A college degree is a clear advantage in a competitive job market, but a bachelor's degree isn't the only ticket to a good living.
Careers in fields such as health care, manufacturing and information technology offer median earnings of up to $55,000 or more for graduates with an associate degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And, in some cases, a two-year degree or technical certificate can offer students a better return on investment than a four-year degree.
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When it comes to earning big without spending big on college, it pays to go with specialized or technical degrees, experts say. Here are four degrees that fit the bill, and may offer graduates a better return than a bachelor's.
1. Engineering technology: High-tech employers are looking for specific skills over degrees. This is especially the case in manufacturing, where employers have a hard time filling open positions, says Jason Premo, founder of Adex Machining Technologies, an aerospace manufacturing company in South Carolina.
"Proficiency on a variety of modern technologies used in the actual field, especially individual certifications, is significantly more valuable than the standard degree," says Premo, adding that the vast majority of jobs he hired for did not require a bachelor's.
Graduates with a bachelor's in aerospace or electrical engineering typically earn around $65,000, on average, during their first few years on the job, according to PayScale, an online salary database. A two-year degree in aerospace or electrical engineering technology can net graduates nearly the same, Premo says.
The median salary for aerospace engineering technicians ranges from $55,000-$75,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With additional on-the-job training, that figure could rise significantly, Premo says.
"I had several making $95,000-$110,000 who had been promoted into programming engineer-tech positions who received additional training to program CNC machines using 3-D CAD/CAM software," he says, referring to computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies.
2. Radiation technology and medical imaging: Radiation therapist, nuclear medicine technologist and diagnostic medical sonographer are three high-paying positions a student can take on with a two-year degree.
In 2012, radiation therapists and nuclear medicine technologists earned median salaries of $77,560 and $70,180, respectively, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median salary for diagnostic sonographers was lower at $65,860, but still nearly $20,000 higher than the median salary for young adults with bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Demand in these areas is booming, too. All three fields are expected to grow 20 to 40 percent by 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
While bachelor's degrees are available in these fields, they don't offer a significant difference in starting salary and still require students earn the same certifications. Instead, students with associate degrees can enter the field and pursue additional degrees and certifications to move up the career ladder.
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3. Plumbing and heating: A college degree isn't required to become a plumber or HVAC -- heating, ventilation and air conditioning -- technician. Instead, students become apprentices, getting on-the-job training, a salary and classes in math and science that cover topics relevant to the field, such as hydraulics and mechanical drafting.
Apprentice programs are either offered directly via a union, or through a community or technical college. The programs are typically tuition-free, and trainees earn technical certifications and professional licenses required to work in the field.
After completing their training, graduates of certain apprenticeship programs can earn up to 60 college credits for their work and experience, thanks to the U.S. Department of Labor's registered apprenticeship program.
Apprentices earn lower salaries during their initial years in the field, but their wages increase dramatically after they complete their training term, which typically takes five years, according to multiple union websites. In many cases, they also receive health insurance and a pension plan.
The median annual salary for plumbers and HVAC technicians after they complete their apprenticeship is more than $40,000, according to BLS data, and can be more than $75,000 in larger cities. And there is potential to earn beyond that, says Linda Couch, chief operating officer of Parrish Services, a mechanical contractor.
"Many residential service companies have technicians making $100,000 in between regular pay, overtime and bonuses or commissions," Couch says.
4. Dental hygiene: Bachelor's and associate degrees in dental hygiene are both considered entry-level requirements for a career in the field, but an associate degree is by far the more common route.
Of the 335 accredited entry-level dental hygiene programs available, 288 are associate degree programs, according to the American Dental Hygienists' Association.
"Getting a bachelor's and then ultimately a master's is definitely advantageous for hygienists that are interested in teaching or doing research," says Pamela Steinbach, director of education and research for the ADHA.
Currently, an associate degree is sufficient for professional licensure, though, and is considerably less expensive.
Average tuition and fees for an associate degree in dental hygiene is just shy of $22,700, compared wi th nearly $36,400 for a bachelor's degree program, according to the ADHA.
And the salary differential isn't significant for those working in clinical settings, such as dental offices, Steinbach acknowledges.
The median salary for hygienists in 2012 was $70,210, according to the BLS, which also estimates that job openings in the field will increase by 33 percent over the next few years.
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