Is an Associate's Degree Worth It? Five Things to Consider First
An Associate’s degree is appealing to students for numerous reasons. It only takes two years to earn one, so full-time students are out of the job market for a shorter period of time than they would be while earning a Bachelor’' degree. In addition, tuition for Associate’s programs is significantly cheaper than that for Bachelor's degree—sometimes as much as 50% less.
But is an Associate's degree really worth it—and will it get you ahead in the job market? The answer depends on the expectations of your industry—as well as on what other job applicants are doing. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before making the decision to apply for an Associate’s degree program.
What’s your competition doing?
Today's job market is highly competitive and flooded with highly qualified candidates—many of which have Bachelor's degrees and higher. If most of the people you’ll be competing with for jobs have Bachelor's degrees, you’ll have a hard time competing with an Associate's. In many industries, Bachelor's degrees are expected even for entry-level jobs. Check around and talk to some hiring managers or recruiters who work in your industry, or check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook. Search the database for the job you’re hoping to land, and find out what the typical education expectation is. If it’s a Bachelor’s degree or higher, you won’t get far if you stop at an Associate’s degree.
Will an Associate’s be enough to meet your goals?
Some employers will hire applicants with Associate's degrees for entry-level jobs, but even if you get hired, you might have trouble advancing without a higher degree. Talk to some people who have been in your industry long enough to advance, and find out what their expectations are for employees with increasing levels of responsibility. If you find yourself looking for promotions, you may have to go back to school at some point in your career.
Is this Associate's transferable to a Bachelor's?
Some Associate's degrees are designed to be applied to a Bachelor's degree program at a later date, while others are very difficult to impossible to transfer. Even if you don’t think you’ll want to go for a Bachelor's degree in the future at this point, you may change your mind later—especially if your industry expects Bachelor's degrees and higher for positions of increased responsibility. Be sure you know going in what type of program you’re signing up for. Talk to admissions counselors about your goals and be sure you’re getting an Associate's that can be transferred to a Bachelor’s degree program if needed.
Do you have industry experience?
If you have a large amount of experience in your industry, you may be able to stand out over less experienced candidates—even if they have a Bachelor’s and you have an Associate’s degree. Experience often goes a long way toward getting around education requirements in job descriptions, and even if a job description states a certain education requirement, you may still be an attractive candidate if you have a strong track record of success in the industry. However, if you’re planning on entering a new industry without prior experience after you graduate from college, you may have trouble competing against other candidates—especially if they have Bachelor’s degrees—for even entry-level positions.
Can you get around limits to getting a Bachelor's?
Some students decide to earn Associate's degrees because there’s some reason they feel they can't get a Bachelor's degree. For some students, tuition is the problem. For others, time off work and an inability to work and go to school at the same time can sink plans to earn a Bachelor’s degree. If you’re considering an Associate’s for this reason, think about getting a Bachelor’s degree in a nontraditional way—by going to school online, going part-time, or asking your employer about tuition reimbursement plans.
Associate’s degrees can be very appealing to many students—but they’re not for everyone. Before signing up to earn your Associate’s, consider what you want to do with it. If your industry expects a Bachelor’s for entry-level or increased-responsibility positions, it may be a good idea to consider applying your Associate’s credits toward earning a Bachelor’s degree at a later point.
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