Much has been published recently about the value of a college degree over the long term. While the cost of higher education has continued to rise, the benefits associated with that education continue to grow as well. An associate degree can offer a particularly good return on investment (ROI), since the cost of obtaining the degree is significantly less than a bachelor's degree, and the job opportunities can be plentiful. While we've compared whether state universities or community college graduates earn higher salaries, consider these statistics concerning the ROI on various associate degrees to determine whether community college might be the next logical step in your career plans.
The Cost of an Associate Degree
Degree Central cites 2010 statistics from the College Board that show the average annual tuition cost for a community college is $2,544. Most can be earned in two years or less, although some students might take longer if they are juggling professional and family responsibilities along with their studies. For most students, a degree from a community college can be earned for less than $9,000.
By the same token, the 2009 annual average tuition cost at a public four-year school for residents was just over $7,000, while the rate for non-residents was more than $18,500. Private schools ran approximately $26,000 per year. These rates translate to a significant amount of debt for most students once they graduate, while community college students often graduate with little or no debt.
This video explores answers to the question "Do associate degrees matter?"
Projected Earnings for Associate Degree Earners
The projected earnings with an associate degree vary widely, depending on the industry the graduate pursues after school and the location of the job. The University of Hawaii Community Colleges website cites figures from the Census Bureau that show over a lifetime, adults with just a high school diploma earn an average of $1.2 million, while those with an associate degree earn $1.6 million. However, depending on the industry and its growth potential, that $400,000 difference could actually go much higher for some community college graduates.
According to a recent report in Forbes, some of the top-earning industries that require an associate degree include these average annual salaries:
- Dental Hygienist: $57,000
- Nurse: $55,000
- Radiology Technician: $52,000
- Physical Therapy Assistant: $46,000
- Graphic Designer: $40,000-$50,000
- Computer Support Specialists: $46,000-$60,000
- Web Designer: $47,000
- Electrical Technician: $40,000
- Engineering Technicians: $41,000-$52,000
- Solar Panel Installers: $50,000+
In addition to these fields, those who choose to work in industries like hospitality, criminal justice and law (paralegals) tend to bring in annual paychecks on par with the numbers listed above. Even funeral directors – a degree program offered by many community colleges – can expect to earn an average annual salary of $52,000.
Non-Monetary Perks of Associate Degree
In addition to the higher salary many associate degree holders enjoy, there are other benefits of a community college education to consider as well. Some of these advantages include:
- Personal and professional mobility
- A higher level of savings
- Higher quality of life for offspring
- Improved consumer decision-making
- More hobbies and leisure activities to enjoy
In addition, those with a community college degree may enjoy more job opportunities with room for upward mobility. According to the Oregon Employment Department, four of the 10 occupations with the biggest hiring potential will require a minimum of an associate degree over the next decade. The website also cites figures showing an associate degree gives applicants a competitive edge when applying for many jobs in the state.
Career choice is another huge advantage to those who earn an associate degree. These degree programs are available for a myriad of industries, including:
- Medical and Dental Field
- Construction and Engineering
- Computers and Technology
- Green Industries
- Business and Finance
- Criminal Justice and Law
- Social Services
- Real Estate
For students who aren’t sure what they want to be when they grow up, a community college degree can also be the first – and cheaper – step to a four-year degree, with credits that transfer to a nearby university once the associate degree is earned. Students can get basic requirements out of the way at the less expensive community college before pursuing major studies at the university. This brings the value of a four-year degree up as well since the investment in the degree ends up costing less.
Getting Your Money’s Worth
While a community college can offer great value to graduates, some degree programs provide a better ROI than others. DistanceEducation.org advises students to consider the following when selecting a community college and degree program:
This video looks at jobs which you can get with an associate's degree.
Learn About the Competition
Find out whether others in your industry are getting ahead with an associate degree or a four-year education before choosing your school. If a bachelor’s degree will be required for you to remain competitive in your field, choose a community college program that will allow you to easily transfer credits to a four-year institution when the associate degree is completed.
Define Your Goals
Where do you want to go with your career? By determining where you want to end up, you will have a better idea of how to map out your path to get there. It might be an associate degree, with the ability to extend that education to a four-year degree later on.
Determine Your Experience Level
If you have practical experience in your industry currently, this will go far in helping you make the most of your associate degree. If you don’t have practical experience, look for a program that will help you network within your industry, through internships and apprenticeships, so you are prepared to head right into the workforce after graduation.
While the cost of higher education may be on the rise, the value of a degree is still high. Your community college education can take you far in terms of landing a job and moving up the corporate ladder.
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