20 Highest-Paying Associate Degree Jobs

Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
October 13, 2021

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.

In the 2020-2021 school year, tuition for a year of college at a private four-year university was almost 10 times as high as tuition at a two-year public college.
Associate degree holders, on average, make 20% more in weekly income than people with a high school diploma alone.
The highest paying associate degrees can help you earn $80,000 to $120,000 or more a year.

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.

  1. Air Traffic Controller
  2. Radiation Therapist
  3. Nuclear Technician
  4. Nuclear Medicine Technologist
  5. Dental Hygienist
  6. Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  7. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologists
  8. Funeral Home Managers
  9. Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technologists and Technicians
  10. Avionics Technicians
  11. Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technologists and Technicians
  12. Computer Network Support Specialists
  13. Calibration Technologists and Technicians
  14. Occupational Therapy Assistants
  15. Respiratory Therapists
  16. Electrical and Electronics Drafters
  17. Radiologic Technologists and Technicians
  18. Electro-Mechanical and Mechatronics Technologists and Technicians
  19. Physical Therapist Assistants
  20. 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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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:

Compare the program cost to your expected earnings

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.

Consider demand in the job market

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.

Check for Accreditation

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.

Student Success

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.

Ensure the program fits your interests

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.

Expert Advice on Associate Degrees
Julie Ginn is the director of career and internship services at MassBay Community College, which offers associate degrees and certificates in more than 70 programs. Ginn has worked to create social, educational, and economic change at organizations and institutions including the Cambridge Housing Authority, Waltham High School, Boston Public Schools, Brockton High School, the YWCA of Greater Lawrence, and Pine Manor College.
Why would a student elect to complete an associate degree, certificate, or diploma instead of a bachelor's degree in terms of potential? Depending on your field of interest, earning an associate degree or certificate is a smarter, more cost-effective way for students to quickly gain new skills and entry into a fulfilling career. For instance, jobs in early childhood education are abundant in a high-need field, and students interested in a career in this field can get started with a certificate or an associate degree in Early Childhood Education. Hospitality is another field where you do not necessarily need a bachelor’s degree to get started and move up within the field. Many of the computer and technology-related associate degrees and certificates are skills-based programs that can propel students into a job immediately upon graduation.
Is it possible for students to make as much money with one of these credentials? Absolutely. It is possible for students to make a good living with these credentials. In a state like Massachusetts, it translates to a starting salary of about $40,000 to $60,000 a year. The pay obviously depends on the student’s chosen career field – for instance, a student who has completed an associate degree or certificate in a STEM field will start at a higher rate of pay, whereas a student in human services will make comparatively less money. Engineering technicians who have the required associate degree in mechanical engineering can make a starting salary of $50,000 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). With an associate’s degree, you can earn almost $10,000 more a year than with just a high school diploma.
How can students with associate degrees, certificates, or diplomas best leverage their educations? Students can best leverage their educational training by taking advantage of professional development opportunities within their fields. For instance, most child care providers will offer and pay for continuing education credits for their employees. This helps them grow in their organizations and take on additional roles. Experience and a willingness to learn is key in many fields that don’t require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Completing an associate degree also shortens the time it will take a bachelor’s degree in the future, if you decide that is the right path for you.
Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Contributing Writer

Lyss Welding is a staff writer who covers career and education topics for Become with Lantern. Since graduating from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in linguistics, Lyss has worked in 21st century skills programs and for companies writing curriculum and training resources for students and job seekers. Her writing has also appeared on Best Value Schools and Grad School Hub.

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