In part because of the rapidly rising costs at four-year schools and the ensuing debt burden, many would-be college students are discovering shorter degree programs cost a lot less but can pay off equally well.
Here's a look at the highest-earning graduates of two-year colleges, where associate degree holders from these schools earn over $30,000 early on in their career and more than $70,000, on average, with at least 10 years' experience, according to a report by PayScale.
(B.A. degree holders earn $51,505, on average, in their first job after graduation, according to Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.)
The cost to attend two-year schools is also substantially less than at a four-year one. Families with students in four-year private colleges spent about $43,900 in 2015-16; at four-year public colleges, it was more than $19,500. At community colleges it was $3,400, according to the College Board.
That means footing the bill is considerably easier at a time when paying the tab is the top concern parents and students say they now share, according to The Princeton Review's 2016 College Hopes & Worries survey.
Many college graduates have also expressed buyer's remorse regarding the cost of their education, according to a separate survey by Citizens Bank.
"With the price of tuition increasing as much as it has, people are looking for ways to save money on their education investment while still preparing for a high-income career," said PayScale's editorial director, Lydia Frank.
To that end, these are the top five highest earning two-year colleges that could be a worthwhile alternative to a four-year degree.
Data from PayScale's College Salary Report were collected from full-time employees who completed an ongoing employee survey.
-- By CNBC's Jessica Dickler
Posted on 20 September 2016
5. Rowan College at Gloucester County
Tuition and fees for 2016-17: $139.50 per credit
Early career median pay: $30,400
Mid-career median pay: $67,100
Formerly Gloucester County College, this accredited public two-year community college located in Sewell, NJ, offers degrees in business, healthcare and a variety of STEM fields.
"RCGC majors align with workforce needs," said Vice President of Academic Services Linda Hurlburt. "Our programs all have advisory committees to keep us abreast of workforce needs."
4. CUNY - Queensborough Community College
Tuition and fees for 2016-17: $5,209
Early career median pay: $37,400
Mid-career median pay: $68,400
Some of the most popular associate degrees include nursing, business and engineering technology, according to Sandra Palmer, the vice president for Academic Affairs. "Our students get hands on experience," she said, "with the help of a career placement office, many students start working right away."
The best part: 9 out of 10 students graduate without federal student loan debt, according to the school.
3. CUNY - New York City College of Technology
Tuition and fees for 2016-17: $6,590
Early career median pay: $40,000
Mid-career median pay: $70,100
City Tech offers a variety of STEM degrees in addition to training in areas with a high degree of job growth, including radiologic technology and medical imaging as well as business degrees like accounting. "Many programs lead directly into a career," said PayScale's Frank.
"We work very closely with big companies like Microsoft so it makes it easy for us to anticipate what employers are going to need," said Stephen Soiffer, the special assistant to the president.
2. Bakersfield College
Tuition for 2016-17: about $1,140, depending on course load
Early career median pay: $39,200
Mid-career median pay: $71,500
As part of the California community college system, Bakersfield offers a wide variety of fields of study from nursing to forestry.
"We have strong partnerships and ties with many of our local companies, which not only helps our students while they attend Bakersfield College, but helps our college's reputation in the community – which in turn helps our graduates when they are looking for employment," said Janet Fulks, Bakersfield's interim dean of institutional effectiveness.
1. Fashion Institute of Technology
Tuition for 2016-17: $4,590 in state/$13,770 out of state
Early career median pay: $39,200
Mid-career median pay: $74,600
While this New York City school is mostly known for its fashion-related focus, students at FIT also study photography, advertising, jewelry design and film and media, according to PayScale's Frank. "It's a bit broader than most people think," she said.
In fact, there are nearly 50 different programs. While Fashion Business Management is the most popular, every graduate of the lesser known Toy Design program gets a job by, or soon after, graduation, according to the school.