Steven Polasck of Corpus Christi, Texas, liked math and science in high school. He considered attending a four-year college but ultimately decided to use his strengths to get a two-year degree in instrumentation from Texas State Technical College. He has not looked back.
"I went to work on the Monday after graduation," said Polasck, 27, who monitors and fixes systems at a Valero Energy Corp refinery. "The first year I made almost $80,000."
An associate's degree has long been considered an inferior alternative to a bachelor's degree. Now that more states are tracking their graduates' incomes, however, it is becoming apparent that some two-year degrees offer much higher earnings than the typical four-year degree - at a fraction of the cost.
Making more students and parents aware of these better-paying options could help ease the college affordability crisis, which has so far led to more than $1 trillion in student loan debt.
The average net annual cost of a community college education - for tuition, fees, room and board, minus financial aid - is just under $6,000, according to the College Board.
The average undergraduate at a four-year public college pays twice that amount out of pocket, and most students attending a public school now take five or more years to complete their degrees.
The fact that people still think a bachelor's degree is always the better option is probably due to popular charts that hang in many high school guidance counselor offices, said Michael Bettersworth, vice chancellor and chief policy officer for Texas State Technical College, which has nearly 30,000 enrolled students.
The "chart" is a graphic representation of earnings by educational attainment, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing professional degrees at the top, bachelor's degrees in the middle and associate's degrees just above high school diplomas.
Median weekly earnings for those with bachelor's degrees last year reached $1,101, or $57,252 a year, compared to $792, or $41,184 annually, for those with an associate's degree, according to BLS.
But the chart fails to capture the full range of salaries earned by those with two-year degrees, particularly those in technical fields, Bettersworth said. "It's far more important what you study than how much you study," he said.
While the average starting salary for somebody with a bachelor's degree in Texas is around $40,000 per year, many technical associate's degrees offer first-year pay of more than $70,000, according to College Measures, which tracks earnings and other outcomes for higher education.
Some well-paying jobs require less than two years of study. A line worker certification, a requisite for working on electrical power lines, takes about a year and brings an average starting salary of $70,000, Bettersworth said.
Texas is one of the states that has been gathering income data as a way to gauge and improve the success of its public college graduates. Other states conducting similar studies include Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia.
The earnings advantage of some two-year degrees can persist throughout a worker's lifetime. More than one in four people with associate's degrees end up making more than the average of somebody with a bachelor's degree, according to a 2011 report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workplace.
Four of the 30 fastest-growing job categories according to BLS require associate's degrees. The jobs include dental hygienist (median annual earnings of $70,210), diagnostic medical sonographers ($65,860), occupational therapy assistants ($53,240) and physical therapist assistant ($52,160).
Other jobs with strong growth and above-average pay that require two-year degrees are funeral service managers ($66,720), web developers ($62,500), electrical and electronics drafters ($55,700), nuclear technicians ($69,060), radiation therapists ($77,560), respiratory therapists ($55,870), registered nurses ($65,470), cardiovascular technologists and technicians ($52,070), radiologic technologists ($54,620) and magnetic resonance imaging technologists ($65,360).
Polasck said it is not unusual for experienced people with his type of degree to make up to $150,000 a year with "reasonable" amounts of overtime. Job prospects are good even with declining oil prices, since refineries produce gas and other byproducts regardless of prevailing prices.
"If I can go to this school for two years, and not be in much debt at all at the end, and be making pretty good money to start, why wouldn't I do that?" Polasck said. "It's common sense."
(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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