Should You Skip the 4-Year College Degree to Make Money Faster?

college degree

Conventional wisdom insists that income “success” comes by getting a four-year college degree and using your education to qualify for a job that pays well.

But what if you didn’t need a bachelor’s college degree to start making money right now?

In fact, what if you could earn a little faster by getting a two-year associate’s degree in a skilled area and jumping into the workforce?

It’s possible to get a jump on earnings by getting an education at a technical college. Or, by focusing on an associate’s degree. Here’s what to consider if you’re not sure a “traditional” four-year college degree is right for you.

Looking to get a salary ASAP?

Attending a four-year college degree program? Well, you automatically push back when you can start earning your salary.

Sure, you might hold a job while attending college. But it’s probably not going to pay well since you’ll most likely be working part-time.

However, when you get an associate’s degree, you get out there earlier, making money faster. Not only that, but you might also make more money than someone with a four-year degree.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released a report a few years ago indicating that 28 percent of associate’s degree earners make more than the average salary reported by grads with bachelor’s degrees.

More recently, CollegeMeasures.org and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission used data to look for trends in earnings by education level.

In Tennessee, there are some fields where those with associate’s degrees out-earn those with bachelor’s degrees.

And according to the graph below from CollegeMeasures.org and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the average first-year wages for Tennesseans with an associate’s degree is slightly higher than someone with a bachelor’s degree.

economic success measures Tennessee

So if you want to start making money quickly, a two-year degree might be a smarter course than a four-year college degree. Plus, you can avoid the same level of debt that comes with a bachelor’s degree.

Pay attention: your chosen field matters

Of course, not every associate’s degree is created equal. For instance, if you’re getting an associate’s degree in a liberal arts field, you probably aren’t going to have the same level of success.

While the CollegeMeasures.org study found that some two-year degrees led to earnings of $50,000 to $60,000 in five years, liberal arts associate’s degree earners only made about $35,000 a year.

The key seems to be focusing on jobs that take advantage of “middle skills.” With these jobs, it’s possible to achieve a middle-class income without the need for a four-year degree.

These are jobs that require a degree of skill and training, but that don’t require a lot of deep expertise. Jobs like lab technician, paralegal, computer engineer, machinist, and radiation therapist are good examples.

Some associate’s degree jobs offer even higher salaries. PayScale has a list of the highest-earning jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.

The top-earning jobs that require an associate’s degree include:

  1. Computer engineering
  2. Economics
  3. Management information systems
  4. Construction management
  5. Electrical engineering
  6. Electronics and communications engineering
  7. Engineering
  8. Dental hygiene
  9. Computer programming
  10. Occupational health and safety
  11. Electrical and electronics engineering
  12. Mechanical engineering technology
  13. Mechanical engineering
  14. Computer science
  15. Civil engineering

As with many jobs today, STEM fields are prominent if you want higher pay. PayScale reports that someone with a two-year computer engineering degree might be able to earn as much as $77,300 mid-career.

That’s not bad at all when you look at what the College Board says tuition costs in the following chart.

college board college costs

When choosing your field of study or college major, no matter how long you go to school, always consider the return on your investment.

Could you be in greater demand?

You might be surprised to discover that you could be in greater demand with an associate’s degree or technical degree — if you choose the right field.

For the last couple of years, surveys by the National Association for Business Economics’ have pointed to a shortage of skilled labor.

The latest survey, released in early 2016, shows that the shortage is less severe than in years past. Even so, about 30 percent of the firms surveyed indicated that they are experiencing a skilled labor shortage.

What about lifetime earnings?

Before you get too excited about attending community college or technical school, it’s important to understand that lifetime earnings are another story.

While you can start earning money faster with an associate’s degree, you could miss out on earning more money over time.

For instance, that same Georgetown study mentioned earlier found that while those with two-year degrees got an early jump on their bachelor’s degree earning counterparts, by mid-career, those with four-year degrees had caught up in earning power.

Over time, someone with a more traditional college degree might have higher earning power, according to the Georgetown study.

Using a two-year degree to get a head start on earnings can be a smart play, though. For example, you could continue your education while you work.

And, some companies will even help you by reimbursing you for the cost of reaching that next degree level.

Final words on college degree choice

Don’t get hung up on the idea of a “traditional” college degree if that’s not your interest.

With the right approach, a two-year degree can be a good choice. You can start earning earlier, spend less on your education, and learn a skill that’s in demand.

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