15 Worst Associate Degrees for Student Loan Debt

Discover the associate degrees that can leave you drowning in debt, not job offers.

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Updated May 28, 2024
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Pursuing higher education is commendable but can come with a hefty price tag, particularly when student loans enter the equation.

While some degrees can lead to lucrative careers, others may not offer the same financial promise, forcing you to find ways to make extra money.

Here are 15 associate degrees known to accumulate higher student loan debt relative to the income potential they provide. 

Editor's note: All data is from the Education Data Initiative, which includes government, academic, and public sources.

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Alternative and Complementary Medicine

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An associate degree in alternative and complementary medicine focuses on non-traditional health care methods, such as acupuncture and massage therapy. While these practices offer holistic health benefits, the job market for graduates can be limited.

Potential careers include becoming a holistic healer, naturopathic doctor, wellness consultant, massage therapist, or acupuncturist. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $38,533.

Public Health

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A focus on community health and disease prevention makes this degree appealing, but it often leads to student loan debt that outweighs career earnings.

Graduates may find themselves in roles like epidemiologists, public health analysts, health care administrators, medical coders, or medical transcriptionists.

These tend to have modest salaries, and the average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $27,135.

Music

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A degree in music can open doors to the world of melodies and harmonies, but it may not harmonize well with your financial future. 

Musicians and music graduates often face a competitive job market in roles such as music teacher, session musician, and sound engineer.

Generally, the income from gigs or teaching music lessons may not be sufficient to repay student loans comfortably. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $22,649.

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Management Information Systems and Services

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A degree in management information systems and services often leads to financial woes for graduates. While technology careers can be lucrative, this degree may not provide the technical depth and specialization required for high-paying roles.

Graduates often face competition in the job market and may struggle to secure well-paying positions such as an IT consultant, a database administrator, or a cybersecurity analyst. 

The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $22,541.

Data Processing

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A degree in data processing can lead to roles like data analyst, statistician, and business intelligence specialist, but these positions can be limited. 

With the rise of automation and technology, many data-related tasks are becoming automated, reducing job opportunities.

It's wiser to pursue more advanced degrees in data science, analytics, or related fields. The average student loan debt for someone seeking an associate degree in data processing is $22,194.

Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management

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This degree is often associated with the arts and entertainment industry, where job opportunities can be competitive and salaries modest. 

Graduates may work in roles such as talent manager, event planner, and arts administrator, but breaking into these fields can be challenging.

The creative industry's unpredictability and the need for extensive networking can make it difficult for individuals with this degree. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $21,460.


Film/Video and Photographic Arts

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While this degree can be a gateway to artistic and creative careers, it often comes with limited job prospects. Graduates may find work as videographers, photographers, or in film production, but competition is fierce, and positions may be freelance or inconsistent.

The entertainment industry's unpredictability can make it challenging to secure a stable income. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $21,175.

Visual and Performing Arts

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Pursuing a degree in visual and performing arts can be a passionate choice, but it's often financially risky. 

Graduates in this field typically venture into careers as painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, and musicians, where steady employment can be challenging.

Many artists work freelance or gig-based jobs, leading to income instability and making it difficult to manage student loan debt. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $20,400.

Criminology

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Criminology involves the study of crime, criminal behavior, and the justice system. While it may sound intriguing, graduates often face financial challenges. 

Jobs within criminology, such as criminologist, probation officer, private investigator, or crime analyst, often require advanced degrees for career progression.

Entry-level positions typically involve lower salaries, making it difficult to repay student loans. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $20,708.

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Accounting

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An associate degree in accounting can pave the way for jobs like certified public accountant, auditor, financial analyst, bookkeeper, auditing clerk, or financial assistant. 

However, while these roles are essential for businesses, the earning potential at the associate's level is relatively modest.

Graduates often face high student loan debt with relatively lower starting salaries. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $20,045.

Human Services

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An associate degree in human services may lead to social worker, counselor, nonprofit program manager, mental health technician, or case management aide positions.

While these roles are vital for community support, the salaries for entry-level positions often lag behind the average student loan debt incurred to earn the degree. 

The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $19,644.

Computer and Information Sciences

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An associate degree in computer and information sciences is a common entry point into the tech field, with graduates often pursuing careers as software developers, network engineers, systems analysts, or computer support specialists.

While the technology sector generally offers competitive salaries, the cost of education can sometimes outweigh the benefits at the associate level. 

The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $19,834.

Mental and Social Health services and Allied Professions

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An associate degree in mental and social health services typically prepares students for roles as marriage therapists, substance abuse counselors, clinical psychologists, or psychiatric technicians.

While the field serves critical societal needs, it often offers lower starting salaries compared to the investment in education. 

Additionally, graduates may need to complete additional coursework or gain experience to advance their careers. The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $18,436.

Hospitality Administration and Management

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Earning an associate degree in hospitality administration or management opens doors to entry-level roles in the hospitality industry, such as hotel or restaurant management, event coordinator, or restaurant owner.

While these positions can be rewarding, the salaries at the outset are often modest compared to the cost of education. Additionally, many positions require long hours and challenging schedules.

The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $18,435.

Business Administration, Management, and Operations

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An associate degree in business administration, management, or operations is a versatile choice, but it doesn't always guarantee a high return on investment.

Graduates often face stiff competition for entry-level positions like business manager, operations analyst, or marketing specialist, and the starting salaries might not be substantial enough to justify the cost of tuition.

The average student loan debt for someone pursuing this degree is $18,083.

Bottom Line

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Choosing a college major involves considering your interests and the potential return on investment. While these degrees may align with your passions, they can result in higher student loan debts than other fields.

Before committing to one, research career prospects, salary expectations, and alternative financing options. 

Financial planning and scholarships can help crush your debt and alleviate the burden of student loans, ensuring your education doesn't become a financial trap.


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Author Details

Adam Palasciano

Adam Palasciano is a personal finance-obsessed and money-savvy individual who loves to hash out content on all things saving money. He specializes in writing millennial-friendly personal finance content, covering topics ranging from trending financial news, debt, credit cards, cryptocurrency, and more.