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These associate degree majors earn more than many 4-year college grads. Here's what to know.

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The soaring cost of a bachelor's degree has fueled growing skepticism about the financial payoff of going to college, especially as some top-ranked universities are now charging close to $90,000 a year. It turns out that some people could get a bigger bang for their buck through an associate degree program.

There are 17 associate degree majors with which graduates, four years after they receive their diploma, are earning more than the typical bachelor's degree holder, according to new research from The HEA Group. Founded by Michael Itzkowitz, the former director of the Department of Education's College Scorecard, HEA provides data on college costs and other topics. 

Associate programs typically require two years, versus a four-year bachelor's degree, which cuts down on the cost of earning a diploma. And the tuition generally is also much lower to begin with. The typical two-year degree costs $3,621 per year on average, compared with an average of almost $17,000 for annual tuition at a four-year program, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

It's worth noting that the majority of grads from the roughly 130 associate degree programs tracked by the HEA Group's research earn less than the average bachelor's degree holder, the analysis found. 

"With associate degrees, often times the major matters more than the institution itself," Itzkowitz told CBS MoneyWatch. "This shows that a college major is very important in terms of strict economic outcomes."

Four years after graduating with an associate degree, workers earn about $42,000 on average, the research found. By comparison, at the same point in their career, grads with a bachelor's degree earn about $57,000 per year.

Many of the top-earning associate programs are focused on STEM subjects, with the physical science technologies at the top of the heap. This degree helps students prepare for a number of technical jobs, such as in chemical research or radiochemistry. Nursing degrees also pay off, although nurses with bachelor's degrees earn about $76,000 annually four years after graduating — about 14% more than those with associate degrees in nursing.

Yet the highest-earning associate majors aren't always the most popular, the HEA Group analysis found. For instance, the field with the greatest number of enrolled students is liberal arts — that's despite the typical grad with an associate degree in the subject earning about $36,000 annually four years after graduation. 

Nursing, is the second-most popular associate degree, with much higher early career earnings at more than $66,000.

Lowest-earning associate degrees

Of course, some associate degree programs result in much lower average salaries. Graduates with associate degrees in drama earn less than $19,000 annually four years after they graduate, making that credential the lowest-earning major among all two-year programs. 

Top-earning associate degree grads come from public and community colleges, whereas the bachelor's degree grads with the highest income are, by and large, from private universities. 

By institution, the top-earning associate degree diploma stems from Bismarck State College, a public college in North Dakota, where students who study nuclear engineering have a typical annual income of about $140,000 within four years of graduating. Grads from Onondaga Community College, a public school in New York state, with nuclear engineering associate degrees are the second-biggest earners, with an income of about $138,000 a year, the research found.

Despite the lower costs, an associate degree can still saddle people with significant student debt, according to the Education Data Initiative. Grads with two-year degrees in alternative and complementary medicine have median student debt of $38,530, the most of any associate degree program, the group found. 

That's not far off from the highest median debt for bachelor's degree holders, which stands at $42,820 for people with four-year degrees in behavioral science.

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