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Originally Published: Oct 20, 2017
Originally Published: Oct 20, 2017 Last Updated: Oct 25, 2017 6 min read
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This story has been updated to clarify the educational background of many physician assistants.

Want to snag a well-paying job without putting four or more years into a bachelor's degree? Your best bet may be through college programs that teach graduates how to build and fix things.

That’s one of the takeaways of a new analysis of postsecondary degrees and labor market outcomes (translation: worker pay) from the American Enterprise Institute.

Recent research has showed that some associate's degrees and certificate programs can launch graduates into high-paying jobs, without the high debt burdens that may accompany some bachelor's degree programs. Yet data on precise wage and employment outcomes has been limited.

That's where projects like College Measures come in. For the past several years, the company has tracked wage data for graduates of eight states' certificate, associate's degree, and bachelor's degree programs. The new report, released Friday, is based on data from Florida, Texas, and Tennessee.

In Florida, six of the 16 programs with the highest-paid graduates are from associate degree and apprenticeship programs offered by community colleges or technical training centers.

Florida Programs With the Highest Median Earnings

Field of Study Degree/Training Median Earnings
Physician Assistant* Associate in Science $112,200
Elevator Constructor/Mechanic Apprenticeship $106,900
Electrical and Communications Engineering Technician Associate in Science $91,700
Millwright (Installing & repairing machinery) Apprenticeship $82,500
Heavy Equipment Operation Apprenticeship $81,000
Fire Prevention & Safety Technician Associate in Applied Science $76,400

*Notes: Among Florida public institutions. Graduates from the 2010-2011 academic year with earnings data from the 2016 calendar year. To be included, programs needed at least 25 graduates in the state's unemployment insurance wage data system. Most physician assistants now have master's degrees, but Florida is home to at least one associate degree program tied to the field.

Overall, out of more than 1,300 degree programs in Florida, the authors found 488 that produce graduates with median salaries of at least $49,400—Florida's median household income—five years after completing a degree. Among the 48 available apprenticeship programs, meanwhile, nearly half have median graduate earnings above that threshold—as do 45% of the 180 associate in science degrees and 44% of the 644 bachelor’s degrees from the state’s public universities.

Moreover, bachelor's degrees weren't able to keep graduates out of the lowest-income jobs: 24 bachelor’s degrees, along with 16 associate’s degrees and two apprenticeship programs, had median salaries under $25,000—just under the median salary for a worker with only a high school degree. Many of the bachelor's degrees were in fields known for low salaries, including performing arts, cinematography, and anthropology; four of those low-paying programs were tied to early childhood education.

Those findings drive home a key point the report makes for assessing higher education outcomes: When it comes to salary, what you study really does matter.

In Texas, the authors focused on longer-term returns on investment—specifically, the estimated 20-year earnings above what a high school graduate can expect to earn, minus the cost of the program, for various fields of study at specific colleges. Again, the level of degree wasn't the determining factor: Of the 39 Texas programs where the return on investment was more than $1 million, 19 were associate's degree programs, six were certificate degrees, and 14 were bachelor's degree programs.

Both the Texas and Florida findings shared a common thread: Nearly all of the high-paying fields are technical, or related to engineering, health sciences, or business. In fact, the words "technician" or "technology" appear in two-thirds of the programs with high return on investment.

Of course, there is some risk in paying for a degree that trains you for a specific, niche job. When the labor market shifts or when the available jobs for those skills dry up, so, too will demand for your skills.

But in truth, nobody in the current economic environment should assume that skills they have now will be employable in 25 years, says Mark Schneider, president of College Measures and one of the report's authors. That's as true for accountants and lawyers—two jobs that are increasingly done automatically—as it is for elevator technicians and oil rig operators, he argues.

"Everybody is going to be at risk, and everyone has to figure out how to stay contemporary in their skills," he says.

While the report focused on three states, the authors say the findings hold true across all eight states that College Measures works with—even while some of the top-paying jobs may shift depending on local labor markets. The results also confirm much of the previous research on high-paying jobs that don't require a four-year degree.

One final note: Just because these aren't four-year colleges doesn't mean it's necessarily easy to get into these programs. Most apprenticeship or in-demand associate degree programs have limited seats, and there are sometimes waitlists to get in.