After graduating high school, students are often encouraged to attend a four‒year college or university. They’re told that a bachelor’s degree, albeit expensive, is their ticket to sustained financial security.
And while that remains true, a 2020 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce suggests a bachelor’s degree is not the only avenue to a high income and that what students choose to study, in fact, matters more to potential earnings than education level.
“Less education can often be worth more,” the report states. “In fact, some certificate holders can earn more than those with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and some associate’s degree holders can earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. In other words, certificates and associate’s degrees — credentials on the middle‒skills pathway — can be viable routes to economic opportunity.”
Already, about 50 percent of postsecondary students taking undergraduate coursework are enrolled in certificate and associate’s degree programs, according to the report. Only 47 percent of those in this demographic are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs.
And amid the COVID‒19 pandemic, certificates and associate’s degrees, which are often earned at community colleges, are becoming even more popular, as many students are looking for educational opportunities that are cheaper and closer to home.
Here’s a list of top certificates and associate’s degrees based on their earning potential.
Top certificates types by median income
- Engineering technologies or drafting: $75,001‒$150,000
- Mechanic or repair technologies: $40,001‒50,000
- Manufacturing or production: $40,001‒50,000
- Law enforcement, security, or firefighting: $40,001‒50,000
- Construction trades: $40,001‒50,000
- Computer science or information technology: $30,001‒40,000
- Business management, administration, or marketing: $30,001‒40,000
- Audio, broadcasting, multimedia, or graphic technologies: $30,001‒40,000
- Accounting, finance, insurance, or real estate: $30,001‒40,000
- Transportation: $20,001‒$30,000
- Health care: $20,001‒$30,000
- Culinary arts: $20,001‒$30,000
- Administrative support: $20,001‒$30,000
- Education: $10,001‒20,000
- Cosmetology: $10,001‒20,000
Top associate’s degree fields by median income
- Engineering or architecture: $50,001‒$60,000
- Law enforcement, security, or firefighting: $40,001‒$50,000
- Health care: $40,001‒$50,000
- Construction, repair, manufacturing, or transportation: $40,001‒$50,000
- Business management, administration, or marketing: $40,001‒$50,000
- Agriculture: $40,001‒$50,000
- Social or human services, or public administration: $30,001‒$40,000
- Science or mathematics: $30,001‒$40,000
- Liberal arts: $30,001‒$40,000
- Law or legal studies: $30,001‒$40,000
- Computer science or information technology: $30,001‒$40,000
- Audio, broadcasting, multimedia, or graphic technologies: $30,001‒$40,000
- Administrative support: $30,001‒$40,000
- Accounting, finance, insurance, or real estate: $30,001‒$40,000
- Fine arts or music: $20,001‒$30,000
- Education: $20,001‒$30,000
The authors of the report explain that many certificate and associate’s degree programs are directly linked to career paths. In fact, roughly 94 percent of certificates and 57 percent of associate’s degrees are awarded in career‒oriented fields, according to the report.
This direct career pathway is a big part of the reason certificate and associate’s degree programs pay off.
In one example, workers who report being employed in a job related to their certificate program or associate’s degree report higher median earnings ‒‒ between $40,001 and $50,000 ‒‒ than those who are working in an unrelated job ‒‒ between $20,001 and $30,000.
And, of course, some students opt to use a certificate or an associate’s degree as a stepping stone to furthering their education and, in turn, their income. Those who pursue associate’s degrees in liberal arts or general studies, for example, often end up transferring to a bachelor’s degree program.
Notably, a bachelor’s degree remains the gold standard for earnings and stable employment throughout one’s life. But, this research proves it is not the only ticket to economic success.
This information is particularly reassuring for those who’ve experienced financial setbacks amid the COVID‒19 pandemic. Community colleges in the United States cost an average of $3,730 a year. And in some states, including New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, free community college is already an option.
Depending on what students opt to study, certificates and associate’s degrees may be a better investment than a bachelor’s degree.
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.