A college degree is a standard ticket to higher-paying jobs, but that degree does not necessarily have to be a four-year bachelor's degree or higher. There are plenty of associate's degrees that lead to decent paying jobs and can ultimately give you a good return on your college investment — potentially even better than a bachelor's degree.
Below are some of the two-year programs that represent excellent job opportunities according to data on average salaries and projected job openings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The title of the degree may vary slightly by institution, so we are listing them with respect to the careers they enable.
Note: The BLS wage data is from 2012; projections are slightly overstated as they also reference a ten-year period from a 2012 study. The job openings include replacement needs as well as projected growth.
- Registered Nurse – RNs are almost always in demand, and that is likely to increase with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, expansions in medical services, and an aging population. There are over a million projected job openings in the field through 2022 with a median salary of $65,470.
- Dental Hygienist – Similarly to nurses, dental hygienists are in significant demand. They perform cleanings and other preventative tooth care, as well as assisting dentists with fillings and procedures that are more complex. Median salaries are just over $70,000, and BLS expects 113,500 job openings through 2022.
- Engineering Technician – This field has multiple specialties with their own degree programs and projections, including aerospace, electrical/electronic, avionics, geological/petroleum, mechanical, electromechanical, and industrial technicians. The tasks vary widely by field but they all involve engineering support functions, anything from design to troubleshooting to repairs to field work. Median salaries are between $45,000 and $62,000, and the collective job projections through 2022 are near 90,000.
- Respiratory Therapist – Respiratory therapists tend to work with the extremes of the age spectrum, from the elderly with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other respiratory ailments, to premature babies with lungs that have not completely developed. Median salaries are $55,870 according to BLS, and over 40,000 job openings are expected through 2022.
- Computer Network Support Technician – Somebody's got to do the dirty work of keeping complex computer networks running. Why shouldn't it be you? Median salaries in the field are just over $59,000 and there are almost 40,000 job opportunities projected by 2022.
- Web Developer – Given the massive growth of Internet sites and mobile apps, there is a strong need for good web developers. Projected job openings exceed 50,000 by 2022, and median wages are $62,500.
- Diagnostic Sonographer – Most of us think of sonography as the ultrasound images taken during pregnancy, but there are other medical uses for the technology that keep the demand high. Median salaries are relatively high at $65,860 and there are 35,300 expected job openings through 2022.
- Air Traffic Controller – Air traffic controllers draw the highest median salary available for an associate's degree at $122,530, with 11,400 job openings expected through 2022. It is also a high-stress, high-burnout position — but if you have the correct temperament, it is the most lucrative of the associate's degree positions.
If you are curious, you can find out all the BLS job projections, typical wages, and necessary degrees, experience, and training on the BLS website. The data is quite comprehensive, covering occupations from accountants to zoologists.
Even if the occupations above do not strike your fancy, you may find a different occupation that a two-year degree would accommodate — perhaps a veterinary technician or a draftsman? The choice is yours.