Whether you're just graduating from high school or are thinking about going back to get some sort of post-secondary education, learning the differences between having an associate degree vs. a diploma can help you to make a decision. Between the differences in income that you can earn, your ability to find a job, unemployment rates and other factors, having an associate degree or a high school diploma can make a substantial impact on your career options.
An associate degree, according to the City College of San Francisco, is an undergraduate program that junior colleges, community colleges and technical schools traditionally offer. Some schools offer a general education associate degree that may include a broad array of liberal arts content, classes that transfer to a bachelor's level program or a specific focus such as nursing or paralegal. Most associate degrees consist of roughly 60 college and credits and take two years to complete, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the BLS notes that an associate degree doesn't have the same impact on salary that a four-year college degree does -- with a weekly median earnings average of $785 vs. $1,066 in 2012 -- it does offer training and income advantages over having no education or just a high school diploma.
While having a high school diploma won't qualify you for a specific skilled trade, it can give you a leg up in the job market over a dropout. The general classes that high school students take give them a background in an array of subjects such as math, science, English and the arts and set the stage for a further education and an associate or bachelor's level degree. Without additional training, jobs that a high school diploma prepare you for are typically the most entry-level positions or in fields that require little to no specialized education such as food services.
The bottom line when look at an associate degree vs. a diploma is the type of career that each one prepares you for. Jobs that necessitate skills or specific knowledge are typically not open to diploma holders. For example, you can earn a nursing degree in an associate program -- providing you with the opportunity to make up to $31.10 per hour, according to the BLS's 2010 median pay statistics -- and become a registered nurse. On the other hand, the possibility of becoming an RN with a high school diploma is nonexistent. When it comes to overall earnings, the BLS figures for 2012 show that associate degree holders make an average of $785 per week, while high school grads make over $100 less at $652 per week. Likewise, associate degree holders have a higher rate of employment over those with a diploma -- with the BLS rate for July 2013 of 63.2 percent of the population with an associate's degree having jobs vs. an employment rate of 54.5 of diploma holders. Additionally, the unemployment rate for high school graduates with no further education is slightly higher -- at 7.6 as of July 2013 -- than the 6 percent rate for those with an associate degree.
Although you can earn more, have a better likelihood of finding a job and have less of a chance of winding up unemployed with an associate degree, you may find some similarities between this level of educational attainment and a high school diploma. For example, both degrees have a significantly lower overall income than a bachelor's degree. According to the BLS's 2012 facts and figures, the median weekly earnings for four-year college graduates is $1,066. This is several hundred dollars more a week, and several thousand more per year, than either associate degree or diploma holders. Additionally, moving forward into a professional level program -- such as veterinary medicine -- or graduate school is not possible with an associate degree or diploma. These types of higher learning programs -- such as a master's degree -- will require a minimum of a bachelor's degree for application.