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Is an Associate's Degree Sufficient Higher Education?

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When considering making an investment in your education, you probably often wonder how much education will be enough for your career goals? The bottom line is that it takes researching your field and job prospects to determine the answer to that question.

Is More Higher Education in Your Future?

If you are considering earning a college degree, whether right out of college or later in life as a career changer, the prospect of entering any form of higher education can be scary. The news is littered with stories of students who graduate and can't find jobs, and others who have accrued a mountain of debt in pursuit of higher education. As a result, you may be considering attending community college to earn an associate degree, rather than plunging into a four-year college. The question on your mind still, however, is will an associate degree be enough higher education for me? The answer depends on a few different factors.

How Employers Perceive Associate Degrees

The first issue you may be worried about is how your associate degree will be viewed by prospective employers. You probably wonder if they will throw your resume into the 'no' pile simply because you don't have a four-year degree. The reality is that as long as you aren't applying for a job that requires a four-year degree, such as being a teacher or civil engineer, then probably not. Employers look more favorably on associate degrees than you might think.

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First, the fact that you finished an associate degree demonstrates that you have one characteristic every employer values: work ethic. Odds are, you probably are planning to work and earn your associate degree at the same time because of the flexible schedule community colleges offer. Working and earning a degree is no easy task, and it will show your future employer that you are committed to getting a job done. Even if you don't have a job while you work on your degree, odds are you will have an internship or other requirements to demonstrate your work ethic is strong.

Furthermore, the more you specialize within a field, the less important how much higher education you pursued will be. For example, more general type computer jobs have a greater applicant pool. As a result, there are more people competing and so higher education would be more important. However, if you start getting into fields that require specific licenses or certifications, the amount of education matters less. Prospective employers are more concerned with do you have the specific skills or certifications for the job because the pool of qualified applicants starts to shrink.

What is your Field of Study?

Before you answer the question as to whether or not an associate degree is enough education, you first need to consider what field you are interested in going into. While most fields have jobs for those with associate degree, some fields offer fairly well-paying jobs with just an associate degree.

For example, students who earn an associate degree in radiation technology and medical imaging have many job opportunities. They can be x-ray technicians, radiation therapists, and even sonographers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics radiation therapists had a median salary of $80,160 in 2016. If you consider in the same year, a two-year college in 2016 had average annual tuition of $3,520. Comparing salary to tuition, you are getting a good return on investment.

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Engineering technologies are another area where an associate degree is more than enough. Employers in these fields are more interested in your skills than whether or not you have a four-year college degree. Engineering technicians work in a wide range of environments from aerospace and refineries, to computer techs employed by nearly all industries on the planet. Associate degrees in this field often offer specific focuses to teach you the specific skills local employers need, making you more marketable. Typically, you hone those skills through internships giving you instant job experience.

Think Long-Term

When you are trying to decide if an associate degree is enough higher education, the bottom line is thinking about your career goals. Sometimes it makes sense to plan beyond an associate degree. In other cases, that extra education doesn't pay off. It all depends on what your short-term and long-term goals may be.

So first, let's consider some situations where going beyond an associate degree doesn't necessarily make sense. For example, let's say you want to be a dental hygienist. To meet the requirements for a license, you have to have to earn an associate degree. However, dental schools do typically offer a bachelor's degree option to become a dental hygienist. While there are a few employers that may require a bachelor's degree, the reality is that you have the same opportunities and same pay with either degree.

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On the other hand, your long-term goals might require you to eventually build on your associate degree and get a bachelor's degree. Let's say, for example, you want to be able to run the lab tests rather than just collecting and labeling specimens. Whether you work in a hospital or independent lab, you would need to pursue a bachelor's degree to make that happen.

Think About Your Goals

If you want to determine whether an associate degree is enough for your ideal job, the best thing you can do is research. Spend a lot of time going through job postings that appeal to you and see what the employer requires. If that doesn't help, call the human resources department at places you would like to work and ask them about their education requirements. Even the career center at the community college will be well informed about how much education you need to break into your field now, and if further higher education will help you advance into higher paying positions. Then, you will be able to make an educated decision on how much higher education you need to meet your career goals.

By Rachel Tustin
November 2017
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