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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Tabitha Rain, right, with an associate degree in nursing, talks with Gracie Woodward.
I don't think people realize that associate degrees can get you far. —Danielle Allison

HERRIMAN — At 18, Danielle Allison had big dreams.

She wanted to go to Pepperdine and get her law degree, become an attorney and make a difference. But before she committed to that route, which would have included at least seven years of schooling and tens of thousands of dollars of debt, her dad suggested she take a few law classes at her local community college to see if that was really the road she wanted to take.

After taking a few classes, Allison decided to get her associate's degree in paralegal studies and try out the workforce for a while. That was 17 years ago. She never went back to school. She found she could do exactly want she wanted and live her dreams without a bachelor's or graduate degree and without debt.

"I don't think people realize that associate degrees can get you far," said the 37-year-old, who now owns her own paralegal business.

Amidst the push for more and more students to get an education, there has not been much of a push for students to get an associate degree, which has long been considered more of a stepping stone degree. Even Allison was surprised by how much she learned with a two-year degree. But as college prices have continued to rise and the number of years to get a degree has also gone up, more students may do well to consider getting an associate's degree, says Miranda Marquit, a financial researcher and freelance writer for AllBusiness.com, one of the largest online resources for small businesses.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found that the projected growth from 2010 to 2020 for jobs requiring associate degree holders is higher than the projected growth for jobs requiring bachelor degree holders. And 28 percent of people with an associate's degree actually make more money than the median bachelor's degree holder, according to a 2011 study from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Workforce ready

Allison, for instance, makes up to $100,000 some years, she said, explaining that students with associate degrees need to be assertive about what they know. Especially in places like Utah where many people are highly educated, she said some employers don't know how prepared two-year degree holders are for the workforce.

"It taught me everything I needed to know," Allison said of her associate's degree. "It enabled me to get right into the workforce. I don't think it has ever held me back."

Even if students are planning to get a bachelor's, she suggests they try out a two-year degree in their field of choice to see if it's really something they want to get into.

That's what Danny Kofke did, a special education teacher from Atlanta. He got his

two-year degree at a local community college before going on to get his bachelor's, which made it easier for him to find a part time job while completing his four-year degree and also made him feel at ease that if he wasn't able to finish his B.A., he had something to fall back on.

Currently less than two-thirds of full-time students who start their bachelor's degree end up finishing within eight years, twice the amount of time it is supposed to take. And the longer it takes to get a degree, the more likely students are to drop out, says Tom Sugar with Complete College America, an organization that hopes to encourage states to improve college graduation rates.

Also, getting a two-year degree is more profitable than starting a bachelor's degree and then dropping out. Students with an associate's degree end up making $180,000 more over a lifetime than those with some college and no degree, according to a recent study by thee Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

A Marketable skill

But while Kofke needed a bachelor's to fulfill his dream of being a teacher, in the workplace today, many people are being overeducated for the jobs they end up having, said George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy based in Raleigh, N.C. He said many college grads today are underemployed and that by pushing a bachelor's (or even a college) degree on everyone, it contributes to degree inflation.

Marquit, who has been writing about finance for the last several years, recently wrote an article about degrees for AllBusiness.com and concluded that "a formal four-year degree isn't always the way to go."

"In this economy, and with the way things are moving, you have to have a marketable skill," Marquit said. "We have this sentiment that 'if you don't have a four-year degree, you are doomed.' That isn't true. But it is important to get an education in a marketable skill."

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics named registered nurses (an occupation that only requires an associate degree) as one of the fields expected to have the largest job growth over the next eight years. And of those jobs with the most projected growth, it has the highest median annual salary at $64,690.

In its report, the bureau predicted that from 2010 to 2020, the number of registered nurses will grow by more than 700,000 – a 26 percent increase.

Other jobs like dental hygienists, which make about $68,250 a year, and occupational therapy assistants which make about $51,010 annually also only require a two-year degree and are seen as some of the fastest growing jobs.

In February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that generally a person with more education will make more money, but a person who gets an associate degree in a technical field "may very well have higher earnings than those with higher levels (of education)." For instance, it reports that a person with an associate's degree in engineering will make about $1,000 more a month than a person with a bachelor's in elementary education.

On average those with some college and no degree earn about $600 less a month than those with an associate's degree, the report states. And those with a bachelor's degree make about $1,200 more than those with an associate's.

Difference between the A's

People who get an occupation specific degree and then go into that field end up making about 30 to 40 percent more than those who don't go into their specific field of study, said Stephen J. Rose, who has worked for the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce for the last 10 years. But he also mentioned, that the more education a person gets, the less important it is to work in his or her field of study.

This is why many people push students to get a bachelor's degree. Bachelor degree holders earn, on average, about 31 percent more than workers with an associate's degree, according to Rose, Anthony P. Carnevale and Ban Cheah in their report The College Payoff.

"No matter how you cut it, more education pays," the report concludes. But it also emphasizes that even for those like Allison who don't get a bachelor's or graduate degree, two-year degrees holders make a "sizeable economic return" by going to college.