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10 Highest-paying associate degree options: Your complete guide

By choosing one of the highest-paying associate degrees, you may find financially rewarding careers without a four-year degree.
Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor
The cooling towers of a nuclear powerplant, backed by a sunset, reflect in a still body of water.

Many students use associate degrees to access entry-level careers or further training, but these programs can offer even more. The highest-paying associate degrees can lead to financial rewards usually reserved for professionals with much more advanced training. 

Here, we explore these degree options and the careers to which they lead. We highlight what the training entails and the requirements for each field. 

Why enroll in an associate degree program?

On-campus and online associate degrees provide students with many benefits, including:

  • Quick access to entry-level careers
  • A solid foundation for advanced training, such as bachelor's programs
  • Shorter and more affordable training than four-year programs
  • Career-based training
  • Transferrable credits that reduce the cost and time of future training

10 associate degrees that lead to high-paying jobs

The highest-paying associate degree may vary depending on employer, industry, and location. For example, an associate degree in business administrationmay lead to management positions and an associate degree in computer sciencecan lead to a rewarding cybersecurity salary

To make accurate recommendations, we looked at the highest median annual salaries for careers that typically require an associate degree for entry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

From among the degrees that lead to these high-paying careers, we selected a broad sampling of disciplines and industries. The results are listed in alphabetical order below. 

1. Aerospace engineering technology

Post-grad career(s): Aerospace engineering technician, mechanical systems engineer, and aeronautics specialist
Earning potential: $73,580
Additional certifications needed? No, but employers may require aerospace technician core certification.

An associate in aerospace engineering technology equips students with the skills to use computers and mathematics to solve problems in the mechanical and aerospace engineering fields. Learners take courses in computer-aided design and applications and computational methods.

They also learn to run engineering tests and experiments and troubleshoot engineering challenges, plus operate various engineering technologies. These professionals typically work in the manufacturing and research and development fields.

2. Air traffic controller

Post-grad career(s): Tower controller, en route controller, and approach and departure controller
Earning potential: $129,750
Additional certifications needed? Yes, an air traffic control tower operator certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration is required.

An associate in air traffic controller prepares students to communicate with pilots and monitor and direct aircraft traffic. Students learn to read radar and weather patterns. They also study federal aviation laws and guidelines. 

In their training, students use air traffic simulators and complex tower technologies and equipment. These professionals usually work in towers and centers at airports or in offices.

3. Aviation maintenance

Post-grad career(s): Aircraft equipment mechanic, avionics technician, and aircraft repair professional
Earning potential: $65,550
Additional certifications needed? Yes, an airframe and/or powerplant certificate is required by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

An associate in aviation maintenance prepares students for the airframe and powerplant mechanic's certification. The training covers aviation computing and aircraft systems, including instruments, electrical, and power systems. Students also learn how to maintain and repair aircraft structures. 

Learners get familiar with regular and irregular engine noises, identifying potential issues, and reading gauges. Aviation maintenance professionals typically work on or near airfields in hangars and repair stations.

4. Dental hygiene

Post-grad career(s): Dental hygienist and dental assistant 
Earning potential: $77,810
Additional certifications needed? No, but students need to pass the National Board Dental Examination for licensure. 

An associate in dental hygiene teaches students to safely and ethically assess a patient's oral health, perform cleanings, and educate patients on healthy oral care. They also learn to assist dentists, communicate with patients, and control infections. 

During their training, dental hygiene students engage in laboratory and clinical practice. Their work primarily takes place in dentist and physician offices. Government work may also be available.

5. Diagnostic medical sonography

Post-grad career(s): Diagnostic medical sonographer and cardiovascular technologist
Earning potential: $75,380
Additional certifications needed? No, but professional certification may be preferred, such as one from the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers.

Within an associate in diagnostic medical sonography, students learn about the human body, medical imaging rules and regulations, and how to communicate with patients and medical professionals. 

They gain familiarity with medical terminology, using imaging technologies, and methods for imaging the body.

During their training, students must complete extensive clinical experiences under supervision. In their careers, they primarily work in hospitals, physician offices, medical clinics, and care centers. 

6. Drafting and design technology

Post-grad career(s): Electronics drafter, mechanical drafter, and civil drafter
Earning potential: $60,290
Additional certifications needed? No, but certification from the American Design Drafting Association is available. 

An associate in drafting and design technology equips students with skills in computer-aided design and manufacturing processes. Learners study manufacturing standards and practice using common technologies, software, and applications. 

Students receive practical training in using drafting equipment and machine tools while also adhering to safety protocols. Their work may take them into manufacturing plants. However, drafters mainly need access to their office and computers, which can allow them to work from home. 

7. Nuclear technology

Post-grad career(s): Nuclear technician, radiation protection technician, and nuclear monitoring technician
Earning potential: $99,340
Additional certifications needed? No, but certifications are available, such as that from the American Society for Nondestructive Testing.

Within an associate in nuclear technology, students learn to work with nuclear technology and radioactive materials safely and effectively. They study nuclear systems and sources, applications, and management and safety standards and practices. 

In addition to coursework, students complete extensive practical training and internships. The work in this field takes place in or near nuclear power plants. Professionals may work in control rooms, offices, or outside. 

8. Nuclear medicine technology

Post-grad career(s): Nuclear medicine technologist, nuclear cardiology technologist, and positron emission tomography (PET) technologist
Earning potential: $78,760
Additional certifications needed? Yes, national certification is required from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board.

Students in an associate in nuclear medicine technology learn to perform imaging and therapeutic procedures. They study the use of radiation detection systems and radiopharmaceuticals, along with the risks and safety requirements. 

In addition to coursework, students gain experience working with patients and field equipment during their required hospital observations and clinical training. Their work takes place in hospitals, physician offices, labs, and healthcare clinics and centers. 

9. Radiation therapy 

Post-grad career(s): Radiation therapist
Earning potential: $82,790
Additional certifications needed? Yes, states may require certification from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists.

An associate in radiation therapy gives students skills to operate linear accelerators and other machines to treat patients with cancer. They learn radiation dosimetry, computerized treatment planning methods, and safety standards. 

Degree-seekers also study oncology and the physics of radiation, plus patient assessment and communication strategies. Their studies include extensive training in clinical settings and simulations. Their work takes place in hospitals, clinics, labs, and physician offices. 

10. Respiratory therapy

Post-grad career(s): Respiratory therapist, sleep disorder specialist, pulmonary function technologist
Earning potential: $61,830
Additional certifications needed? Yes, most states require certification from the National Board for Respiratory Care.

An associate in respiratory therapy teaches students the primary respiratory care techniques for various patient types. They also study the major diseases faced in the profession, patient assessment strategies and methods, and therapeutic practices. 

Students in these programs complete extensive practical work via simulations and clinical internships. Their work takes place in hospitals, nursing care facilities, and physician offices. 

Unless otherwise noted, salary data is drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of July 29, 2022.

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