The Value of an Associate’s Degree

by Felicia Bechtoldt and Jessica Nelson

March 21, 2017

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 13.4 percent from 2011 to 2015 according to American Community Survey, those with an associate’s degree or some college had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent. On average from 2011 to 2015, Oregon workers with less than a high school diploma earned an average of $20,273 per year. Workers with an associate’s degree or some college saw their median earnings at $30,940 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. 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, 46 percent of all students in the U.S. graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the 2013-2014 school year had been enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the last 10 years. In Oregon, 55 percent of students (16,954 out of 30,935) 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 2016-2017 school year the average tuition cost for an Oregon resident to attend a community college was $4,983, compared with $9,302 at one of Oregon’s public universities and $31,738 at a private college in Oregon. During the 2013-2014 school year, 15,700 first-time full-time students received financial aid from federal, state, local, and institutional grants, loans and other aid at Oregon community colleges.

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 3,197 schools in the 2014-2015 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In Oregon, 13,681 students graduated with an associate’s degree from 39 schools during the same academic year. Women accounted for 58 percent of graduates and men for 42 percent.

Over a 10-year period the number of associate’s degree graduates increased 61 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 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years.
In Oregon’s neighboring states, about 133,000 students graduated with an associate’s degree from 279 schools in California, 30,300 students graduated from 58 schools in Washington, 6,100 students graduated from 17 schools in Nevada and 5,200 students graduated from 16 schools in Idaho. This includes students that graduated from community colleges and other public institutions, nonprofit and for-profit schools. During the last three years, many for-profit colleges closed as a result of the U.S. Department of Education’s new regulations governing for-profit schools.

What Are the Most Common Associate’s Degrees?

In the 2014-2015 school year the top two programs of study accounted for 57 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 2015. Another 2,700 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; and dental hygiene are all in the top 20 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 20 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 25 percent of projected job openings between 2014 and 2024.

About 48,400 job openings that will require an associate’s degree will be available between 2014 and 2024. In addition to the job openings 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. Two out of three job openings (31,993) are expected to be due to the need to replace workers who retire or otherwise leave their occupation, with the remaining openings due to new or expanding businesses.
Workers with an associate’s degree gain a competitive advantage in various occupations, including office and administrative support; professional and related; sales; health care; and installation, maintenance and repair.

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 2.5 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
Have filed a FAFSA or ORSAA application and listed at least one Oregon community college
Must not have more than 90 college credits completed or attempted

For more information on Oregon Promise, visit

There are more articles related to the value of education and paying for higher education on our website, Here are a few that you might find relevant:
Paying for College
Career Pathways at Community Colleges
Tips for Boosting Your College Savings
Find Your Future at an Oregon Community College!

Our Latest Articles Our Latest Articles

Latest Items