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Last Updated on April 16, 2024 by Jawad Ali

Whether you’re a recent high school graduate or a working professional interested in changing careers, a college degree is a reliable and proven path to success. College graduates often see higher earnings and more robust job opportunities, and they tend to experience increased personal development and job satisfaction throughout their careers.

If you’re ready to advance your career and experience the benefits that often come with a college degree, the first step is determining whether an associate versus bachelor’s degree is the best fit for your objectives. Making the best decision requires you to understand the different considerations and levels of benefits associated with degree completion.

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Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree: What Are the Differences?

As of 2021, 37.9% of American adults 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree, up from 30.4% in 2011, according to Pew Research Center. This includes 14.3% who also obtained a graduate or professional degree. An additional 10.5% had an associate degree. As of 2021, nearly 53 million Americans had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Associate Degree Characteristics

An associate degree is higher education’s fast track to a rewarding career. Associate programs typically take two years to complete, with some programs offering a faster pathway to a degree. Total credit hours are generally between 60 and 80 for degree completion. Tuition is less than a bachelor’s degree due to the shorter time to completion and may be cheaper on a per-credit-hour basis depending on the institution. Admission requirements for associate-level programs tend to be less stringent than bachelor’s-level programs, and application deadlines tend to be longer.

An associate degree also offers flexibility with next steps upon completion; a student may continue working toward a bachelor’s degree or enter their chosen profession in an entry-level position. The option to continue their formal education remains. Most colleges and universities allow associate degree graduates to transfer credits to a four-year bachelor’s program. As a result, students can begin their studies at this level having already met the general education requirements.

Bachelor’s Degree Characteristics

A bachelor’s degree can open more career doors in many industries, and it’s a requirement for many positions. For industries and positions for which both degrees qualify, earning a bachelor’s degree — or going back for one — can provide graduates with a competitive advantage in the job market. The depth of education and training can provide greater skill and competency levels on the job.

Additionally, a bachelor’s degree offers opportunities for advancement into managerial and leadership positions, whereas a professional with an associate degree may need to earn a bachelor’s degree to advance beyond a career plateau.

How long is an online bachelor’s degree? These programs typically require about 120 credits and four years of study. The average four-year student typically takes 40 courses in total — 10 per year at 3 credits apiece. However, some bachelor’s programs may have additional requirements, while some may have fewer.

Salary and Job Outlook Differences for Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degrees

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment. As of the last reporting in 2021, median weekly earnings for those with an associate degree were $963. Weekly median earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree were $1,334, a 39% boost. The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree was 3.5%, compared with 4.6% for those with an associate degree.

Prospective students interested in a particular career path should pay attention to the salary and employment prospects within that field with an associate or bachelor’s degree, taking into consideration salary differences for certain geographies and employer types.

Bachelor’s Degree: Salary by Career

Many factors determine career earning potential in addition to the college degree completed, though the degree choice is one of the most impactful. These include industry experience, technical skills, soft skills, geographic area, and performance on the job. Within industries, certain career paths are also more lucrative than others.

Many of the highest-paying careers — regardless of associate versus bachelor’s degree status — are in the STEM fields, which cover science, technology, engineering, and math. With a bachelor’s degree, graduates also often find many high-paying opportunities in the areas of accounting, business, and organizational leadership.

While the following roles vary in projected job growth, they’re among the highest-paying careers with a bachelor’s degree, according to U.S. News as of February 2022 (citing salary and projected job growth rates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics):

  • Human resources managers: $121,220 (9% job growth)
  • Compensation and benefits managers: $125,130 (4% job growth)
  • Airline and commercial pilots: $130,440 (13% job growth)
  • Sales managers: $132,290 (7% job growth)
  • Financial managers: $134,180 (17% job growth)
  • Petroleum engineers: $137,330 (8% job growth)
  • Natural sciences managers: $137,940 (6% job growth)
  • Advertising and marketing managers: $141,490 (10% job growth)
  • Architectural and engineering managers: $149,530 (4% job growth)
  • Computer and information systems managers: $151,150 (11% job growth)

Those considering an associate versus bachelor’s degree should explore which bachelor’s degrees have the highest earning potential and the pros and cons of going back for a second degree.

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Associate Degree: Salary by Career

Some of the careers with the highest median annual salaries for associate degree holders include the following, according to U.S. News as of February 2022 (citing salary and projected job growth rates from the BLS):

  • Geological and hydrologic technicians: $50,630 (9% job growth)
  • Respiratory therapists: $62,810 (23% job growth)
  • Radiologic and MRI technologists: $63,710 (9% job growth)
  • Avionics mechanics and technicians: $66,680 (11% job growth)
  • Medical sonographers and cardio techs: $70,380 (14% job growth)
  • Dental hygienists: $77,090 (11% job growth)
  • Web developers and digital interface designers: $77,200 (13% job growth)
  • Nuclear technicians: $84,190 (12% job growth)
  • Radiation therapists: $86,850 (9% job growth)
  • Air traffic controllers: $130,420 (4% job growth)

Take the First Step Toward Your Professional Journey

Now that you have further insight into the benefits of each level of undergraduate study, you have many additional factors to consider when deciding whether to pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree, from your own aptitudes and interests to employer demand, job outlook, and earning potential.

A great way to get started on your career decision-making journey is to explore the accredited undergraduate programs at Maryville University. Take the next step and find out why more than 96% of our online program graduates report positive career outcomes in the first six months after earning their degrees.