The Value of an Associate’s Degree

by Jason Payton

August 9, 2021

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 7.1% from 2015 to 2019 according to the American Community Survey, those with an associate’s degree or some college had an unemployment rate of 4.8%. On average from 2015 to 2019, Oregon workers with less than a high school diploma earned an average of $25,506 per year. Workers with an associate’s degree or some college had median earnings of $35,639 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 offered by community colleges. In fact, in the 2018-2019 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. In other cases students enroll at a community college in order to earn credits towards a bachelor’s degree and increase their chances of acceptance at a four-year institution. According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 49% 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% 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 2020-2021 school year the average tuition cost for an Oregon resident to attend a community college was $5,962, compared with $11,306 at one of Oregon’s public universities and $37,258 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 a higher salary. Some 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 2,673 schools in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In Oregon, 11,457 students graduated with an associate’s degree from 29 schools during the same academic year. Women accounted for 58% of graduates and men for 42%. Nationally, women accounted for a slightly higher 61% of associate degrees awarded in 2018-2019.

The number of associate’s degrees being awarded in Oregon increased over the decade that followed the Great Recession. 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 graduates receiving an associate’s degree to a peak of 14,272 in the 2012-2013 school year.
The number of degrees awarded leveled off as the economic expansion continued. The total of 13,538 associate’s degrees awarded in 2018-2019 reflect a 5% decrease from the peak level of degrees. 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 were near record lows leading up to the 2020 pandemic. 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 2018-2019 school year the top two programs of study accounted for 64% of associate’s degrees awarded in the state – and they are general programs geared toward students transferring to four-year institutions. Nearly 5,000 graduates were awarded degrees in liberal arts and sciences or liberal studies in 2019. Another 3,322 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 25 programs. The top associate’s degree programs ratchet up the maintenance industry labor supply with programs in automotive and diesel mechanic technology. 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 other office administrative roles are also among the top associate’s 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 8%. 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% of projected job openings between 2019 and 2029.

Occupations that require an associate’s degree to be competitive are projected to have just over 216,000 job openings between 2019 and 2029. 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.
There’s heavy representation of office and administrative support and business support roles, health care, protective service, and supervisory and management jobs.

Associate’s degrees provide a major pathway for workers seeking a new career path, or an intermediate step along the way towards attaining a higher education. Here are some articles related to the value of education and paying for higher education on our website, QualityInfo.org:
Paying for College
Tips for Boosting Your College Savings
Find Your Future at an Oregon Community College!


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