With college tuition costs skyrocketing—an estimated $1 trillion in student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt in the U.S.—many families are rethinking the traditional path to career success. As it turns out, a four-year college degree isn’t the only way to land a good-paying job. A recent study by financial literacy website NerdWallet, based on forecasts by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reveals that jobs requiring only a two-year associate’s degree will have the highest average growth through 2020.
“The common, accepted advice is to go to school for four years or longer, but there are great opportunities to go for less time and still get a high return on your investment,” says Joseph Audette, VP of Financial Literacy and Education at NerdWallet. “It’s not just about going to college. It’s about going with a plan for success.”
The average growth rate of all jobs by 2020 is just 14%, while high-growth jobs requiring an associate’s degree will grow by an average of 35%. At the same time, associate’s degrees have the shortest payback period. Lower tuition rates coupled with high median earnings on the job means these graduates pay off their tuition in just two years, on average.
Furthermore, many of the jobs that require only an associate’s degree pay more than those requiring a bachelor’s or master’s. “Why go through additional years of school and have more debt when the job isn’t going to be paying as much?” asks Audette.
According to Nerdwallet’s analysis of the 10 best-paying jobs for associate’s degree holders, air traffic controllers come out on top, earning a median salary of $108,000. These students must attend a Federal Aviation Administration certified school and receive long-term on-the-job training. However, while it is very well paid, it’s also stressful and not expected to be a high-growth job.
When comparing the lists of the highest-paying jobs and the fastest-growing jobs that require only an associate’s degree, three jobs emerge as the best. Registered nurses earn a median of $65,000 and will grow by 26%, with a whopping 3.5 million jobs projected for 2020. Medical sonographers, who administer ultrasounds, earn $64,000 a year and will grow by 44%, and dental hygienists earn $68,000 and will grow by 38%.
Many of these jobs are health-care and engineering support positions, driven by the aging baby boomer population and the increasing automation of technology and manufacturing machinery. Hiring more support positions versus highly trained professionals is more cost-efficient for employers, says Audette, who expects the trend to continue over the next few decades.
The full list of the 10 best-paying jobs:
No. 1: Air Traffic Controllers
Median Salary: $108,040
Job Description: Coordinate the flight paths of planes.
No. 2: Construction Managers
Median Salary: $83,860
Job Description: Plan and supervise construction projects.
No. 3: Radiation Therapists
Median Salary: $74,980
Job Description: Administer radiation treatments to patients suffering from cancer and other diseases.
No. 4: Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Median Salary: $68,560
Job Description: Scan patients, and prepare and administer radioactive drugs.
No. 5: Dental Hygienists
Median Salary: $68,250
Job Description: Clean teeth, examine patients and provide preventative dental care.
No. 6: Nuclear Technicians
Median Salary: $68,090
Job Description: Assist physicists and engineers with nuclear research and nuclear production.
No. 7: Registered Nurses
Median Salary: $64,690
Job Description: Provide and coordinate patient care.
No. 8: Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
Median Salary: $64,380
Job Description: Administer sonograms to diagnose medical conditions.
No. 9: Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technicians
Median Salary: $58,080
Job Description: Operate and maintain equipment used in aircraft and spacecraft production.
No. 10: Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technicians
Median Salary: $56,040
Job Description: Help engineers design and develop electronic equipment.