physical therapy assistants must have good interpersonal skills since they also help explain therapy procedures to patients and their families. In addition, physical therapist assistants guide patients in using equipment or assist them in exercises and other forms of treatment. They also report patient information, status, and observations to physical therapists.

17. Electro-mechanical Technology

  • Average annual salary: $60,360
  • Annual average openings: 1,100
  • Job outlook: -4% or -400

One of the best paying associate degrees, electro-mechanical technology enables students to learn about the basics of electrical machinery, control systems, and robotics and motion control. Students must complete 60 to 90 credits and have prerequisites preferably in math, algebra, or technical reporting.

Dealing with robotics and other machinery, electro-mechanical and mechatronics technologists and technicians must be detail-oriented since they perform tasks that involve mechanical technology and electronics. They assemble, troubleshoot, and maintain automated and unmanned equipment in huge facilities. Moreover, these technologists and technicians also operate soldering tools and metalworking machines to install heavy equipment.

18. Drafting and Design Technology

  • Average annual salary: $60,290
  • Annual average openings: 18,900
  • Job outlook: -3% or -6,700

Getting a degree in drafting and design technology entails that students learn about technical drawing, computer aided drafting, and geometric designing. Apart from creativity, students must also be well-skilled in math since courses also include calculus and engineering. In addition, students need to learn how to use drafting software as they will need this throughout their coursework.

Drafters collaborate with architects and engineers by using their sketches and turning it into technical drawings. They use design software and provide more details, like dimensions or procedures, in their rendered versions to help accomplish projects and make them more tangible. Drafters can work in the fields of architecture, civil, electrical, or mechanical engineering.

19. Industrial Engineering Technology

  • Average annual salary: $60,220
  • Annual average openings: 6,600
  • Job outlook: 3% or 2,100

Requiring about 60 to 70 credits, an associate degree in industrial engineering technology provides students opportunities to enhance their problem-solving skills. Degree takers will learn about manufacturing processes and cost analysis, project management, and ergonomics. In addition to that, students will also be handling different tools and automatic equipment as part of their training.

Industrial engineering technologists and technicians work with engineers in manufacturing and production quality checks. They study layouts, as well as diagrams and formulas, to come up with the best solutions to production handling or operations. Industrial engineering technologists and technicians also analyze data and draft presentations to demonstrate how materials should be used.

20. Occupational Health and Safety

  • Average annual salary: $51,120
  • Annual average openings: 14,500
  • Job outlook: 5% or 6,300

An associate degree in occupational health and safety will require students to achieve 50 to 70 credits that includes core courses in workplace safety, industrial hygiene, industrial ergonomics, and accident protocols. Typical prerequisites include courses in humanities, social sciences, or math. Apart from that, students will also undergo practical training to apply their knowledge and skills.

Occupational health and safety technicians are in charge of administering tests and assessing hazards to ensure the general safety of the public and workers. They work with safety specialists in inspecting facilities and machines to make sure these are up to code. Additionally, occupational health and safety technicians could also help evaluate if workers follow the appropriate protective and health protocols.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

What are the benefits of choosing an associate degree?

Our team has also listed key points that highlight the importance of an associate degree to help prospective students make their decisions:

  • Lower cost of tuition fees. Two-year programs are more affordable, with tuition fees amounting to only half of what typical four-year programs cost. By acquiring associate degrees, high schoolers can save money for kickstarting their future or funding self-enhancement programs. Additionally, it also provides students with ample time to decide which career path to take by exploring courses before transitioning to a bachelor’s program.
  • Early employment and on-the-job growth. Getting an associate degree helps fresh graduates land jobs immediately. This is ideal for pragmatic students who aim to gain experience and earn as soon as possible. As companies also slash job requirements to accommodate more workers, associate degree earners can take the spotlight and obtain new skills and abilities on the job to further keep up with the demands of a digitally changing work environment.
  • High-paying salaries. Associate degree takers can earn up to $963 weekly, and some can earn up to $128,000 yearly (BLS, 2022). Additionally, yearly opportunities are also abundant for job seekers, so associate degree earners are assured of their financial stability, especially in the long run.

Pursue Lucrative Careers through Practical Educational Options

For many Gen Z high school students, acquiring a two-year program or finishing types of college degrees other than a bachelor’s seems like the most pragmatic option in today’s economic landscape. This provides them with an array of options, such as growing professionally on the job, saving money, getting hired right after school, and earning well.

The best paying associate degrees our team has discussed above help high schoolers see that getting a four-year degree is not the only way to be successful. As students start preferring short programs and as companies also begin adjusting their hiring requirements, higher education might need to change their tune as well.

With 64% of high schoolers wishing to have less expensive tertiary education (ECMC, 2022), clearly, something needs to be done to make education more accessible. In the Declaration of Human Rights, higher education is not compulsory, but it should be fairly available to all based on merit (United Nations, n.d.). Perhaps, in these times, that also means making it more affordable for students whose only wish is to learn.



Newsletter & Conference Alerts uses the information to contact you about our relevant content. For more information, check out our privacy policy.