The Value of an Associate’s Degree

by Jessica Nelson

February 15, 2019

The right education and training can make a big difference when applying for a job. Some jobs require a certain level of education, while for others, education may be preferred but not mandatory. And in some cases, no particular education is required.

When unemployment is high, and therefore job seekers are abundant, employers are likely to require more education than in times of low unemployment, when fewer individuals are looking for work. Planning ahead and obtaining education beyond high school can support your career path and make you less vulnerable in economic downturns.

Workers with more education have lower unemployment rates and earn more than workers with less education. While the unemployment rate for Oregon residents ages 25 to 64 with less than a high school diploma averaged 9.6 percent from 2013 to 2017 according to American Community Survey, those with an associate’s degree or some college had an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent. On average from 2013 to 2017, Oregon workers with less than a high school diploma earned an average of $22,143 per year. Workers with an associate’s degree or some college had median earnings of $32,408 per year.

Getting an education takes time, money, and effort. You, like many others, may have asked yourself at some point if getting postsecondary education was worth it. Maybe you considered an associate’s degree at one point. An associate’s degree is typically a two-year degree and is often offered through community colleges. In fact, in the 2015-2016 school year, two-thirds of associate’s degrees were awarded at public, two-year colleges. Other private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, including some vocational schools and technical colleges, also offer associate’s degrees.
In some cases, the associate’s degree is the end goal for a student’s education, and in other cases a student obtains an associate’s degree and then moves on to finish a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution. Many students decide to enroll at community colleges to earn credits towards a bachelor’s degree and increase chances of acceptance at a four-year institution. According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 49 percent of all students in the U.S. graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the 2015-2016 school year had been enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the last 10 years. In Oregon, 58 percent of students (12,471 out of 21,233) that graduated with a bachelor’s degree enrolled previously at a two-year institution.

Many students choose to complete the first two years of requirements toward their bachelor’s or advanced degree at a community college in order to save money in their overall education costs. In the 2018-2019 school year the average tuition cost for an Oregon resident to attend a community college was $5,461, compared with $10,208 at one of Oregon’s public universities and $35,195 at a private college in Oregon.

In addition, many students enroll at community colleges to acquire further skills and facilitate a change in an academic or occupational field. Other students attend community colleges to pursue opportunities for promotion, advancement, or higher salary. In other cases, students enroll for personal interest or leisure.

How Many People Get Associate’s Degrees?

Nationwide more than a million students obtained an associate’s degree from one of 2,883 schools in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In Oregon, 12,955 students graduated with an associate’s degree from 32 schools during the same academic year. Women accounted for 58 percent of graduates and men for 42 percent. Nationally, women accounted for a slightly higher 61 percent of associate degrees awarded in 2015-2016.
Over a 10-year period the number of associate’s degree graduates increased 56 percent. Before the recession (in the 2006-2007 school year) only 8,130 students obtained an associate’s degree. During the recession and early part of the recovery, many unemployed workers went back to school to learn new skills and earn a degree. This increased the number of associate’s graduates to a peak of 14,251 in the 2012-2013 school year.

As the economy improved, the number of graduates has decreased in the last three school years with data available. The total of 12,955 associate’s graduates in 2015-2016 reflects a 9 percent decrease from the peak level of graduates in 2012-2013. Economic cycles certainly affect the number of people returning to school to gain the advantages offered by more education. However, the number of associate’s degree graduates each year hasn’t fallen anywhere near the level a decade ago, though Oregon unemployment rates have been near record lows for the last two years. It might be that there’s been a permanent shift, with more workers investing in higher education no matter the state of the current economy.

What Are the Most Common Associate’s Degrees?

In the 2015-2016 school year the top two programs of study accounted for 58 percent of the associate’s degrees awarded in the state – and they are general programs geared toward student transfers to four-year institutions. Liberal arts and sciences/liberal studies graduates summed to almost 5,000 in 2016. Another 2,600 students graduated with an associate’s degree in general studies.

Many of the top associate’s degree programs are focused on skills that apply to a specific career or career area. Several health care professional and support programs are among the top degrees: registered nursing; EMT; medical assistant; and dental hygiene are all in the top 25 programs. The top associate’s degree programs also feed the state’s restaurant workforce, with programs in culinary arts/chef training and baking and pastry arts. Many protective service professionals are also trained at the associate’s degree level, with criminal justice/safety studies and fire science/fire-fighting in the top 25 programs. Concentrations in business, accounting, and office and administrative roles also appear in the top associate degree programs.
An Associate’s Degree Could Make You Competitive for Some Jobs

Among job openings anticipated in the next 10 years, openings requiring an associate’s degree to be competitive in the workforce are anticipated to make up about 7 percent. More workers may benefit from an associate’s degree as one stop on their path to a bachelor’s or advanced degree – openings where a bachelor’s or advanced degree is the competitive education level account for another 22 percent of projected job openings between 2017 and 2027.

About 187,000 job openings that will require an associate’s degree to be competitive will be available between 2017 and 2027. Not many of these job openings are anticipated due to businesses opening or expanding over this period; a significant number of job openings are projected due to the need to replace workers leaving their occupations. More than nine out of 10 of these job openings are expected due to the need to replace workers who retire or otherwise leave their occupation, with the remaining openings due to new or expanding businesses.
Many of the occupations with the greatest number of projected job openings that require an associate’s degree to be competitive reflect the former list of top associate’s degree programs. There’s heavy representation of office and administrative support and business support roles, health care, protective service, and supervisory and management jobs.

Oregon Promise

The associate’s degree ballgame has changed in recent years, with efforts to make community college more accessible to a wider group of recent high-school graduates and GED recipients. Oregon Promise is a program that covers most tuition at an Oregon community college for students that meet certain criteria. The program is new and its continuation is dependent on legislative approval of the funding.

To be eligible, students must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Complete an Oregon Promise Grant application by the deadline
  • Be a recent Oregon high school graduate or GED recipient
  • Have a 2.50 cumulative high school GPA or higher; or a GED score of 145 or higher on each test
  • Plan to attend at least half-time at an Oregon community college within 6 months of high school graduation or GED completion
  • Be an Oregon resident for at least 12 months prior to attendance
  • Must not have more than 90 college credits completed or attempted
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC): Students may be subject to eligibility requirements based on their EFC. EFC eligibility requirements are subject to change based on available funding.
    • For 2018-19, there is no EFC limit for Oregon Promise.
    • For 2019-20, EFC criteria has not been determined yet. All interested students are encouraged to apply for Oregon Promise by their deadline, regardless of their EFC.
  • Have filed a FAFSA or ORSAA application and listed at least one Oregon community college
For more information on Oregon Promise, visit www.oregonstudentaid.gov/oregon-promise.aspx.

There are more articles related to the value of education and paying for higher education on our website, QualityInfo.org. Here are a few that you might find relevant:

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