Wastewater Degrees: Associate, Bachelor's & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a wastewater degree program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's and bachelor's and potential careers.
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Studying Wastewater Issues: Degrees at a Glance

Most people think of sewers and water treatment plants in relation to wastewater, but it can also refer to water reclaimed from roof runoff, living walls and composting toilet systems. With an associate's degree, you could get a position as a wastewater operator. Although a bachelor's degree in wastewater studies is not available, you can learn about wastewater issues through introductory courses and electives in a civil or environmental engineering program. You'll probably need to pursue a graduate degree if you want to specialize in wastewater issues.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for water and wastewater engineers, environmental engineers and environmental protection technicians were projected to grow somewhere between 20% and 28% from 2010-2020, which was faster than the average for all occupations. Training and career information may be available from civic, government and professional associations, such as state environmental and wastewater management departments, the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want an entry-level position in wastewater operations Individuals interested in a professional wastewater systems design, management or policy position
Common Career Paths (with approximate salary) - Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator ($42,000)*
- Environmental engineering technician ($45,000)*
- First-line supervisor of plant operation workers ($54,000)*
- Environmental science and protection technicians ($42,000)*
- Environmental compliance specialist ($66,000 - with 2-4 years of experience)**
- Civil engineer ($78,000)*
- Environmental engineer ($79,000)*
Time to Completion About 2 years, full-time 4-5 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Liberal arts core requirements
- About 10-15 courses covering wastewater issues
- General education courses
- Math and science foundation courses
- Environmental and civil engineering courses that focus on wastewater issues (course options depend on your major selection)
- Capstone project
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Online Availability Online coursework and certifications may be available Rare but available; on-campus labs may be required

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 figures), **Salary.com (2012 figures).

Associate's Degree in Wastewater Technology

Associate's degree programs can prepare students to be operators of wastewater treatment plants or environmental engineering technicians. Government or utility companies are typical employers of graduates from these programs. You'll learn about preliminary, primary, secondary and tertiary water treatment systems. You'll be prepared to manage the disinfection of waste and handle the treatment of solid waste. These programs are mostly offered at community colleges.

Pros and Cons


  • An associate's degree can lead to promotions and higher paying positions at wastewater plants
  • Courses in the associate's program are usually designed to satisfy some of the bachelor's program requirements if you decide to continue school
  • Programs cost less than 4-year degrees and may offer a quicker return on your investment
  • Can lead to a higher license grade in a relatively short amount of time*


  • Obtaining a license does not usually require an associate's degree
  • Some of the jobs an associate's program prepares you for do not have great growth potential (first-line supervisors were projected to see little to no change in job availability from 2010-2020)**
  • Bachelor's degrees may offer more flexibility and prepare you for higher paying jobs (e.g. environmental engineers earned a median income of about $79,000, while waste treatment operators earned roughly $42,000 in 2011)**

Sources: *California State Water Resources Control Board, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements:

Completion this program requires foundational science and math courses. You'll typically complete approximately 10-15 core courses covering wastewater topics. You'll learn about removing solids, microorganisms and chemical compounds from water. Group projects, lab work and internships may also be required. Some schools offer certificate programs with credits that are transferable to the associate's program, which could be helpful if you're already employed in the field and you want to pursue a degree. Here are some of the courses you might take:

  • Microbiology
  • Calculations for water quality
  • Mechanical-physical treatment
  • Conventional surface water treatment
  • Wastewater collection systems
  • Drinking water regulations

Online Course Information

Fully online associate degree programs are uncommon but available. Requirements are typically the same as on-campus courses but the content is delivered over the Internet. With the exception of possibly missing out on a hands-on lab or on-site work experience, you'll rarely be at a disadvantage from pursuing a distance learning program.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Some of the positions an associate's degree prepares you for require a state license. Several operator grades may be available, with grade level determined by a combination of education and experience. State requirements may vary, but an associate's degree can reduce the amount of time it takes to get to a higher grade.

Internships may be available that net you a job or a good recommendation. These can be especially important since few programs include internships and work experience as part of the curriculum. Some wastewater-related agencies may allow you to volunteer, which can give you valuable experience the same way an internship would. You may also want to attend technical education conferences sponsored by organizations like NOWRA to make contacts. Professional organizations may also offer student memberships and give you access to training materials and professional development workshops.

Bachelor's Degree Covering Wastewater

Degree programs in wastewater management are not available at the bachelor's level, but you could major in civil or environmental engineering or a related field. Engineers specializing in wastewater issues oversee projects that involve pumping systems, sludge treatment or storage tanks related to provision of drinkable water. You'll learn to use CAD and map creation software as well as scientific software for hydraulic modeling and pipeline design. Programs may involve laboratory and co-operative or internship experience.

Graduate degrees are becoming the norm in specialty branches of civil and environmental engineering like wastewater management. If you're planning on pursuing graduate studies in wastewater management, an engineering degree is a great way to prepare for a master's program.

Pros and Cons


  • Undergraduate training can get you ready for a graduate program in wastewater management
  • Completion of a bachelor's degree in civil or environmental engineering can lead to a high-paying career (environmental engineers earned a median salary of about $79,000 in 2011)*
  • Flexible career options can lead to policy, legal or regulatory careers
  • Environmental engineers were projected to see a 22% increase in jobs from 2010-2020*


  • You'll spend at least 4 years in school, possibly longer as engineering-related degrees may take 5 years to finish
  • Higher-end positions or working for a consulting firm could require a graduate degree
  • You'll need to continue on to graduate school if you want focused coursework in wastewater management (you'll probably only take a few courses related to wastewater at the bachelor's level)
  • Many entry-level wastewater jobs do not require a bachelor's degree

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Like other engineering majors, you'll need a solid background in math and science. Your curriculum may include chemistry, calculus and physics. You'll continue to take courses that develop a broad background in engineering during your sophomore year, followed by courses that specifically address wastewater and environmental topics. Your program may require a senior project or a capstone as well. Electives that could be useful for students interested in wastewater studies may include:

  • Hydraulics
  • Thermal-fluid systems
  • Fluid mechanics
  • Water and wastewater treatment
  • Construction safety
  • Water resources

Online Course Information

The limited number of online bachelor's degree programs in civil or environmental engineering may require on-campus laboratory work. Hybrid programs that permit some online coursework while requiring some on-campus presence may be more common. Modules or continuing education courses covering wastewater issues may be available online. Professional organizations, such as AWWA, may offer online certificate programs and e-learning courses. You may be able to receive a discount on these types of courses if you're a member of the association that is offering the courses.

Stand Out with This Degree

Schools accredited by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers or the American Society of Civil Engineers may offer opportunities to join student clubs or chapters. You can enter competitions sponsored by these organizations. Your school might offer undergraduate practice opportunities to solve real-world problems presented by companies or organizations. Take any opportunities you have to participate in leadership development programs, undergraduate research or career fairs. Since most programs do not usually require an internship, check for work and volunteer opportunities at your local water treatment facility.

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