Top 10 Highest Paying Associate’s Degrees 2021

Ever find yourself wishing you could get a job that pays great and doesn’t require the time and money you have to invest in a bachelor’s degree? Well, you’re really going to enjoy our ranking of the top 10 highest paying associate’s degrees. Just because an associate’s degree can be earned at a community college for an incredibly low price, and only takes two years, doesn’t mean you can’t get a great job with it! The median salaries for the top 10 highest paying associate’s degrees range from $60,000/yr to $122,990/yr. And we made sure to base our article on the median pay of the standard jobs you can get with the associate’s degree in question. So, while it’s theoretically possible to become a CEO of a major company with just an associate’s in business, it’s not likely enough for us to include an associate’s in business on that basis. We also didn’t include any jobs with negative job growth rates because we want you to be able to find a job in the field when you graduate! If you’ve got questions about earning an associate’s degree, make sure you check out our FAQ after the ranking.

#1. Associate’s in Air Traffic Control

Number one on our list of best paying associate’s degrees: associate’s in air traffic control. The first step toward becoming an air traffic controller is to get your associate’s degree. But because of the nature of the job, there tends to be many years of intensive on-the-job training, starting with the most basic, simple jobs and slowly growing into the more complex, crucial jobs. ATCs must also submit to medical and background checks and screenings for a history of alcohol or drug abuse, as well as regular screenings throughout their period of employment. The job requires intense concentration. ATCs tend to work primarily at airports, or at air traffic control towers between airports that monitor planes as they traverse the planet. The top 10% highest-earning air traffic controllers make over $176,320 per year. Air traffic control systems are pretty thoroughly established, so there’s rarely an influx of new jobs in the field. However, it is a high-stress job, so new jobs do open up regularly.

  • Median Pay: $122,990
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 1%
  • Number of New Jobs: 100

#2. Associate’s in Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapists treat cancer patients through the application of radiation treatments. It’s common for radiation therapists to hold a minimum of an associate’s degree, but also sometimes a bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy. Additional licenses may be required by the state in which you operate, or by employers. Typically, radiation therapists must at least pass a national certification exam. The top 10% of radiation therapists earn more than $128,630 per year.

  • Median Pay: $85,560
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 7%
  • Number of New Jobs: 1,300

#3. Associate’s in Nuclear Medicine Technology

Nuclear medicine technologists tend to work in doctor’s offices, labs, and imaging clinics. An associate’s degree in nuclear medicine technology is required, and often, additional certification or licensure will be required by state governments or employers, though this varies from state to state or employer to employer. The highest-earning 10% of nuclear medicine technologists earn more than $105,690 per year.

  • Median Pay: $77,950
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 5%
  • Number of New Jobs: 1,000

#4. Associate’s in Dental Hygiene

Coming at at #4 on our list of best paying associate’s degrees: associate’s in dental hygiene. It’s important to note that while becoming a dental hygienist typically only requires an associate’s degree, programs in this area of study can take three years to complete instead of two. All states do require dental hygienists to be licensed; you should check with your state to see the specific requirements there. There are a good number of dental hygienists who work part-time, so if you’re looking for a high-paying career option that will still pay well for part-time work, then it’s a great option. The top 10% of dental hygienists earn over $103,340 per year.

  • Median Pay: $76,220
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 6%
  • Number of New Jobs: 13,300

#5. Associate in Medical Sonography

A majority of diagnostic medical sonographers are employed full-time in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and laboratories. The best-paying positions can be found in outpatient care centers and hospitals. The highest-earning 10% of diagnostic medical sonographers earn more than $102,060 per year. The lowest-paying positions tend to be in laboratories, but even then, the pay is incredibly good for a job that only requires an associate’s degree.

  • Median Pay: $74,320
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 12%
  • Number of New Jobs: 15,600

#6. Associate’s in Web Development

There are a lot of “code schools” popping up these days, offering fast training in full-stack web development. However, many of these are expensive, not regionally accredited, and use unproven curricula. One of these best paying associate’s degrees in web development can sometimes be completed in just 12-18 months, and the right program will give you all the skills you need to become a full-stack developer. On top of that, associate’s degrees, especially those offered by community colleges, tend to be a much cheaper option because community colleges are nonprofit institutions with government funding. The top 10% of web developers earn over $142,080 per year.

  • Median Pay: $73,760
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 8%
  • Number of New Jobs: 14,000

#7. Associate’s in Nursing

The field of nursing is broad, and pay varies greatly, depending on where you work and what specialties you focus on. Nurses can be found mainly in hospitals, doctor’s offices, working for nursing homes and home healthcare companies,  in outpatient clinics, and schools. Registered nurses need to pass additional licensing/certification tests after graduating from their programs. While an associate’s degree is all that’s required to enter the profession, it’s common for nurses to eventually earn a bachelor’s or even master’s in nursing. Nurses who earn a master’s in nursing can become nurse practitioners. The highest-earning 10% of registered nurses earn over $111,220 per year.

