These associate degree majors lead to higher incomes than a 4-year bachelor’s. Here are the top programs.

The soaring cost of a college education has prompted a surge in skepticism about the value of a bachelor’s degree, especially when some majors may not lead to lucrative careers. Yet there’s another option that can super-charge your income without incurring the debt of a 4-year degree: Getting a 2-year associate degree. 

Parents and students are increasingly scrutinizing the return on investment in a college degree given the soaring price of a four-year program, which has pushed student debt up to $1.8 trillion and weighed down more than 40 million Americans with loans. But a two-year degree, especially in sought-after fields, can open doors to high-paying careers without the same sizable investment of a bachelor’s program. 

“Two year degrees are an often overlooked option for college-bound students,” Jackson Gruver, Payscale data analyst, told CBS MoneyWatch. “But not only are two-year degrees more affordable, they can be just as valuable for securing job opportunities and higher earning potential, particularly when attending a school with a strong reputation in a specific focus area.”

Some associate degree programs set their grads on a path toward a median pay of above $100,000 in their mid-career years, or about 10 years after they graduate, according to a recent analysis from PayScale. 

By comparison, college graduates between 25- and 64-years-old enjoyed median incomes of $74,154 last year, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Annual tuition, room and board for 2-year associate degree programs stood at $11,391 in 2020, according to government data. By comparison, a 4-year degree typically cost almost $29,000 annually that year. 

Multiply that cost over four years, and a bachelor’s degree can set a student back by about $116,000, versus about $23,000 for an associate degree.

The top-earning associate degree majors

Students looking for a specialized career may want to explore two-year programs that allow them to receive training that will prepare them for a career in a shorter amount of time, Gruver noted. 

The top-earning majors include radiation therapy and software engineering, with both leading to a median pay at mid-career in the six-figures.

The top-earning schools for two-year degrees are those that tend to offer specialized training, such as in nursing, engineering or other STEM-related professions. For instance, the Helene Fuld College of Nursing is the school with the most financially rewarding associate degrees, with mid-career pay of $106,200. 

Of course, not every associate degree grad will be earning above six figures after they graduate. Earlier research has found that those with two-year degree earn about $42,000 on average in their early career. By comparison, at the same point in their career, grads with a bachelor’s degree earn about $57,000 per year.

Some associate degree grads may earn even less than people with only high school degrees, who typically earn about $44,000 a year. At the bottom of the pay scale is an associate degree in early childhood education; those recipients earn a median mid-career pay of $39,500, PayScale found.

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