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The 10 highest-paying associate's degrees of 2019, according to PayScale

CNBC logo CNBC 8/21/2019 Abigail Hess
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Today, roughly 35% of all college students, about 6 million people, are enrolled in two-year institutions like community colleges, rather than traditional four-year colleges.

The number of students earning an associate's degree each year has risen from 579,000 in 2001 to nearly 1 million in 2018, an increase of about 74%.

While workers with associate's degrees are typically out-earned by workers with higher educational attainment, earning a two-year degree in a high-demand field can be a low-cost way for workers to continue their education and increase their potential earnings. As part of its annual College Salary Report, PayScale analyzed data from graduates of more than 1,500 two-year programs in order to determine the highest-paying associate's degrees by field.

"Are workers with a two-year degree earning exactly the same as someone who's got the four-year degree? Not necessarily," Sudarshan Sampath, director of research at PayScale, tells CNBC Make It. "But I do believe that there are certain job titles and certain career paths that you can take with a two-year degree that at least allows for you to have a comfortable living."

Here are the 10 highest-paying two-year associate's degrees, according to PayScale:

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10. Biomedical engineering technology

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $47,400

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $80,700

9. Biomedical engineering

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $44,000

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $80,900

8. Instrumentation & control

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $55,700

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $81,200

7. Instrumentation technology

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $46,700

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $81,700

6. Fire protection engineering

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $37,100

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $83,100

5. Computer science & engineering

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $40,600

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $83,700

4. Project management

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $48,900

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $89,300

3. Software engineering

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $48,100

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $90,700

2. Radiation therapy associate

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $61,400

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $93,300

1. Physician assistant studies

Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $55,600

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $98,300

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Several degrees in healthcare fields claimed top spots on PayScale's list, including physician assistant studies and radiation therapy associate. Physician assistant studies grads with 10 or of experience or more report median salaries of $98,300. Workers with radiation therapy degrees followed closely, with mid-career salaries averaging about $93,300 and higher starting salaries than those who have studied to be physician assistants.

But Sampath cautions students against studying with a specific job in mind. Instead, he emphasizes that students should focus on the kinds of skills that a given major or degree can teach them. Degrees such as software engineering and project management, for example, can be used in a wide range of industries and roles.

"What you are getting from a major is a set of skills," says Sampath "And a lot of these skills translate across a lot of different occupations."

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