  • Median Pay: $73,300
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 7%
  • Number of New Jobs: 221,900

#8. Associate’s in Engineering Technology

Aerospace Engineering Technicians generally need an associate’s in engineering technology, and it’s helpful if you can find one with a focus on aerospace engineering technology. Aerospace engineering techs are experts in the use and maintenance of equipment used to develop, test, produce, and maintain airplanes and spacecraft. There is a hazardous component to this work, due to the heavy equipment that is used and risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. Aerospace engineering techs tend to work in laboratories, officers, industrial plants, or manufacturing plants. The highest-earning 10% of aerospace engineering techs earn over $99,970 per year.

  • Median Pay: $66,020
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 7%
  • Number of New Jobs: 11,900

#9. Associate’s in Radiologic Technology

Even though most states don’t require MRI technologists to be certified, most employers do, so it’s best to go ahead and get that certification after you complete your associate’s degree. More than half of all MRI techs work in hospitals. While a bachelor’s degree isn’t required, there are bachelor’s degree and graduate certificate programs in radiologic technology that can benefit your career in the long run. The highest-earning 10% of MRI techs earn over $101,580 per year.

  • Median Pay: $73,410
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 7%
  • Number of New Jobs: 16,800

#10. Associate’s in Respiratory Care

An increase in middle-aged and elderly populations is contributing to a massive increase in need for respiratory therapists. Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical organizations. Alaska is the only state that doesn’t require respiratory therapists to be licensed, and licensure requirements differ from state to state. The 10% highest-earning respiratory therapists earn over $86,980 per year.

  • Median Pay: $61,330
  • Projected 10-year Growth: 19%
  • Number of New Jobs: 26,300


What are the most important things to consider when choosing where I will earn my associate’s degree?

There are several important factors to consider. Do you want to earn an online associate’s degree, or would you prefer a traditional classroom setting? If you want a traditional classroom setting, you should look at community colleges local to you. These will usually offer incredibly affordable, high-quality degrees. If an online degree appeals to you, you can branch out. Keep in mind that some state and community colleges charge more for out-of-state students, even if you’re earning the degree online.

You also want to make sure that the degree offered by the school you are considering meets the professional standards for the field you want to enter. You always want to make sure your school is regionally accredited. Regional accreditation is much more important than any other kind of accreditation. But some professions may require degrees to have additional accreditation beyond regional accreditation, so make sure you check on your state’s licensing standards, and maybe check out some job postings for the position in your area and see what their requirements are. That will give you a good idea of what program is a good fit for you. In fact, some employers in the area may even partner with local colleges.

It’s true that associate’s degrees are cheaper than most bachelor’s degrees. But they still seem expensive. What are my options for paying for my degree?

Federal and state financial aid is often quite generous, especially for students attending community colleges. And many community colleges are so cheap that just one or two grants might cover the cost of tuition! Keep in mind that even if your college of choice doesn’t have dorms, financial aid can often be used to pay for housing, food, books, and a computer and other school supplies. Make sure you fill out your FAFSA paperwork as early as possible to ensure you get all the aid you’re eligible for.

Also, try to attend a state college or, preferably, community college, in your state for your associate’s degree. These are always the cheapest options and often the highest-quality options for associate’s degrees.

My grades in high school weren’t great. Will I be able to get into a program for best paying associate’s degrees?

Most community colleges are actually open admission. This means everyone who applies will get in. And with the cheap prices, and solid need-based financial aid, you won’t need to worry too much about academic merit scholarships either. Community colleges are a perfect option for students who struggled in high school for one reason or another, especially because transferring from a community college to a state university, if you do decide to get your bachelor’s, will be based on your community college grades and not your high school grades. So work hard, and utilize all the resources that exist to help you up your grades! Most community colleges offer free or low-cost tutoring services; writing labs and math labs also exist to help students become better at those subjects.

Are the jobs in this ranking hard?

Many of them are hard, yes. Air Traffic Control is considered one of the most stressful jobs anyone can do because it requires intense concentration, incredible attention to detail, and the stakes are high. The jobs in the medical field are also often quite challenging, either physically, emotionally, or both. Web development is a technical field that can get quite complicated depending on the size of the project, and aerospace engineering technicians operate dangerous heavy machinery and work with some dangerous chemicals. But, if one of these jobs is the right fit for you, don’t worry too much about the challenges involved. If the job is a good fit, then the challenges that come with it will keep the job interesting and, in some cases, those challenges may be the reason it’s a great job for you!

Do these jobs pay better than bachelor’s degrees?

Most of these jobs actually do pay better than many jobs that require a bachelor’s degree. Of course, there are some bachelor’s degrees that pay incredibly well, but even those often pay in the same range as the top five best paying associate’s degrees in our ranking. Soon, we’ll be covering the best-paying jobs in the trades, and the best-paying jobs at other degree levels. So feel free to check out those articles and compare!

GCD Staff
September 2020

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This concludes our ranking of the top 10 highest paying associate’s degrees.