Five Associate's Degrees with Payoff Potential

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Check out these five associate's degrees that may lead to career options with high average pay prospects.

By Chris Kyle

Do you want to earn a degree that could help you prep to pursue career prospects that pay?

Earning a bachelor's and/or graduate degree isn't the only path to a career with big earning potential.

According to "The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings," a 2011 report co-authored by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and the Lumina Foundation, 28 percent of people with an associate's degree make at least as much as the average bachelor's degree holder.

While there are no guarantees that having a specific degree will lead to a specific career or salary, keep reading to learn more about some paths with the potential for some sweet payback.

#1 Degree - Paralegal Studies

Want to pursue a career in the legal field, but not inclined to study for a bachelor's plus law school? An associate's degree in paralegal studies could offer you a possible return on your investment.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, one common path to preparing to pursue a career as a paralegal is earning an associate's degree in paralegal studies. Already have a bachelor's in an unrelated field? Earning a certificate could also work.

Granted, this isn't the associate's degree to earn if you're uncertain about what profession you want to pursue, as paralegal studies students take classes that prepare them to pursue paralegal careers. In fact, according to the College Board, an educational organization that administers tests like the SAT, you might take courses like civil procedure, ethics, criminal law, and legal research and writing.

Click to Find the Right Paralegal Studies Program.

Potential Payback: As a paralegal, you may help attorneys prep for cases and draft contracts, according to the Department of Labor. It's possible that you may even venture out into the field (a la Erin Brokovich) to gather facts and statements that may be used as evidence in court.

According to the 2011 Georgetown study, the average lifetime income for a paralegal with an associate's degree is $1.7 million. This number covers a 40-year career as a paralegal.

Paralegal Median Annual Wage: $46,730*
Average Wage for Workers in the 10th percentile: $29,390
Average Wage for Workers in the 90th percentile: $75,400


#2 Degree - Accounting

Want to pursue a numbers-oriented degree with the potential to pay you back? Consider earning an associate's degree in accounting.

This type of program could help you qualify for a career as a bookkeeping clerk, says the U.S. Department of Labor, which notes that 25 percent of bookkeeping clerks have an associate's degree or higher.

As for what you'll study...the College Board notes that "accounting majors learn how to gather, record, analyze, interpret, and communicate information about an individual's or organization's financial performance and risks." There's also a good chance you'll learn how to keep the books and record financial transactions.

Click to Find the Right Accounting Program.

Potential Payback: Bookkeeping clerks "often are responsible for some or all of an organization's accounts, known as the general ledger," says the Department of Labor. Duties might include tracking overdue accounts, producing financial statements, and handling payroll.

Over a 40-year career, the 2011 Georgetown study reports bookkeeping clerks with an associate's degree to have an average income of $1.3 million.

Bookkeeping Clerk Median Annual Wage: $34,740*
Average Wage for Workers in the 10th percentile: $21,450
Average Wage for Workers in the 90th percentile: $53,250


#3 Degree - Criminal Justice

Did you enjoy playing cops and robbers as a kid? While earning an associate's degree in criminal justice won't be all fun and games, it could help prepare you to pursue a career seeking law and order.

Education requirements for police officers vary, says the U.S. Department of Labor, but "many agencies require some college coursework or a college degree."

And just what will you study in a criminal justice degree program? According to the College Board, you might take courses in law criminology, victimology, criminal law, and police society. What's more, these courses could help you "explore every aspect of crime, the law, and the justice system."

Click to Find the Right Criminal Justice Program.

Potential Payback: As a police officer, you might find yourself enforcing laws, arresting suspects, and preparing cases and testifying in court, says the Department of Labor.

According to the 2011 Georgetown study, over the course of a 40-year career, police officers with some college have an average lifetime income of $2.2 million. Those with an associate's were listed with an average lifetime income of $2.4 million.

Police Officer Median Annual Wage: $54,230*
Average Wage for Workers in the 10th percentile: $32,080
Average Wage for Workers in the 90th percentile: $84,980


#4 Degree - Graphic Design

Want to earn a degree that could help you prep to pursue creative career opportunities? An associate's in graphic design could help.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this program could help you prep to go after an entry-level position as a desktop publisher.

As you study, you'll take fun and creative courses that might include graphic design studio, history of graphic design, and typography, notes the College Board, which adds that "graphic design majors learn the design and computer skills necessary to create the look for books, magazines, CD jackets, websites, and more."

Click to Find the Right Graphic Design Program.

Potential Payback: In this career, you'll likely use computer software to design and layout books, brochures, and newsletters for companies and clients, the Department of Labor adds.

The average lifetime income for miscellaneous office and administrative support workers (including desktop publishers) with an associate's degree is $1.5 million, says the 2011 Georgetown study. Note: This covers a typical 40-year career.

Desktop Publisher Median Annual Wage: $36,800*
Average Wage for Workers in the 10th percentile: $21,320
Average Wage for Workers in the 90th percentile: $59,560


#5 Degree - Nursing

If your idea of payoff consists of job opportunities and rewarding work, an associate's degree in nursing might be a good option to consider.

This degree or a diploma in nursing are two educational paths you can take to prepare to pursue a career as a registered nurse (RN), according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In fact, the College Board notes that "nursing majors train to care for sick and disabled patients and to promote better health," adding that commonly offered courses include mental-health nursing, nutrition, and psychology.

Click to Find the Right Nursing Program.

Potential Payback: As a registered nurse, you might jot down a patient's medical history and symptoms, provide medicine and treatments to patients, and set up care plans.

According to the 2011 Georgetown study, over a 40-year career, the average lifetime income for RNs with an associate's degree is $2.3 million.

Registered Nurse Median Annual Wage: $65,950*
Average Wage for Workers in the 10th percentile: $44,970
Average Wage for Workers in the 90th percentile: $96,630


*Unless otherwise noted, all average wage information comes from the U.S. Department of Labor using May 2011 data.


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