Updated on 05.21.15

Why a Two-Year Degree May Be Your Best Investment

Dental hygeinists working on patients

Some associate’s degrees can lead to high-paying jobs. Photo: David Mulder

Most experts agree that the economic value of a bachelor’s degree far outweighs the average cost of earning one. However, recent research has made it painfully clear that a four-year degree is not a good investment for every student. For example, a study by New York Fed researchers showed that the bottom 25th percentile of college graduates earned less than high school graduates once you factor in the costs of earning their degree. Ouch.

“Overall, these figures suggest that perhaps a quarter of those who earn a bachelor’s degree pay the costs to attend school but reap little, if any, economic benefit. In fact, once the costs of attending college are considered, it is likely that earning a bachelor’s degree would not have been a good investment for many in the lowest 25 percent of college graduate wage earners,” researchers Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz wrote in their report.

Their final word: While a college degree appears to be a good investment on average, it may not pay off for everyone — specifically those who don’t pursue high-paying careers right off the bat. I’m looking at you, humanities majors.

But the news gets worse for those who don’t earn that four-year degree in a hurry. It appears that outcomes can quickly go from bad to worse for students who take longer than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. In fact, their research shows that taking an extra year to earn a four-year degree leaves students $85,000 poorer in the long run. That figure doesn’t just include the cost of that additional year of college; it also includes opportunity costs such as lost earnings and delayed career advancement. One way to hedge against incurring these costs is to consider online education opportunities, which you can easily do using the tool below:

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Are Two Years Enough?

What about two-year degrees? Although a bachelor’s degree is often touted as the best way to increase lifetime earnings and achieve a middle-class lifestyle, we shouldn’t forget about other degrees that take less time and money. I recently wrote about bachelor’s degrees that represent the best value in today’s dollars, but it’s important to remember that many two-year degrees can lead to jobs with excellent potential for growth and high pay. Here are a handful of two-year degrees that fit the bill:

Sonography

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an associate’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography or cardiovascular technology could lead to a career in this field. And since many medical facilities are turning to sonography as a replacement for other costly means of diagnosis and treatment, the career prospects are impressive.

As the BLS notes, employment for diagnostic medical sonographers is expected to increase 46% nationally from 2012 to 2022. Meanwhile, job openings for cardiovascular technologists and technicians are expected to surge 30% nationally in that time.

But these earnings do not necessarily reflect the fact that a two-year degree is all that is required. For example, diagnostic medical sonographers earned an annual mean wage of $67,170 nationally in 2013, and cardiovascular technologists and technicians earned $53,990. Annual mean wages for these careers are also much higher in certain states, as of 2013:

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers

  • California: $86,550
  • Oregon: $83,830
  • Washington: $80,820

Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians

  • Alaska: $73,710
  • Rhode Island: $69,660
  • Massachusetts: $67,830

Occupational Therapy Assisting

Becoming an occupational therapist requires a master’s degree, and some occupational therapists even pursue a doctoral degree. However, many people don’t know that a career as an occupational therapy assistant only requires an associate’s degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. And, according to the BLS, this career continues to be in high demand across the country. Because of a growing demand for occupational therapy from the baby boomer population, the BLS predicts that employment for occupational therapy assistants will surge 43% nationally from 2012 to 2022.

Meanwhile, the annual mean wage for this career remains relatively high, especially when you consider that only a two-year degree is required. Nationally, occupational therapy assistants earned an annual mean wage of $55,250 in 2013. Occupational therapy assistants in certain states also earned much higher annual mean wages than average in 2013:

Occupational Therapy Assistants

  • Nevada: $75,000
  • Texas: $68,340
  • California: $66,020

Physical Therapy Assisting

An associate’s degree in physical therapy assisting is typically all it takes to begin a career in this field. And since the demand for physical therapy continues to increase in sync with our aging population, growth in this career is expected to remain high. Specifically, the BLS predicts that employment for physical therapy assistants will increase 41% during the decade leading up to 2022.

According to the BLS, this two-year degree can go relatively far in terms of how much you can earn. Annual mean wages for physical therapy assistants were reported as $53,320 nationally in 2013. But professionals in certain states earned much higher annual mean wages in 2013:

Physical Therapy Assistants

  • Texas: $68,730
  • Alaska: $63,760
  • New Jersey: $61,690

Dental Hygiene

Dental hygienists assist dentists with hands-on patient care, scheduling, and other tasks. But did you know that dental hygienists only need a two-year degree? According to the BLS, a two-year degree in dental hygiene is the best way to get started in this career, in addition to licensure as required by your state.

Because of the growing demand for all dental care, jobs for dental hygienists are expected to increase 33% from 2012 to 2022, or three times as fast as the average for all careers combined.

A stable demand for dental hygienists has meant high wages. According to the BLS, the annual mean wage for dental hygienists was $71,530 nationally in 2013. Of course, dental hygienists in certain states earned slightly more that year:

Dental Hygienists

  • District of Columbia: $93,940
  • California: $93,920
  • Washington: $92,610

Masonry

Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons use bricks and stone to build foundations for buildings as well as other decorative and functional structures. As the BLS notes, most who enter this field begin by completing a two-year program at a trade or technical school and completing an apprenticeship.

