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An Associate's Degree: Expanding Occupational Opportunities
by Martin Kraal
Published Aug-16-2013

Whether it's an individual's highest level of educational attainment or a step toward a bachelor's degree, an associate's degree can be a valuable asset to obtaining a well-paying career. In 2012, the unemployment rate nationwide for those with an associate's degree was 6.2 percent, compared with 8.3 percent for those with a high school diploma and 4.5 percent for those with a bachelor's degree. Workers with an associate's degree had higher median earnings than those with only a high school education, $785 versus $652 weekly. That equates to an additional $6,916 per year in earnings.

In Oregon, there are several occupations where an associate's degree is either required or lends a competitive advantage to an applicant. Of the total projected openings from 2010 to 2020, approximately 14 percent, or almost 9,200 annual openings, either require applicants to have an associate's degree or the degree makes them more competitive in the labor market.

Degrees Awarded in Oregon
Approximately 8 percent of Oregon's population 25 years and older have an associate's degree as their highest level of education attainment. In the 2010-2011 academic year, there were approximately 10,900 associate's degrees conferred by institutions in Oregon. Portland Community College awarded almost 2,800 degrees, the most of any institution. Chemeketa Community College and Lane Community College were the next two in line, awarding 1,190 and 973 degrees, respectively.

Out of the myriad programs offered by community colleges and other institutions in the state, liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities were by far the most common fields in the 2010-2011 academic year with slightly more than 5,300 degrees earned. It's likely that a significant percentage of these degrees were transfer degrees earned by individuals pursuing a bachelor's degree. One advantage of completing lower division courses at community colleges before transferring to a bachelor's degree program is cost. During the 2012-13 school year, tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses were approximately $16,000 at a community college versus more than $22,000 at an Oregon University System institution and over $40,000 at an Oregon independent college (Oregon Student Access Commission).

Health professions and related programs was the second most common associate's degree field in Oregon with about 1,700 degrees awarded, of which roughly one-third were registered nursing degrees. Business-related degrees, which are also one of the most common bachelor's degrees, rounded out the top three with approximately 900 degrees.

Graph 1
Educational attainment by gender in Oregon 2011
Graph 2
Top associate's degrees awarded in Oregon 2010-2011
Job Opportunities for Associate's Degree Recipients
On average, employment status and earnings for those with an associate's degree are more favorable than for those with less education. For some occupations an associate's degree is the minimum education required while for others it gives applicants a competitive edge. Of the total projected openings from 2010 to 2020, slightly more than 4 percent require an associate's degree as the minimum education level and for 9 percent of the openings an associate's gives an applicant a competitive advantage. Tables 1 and 2 list the top 10 occupations by projected annual openings in Oregon for which an associate's degree is either the minimum or competitive education level respectively.

A few of these occupations are also among the fastest growing overall. Out of more than 700 occupations, registered nurses are projected to have the fifth most openings with approximately 1,450 annually. Wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives, except technical and scientific products, and supervisors and managers of office and administrative support workers are two other occupations in the top 20 of projected total openings.

Several of these occupations also pay above-average wages. Out of the 20 occupations listed in Tables 1 and 2, 14 have median wages above $20 per hour and four have median wages of more than $30 per hour. Other well-paying occupations not listed in the tables that either require an associate's degree or the degree provides a competitive advantage to applicants include a variety of engineering technicians, and diagnostic medical sonographers and ultrasound technologists.

Table 1
Projected Annual Openings and Median Wages in Oregon for Occupations With an Associate's Degree as the Minimum Education Level
  2010-2020 Projected Annual Openings 2013 Median Hourly Wage
Growth Replacement Total
Registered Nurses 810 640 1,450 $38.84
Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education 125 156 281 $11.29
Biological Technicians 42 104 145 $17.63
Dental Hygienists 64 70 134 $39.55
Graphic Designers 47 83 130 $21.68
Radiologic, CAT, and MRI Technologists and Technicians 68 42 110 $31.85
Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technicians 43 60 104 $27.84
Life, Physical, and Social Science Technicians, All Other 21 54 75 $23.50
Paralegals and Legal Assistants 32 32 64 $24.42
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians 30 27 57 $16.20
Respiratory Therapists 27 24 50 $29.62
Table 2
Projected Annual Openings and Median Wages in Oregon for Occupations With an Associate's Degree as the Competitive Education Level
  2010-2020 Projected Annual Openings 2013 Median Hourly Wage
Growth Replacement Total
Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks 484 308 792 $17.33
Wholesale and Manufacturing Sales Representatives, Except Technical and Scientific Products 305 403 707 $25.60
Supervisors and Managers of Office and Administrative Support Workers 273 434 706 $23.09
Secretaries, Except Legal, Medical, and Executive 352 300 653 $16.32
Teacher Assistants 204 432 636 $29,449
Executive Secretaries and Administrative Assistants 214 166 380 $22.82
Social and Human Service Assistants 117 153 271 $13.98
Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics 80 120 200 $20.32
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers 30 149 179 $31.54
Supervisors and Managers of Non-Retail Sales Workers 60 105 165 $28.38
Note: The wage listed for teacher assistants is the median annual wage.
Though the majority of projected job openings do not require post-secondary education, an associate's degree can give an individual a competitive advantage in the job market. Community colleges and other institutions in Oregon offer a range of associate's degrees that can match a student's personal interests and skills. For more information on education providers and programs in the state, visit the Educational Information Center at  QualityInfo.org/olmisj/EIC .