Because of the prevalence of these materials in all industries, job prospects remain high. Specifically, U.S. Department of Labor figures show that employment for brickmasons and blockmasons is expected to increase 36% from 2012 to 2022, and jobs for stonemasons are expected to increase 29%.

Although this may be seen as difficult work for some, these professionals are generally rewarded for their efforts with high pay. According to the BLS, brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons earned an annual mean wage of $49,090 in 2013. Meanwhile, the states that paid the highest annual mean wages in 2013 are:

Brickmasons and Blockmasons

  • Massachusetts: $73,490
  • Hawaii: $69,760
  • New York: $66,200

Stonemasons

  • District of Columbia: $60,910
  • Massachusetts: $52,060
  • Connecticut: $50,220

Electrician Training

Although many individuals begin a career as an electrician by completing an apprenticeship, the BLS reports that a growing number of students are getting their start in this field by completing a one- to two-year degree program at a trade or technical school. Since electricians are needed for all types of construction as well as maintenance of existing electrical work, employment for these workers is expected to grow 20% from 2012 to 2022, almost twice the average of all occupations combined.

According to the BLS, electricians earned an annual mean wage of $53,560 nationally in 2013. Professionals in several states earned much higher wages on average, however:

Electricians

  • Alaska: $74,810
  • New York: $70,560
  • Illinois: $69,040

Web Development

Most Web developers need an associate’s degree in Web development or a computer-related field to get started. Because of the overall need for Web-based services and technology in the workplace, professionals in this career are expected to be in high demand. Job openings for Web developers are expected to increase 20% nationally from 2012 to 2022.

High demand also translates into high pay in this field. As the BLS notes, Web developers earned an annual mean wage of $67,540 in 2013. The states with the highest mean wages for these workers in 2013 are:

Web Developers

  • District of Columbia: $83,960
  • Washington: $81,490
  • Maryland: $81,350

Why a Two-Year Degree Could Be Your Best Investment

Keep in mind, this list of hot two-year degrees is not all-encompassing. There are plenty of two-year degrees that can pay off at a much higher rate than many of their four-year counterparts, and with a much easier-to-swallow investment in both time and money. Here are a few of the main reasons to consider a two-year degree before starting school:

Smaller Financial Investment

One of the most compelling reasons to consider a two-year degree is just how much money you can save. College Board statistics underscore the true savings in choosing community college over other options.

Type of Degree Average Published Tuition and Fees for 2014-15
Two-year degree (in district) $3,347
Four-year degree (in state) $9,139

Using these statistics alone (and not accounting for price inflation), a two-year degree costs an average of $6,694 plus the costs of room and board, books, and living expenses. Meanwhile, a four-year degree comes in at $36,556, plus everything else. When you consider the fact that many two-year degrees lead to vocational careers that pay higher-than-average salaries, it’s easy to see how this is a smart option for many people.

Quick Entry Into the Workforce

Students who earn four-year degrees spend a lot more time in school, and thus take longer to enter the workforce upon graduation. Meanwhile, community college and other two-year students are able to wrap up their studies much sooner and start earning that much faster.

Those additional years in the workforce can translate into higher earnings for a few reasons. First, a faster entry into the workforce allows students to become established in their careers faster. This adds to their overall body of experience and helps them progress in their fields at a faster rate than their peers.

And second, those first few years also represent a time when workers are earning a living instead of going to school — with its requisite costs. By the time their four-year counterparts are finally ready to graduate, they will have spent more money on their degrees and lost two years of experience in their field.

Vocational Careers Stand the Test of Time

Four-year degrees typically offer a well-rounded education in a wide range of subjects. However, there is something to be said about learning a skill that will stand the test of time. For example, it’s hard to imagine a world without nurses, electricians, or carpenters. Many vocational careers and other careers that begin with a two-year degree would be extremely hard — in some cases, impossible — to replace with technology.

Take plumbers, for example. Can you imagine a computer taking apart your toilet and fixing a clog or a leak? And bricklayers; it would take an incredibly agile and sturdy computer system to do that kind of work, not to mention the difficulty of transporting it to each job site.

Many two-year degrees lead to careers that will be around for decades to come. Meanwhile, the heavy demand that is expected in the coming decades will only increase the value of these degrees.

Should You Earn a Two-Year Degree?

Earning a two-year degree isn’t for everyone, and it’s certainly not for anyone who desires a career that requires a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree. However, the prospect shouldn’t be ruled out without careful thought and consideration, especially by those who don’t have tons of money to spend and want to enter the workforce quickly.

The good news is, the BLS offers a wide range of statistics and data for those who want to conduct their own research on specific careers or fields. If you want to know more about employment projections or average earnings for a specific career, all you have to do is look.

College is undoubtedly expensive, but the cost can be lessened if you do your research and choose a career that will pay off in the long run. And once you look into many of the hottest vocational fields, you may decide that a two-year degree is the best investment yet.

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