Although this generation of students is often taught that a four-year degree is the gold standard for career success, for many lucrative and stable jobs, the path happens to be just two years long. In other words, there are some professions -- especially in the high-demand healthcare and technology sectors -- for which an associate degree is your ticket in.
If you're hoping to get a jump start into the working world, or change careers without having to pursue a full-fledged bachelor's degree, here are some excellent, in-demand two-year degree jobs to consider:
Cardiovascular technologist or technician
As referenced above, the healthcare field is always in need of skilled professionals, including cardiovascular technologists. These techs assist in or perform diagnostic exams including electrocardiograms, cardiac catheterizations, pulmonary functions, lung capacity, and others, to help diagnose heart and vascular issues.
Why it's hot: Demand for these professionals is on the rise, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a 30 percent growth in employment openings between 2012 and 2022.
Dollar details: The mean annual wage for cardiovascular technicians was $55,210 as of May 2014.
How to break in: Pursuing an associate program that focuses on cardiovascular technology is key since it will include both classroom and clinical training. From there, employers usually require a 4-6 week training course.
Computer network support specialist
Over on the tech side of things, employers -- even huge tech giants -- care mostly about skills, abilities, and experience rather than impressive degrees. That being said, becoming a computer network support specialist is not only a solid job in and of itself, but it's often a starter position for climbing up the tech ladder. These are the pros that help users troubleshoot and fix their LAN and WAN systems, and also perform maintenance to keep networks running smoothly.
Why it's hot: Employment of computer support specialists is projected to grow faster than average -- 17 percent during the 2012 to 2022 period. However, in computer systems design and related firms, that projected growth is 49 percent.
Dollar details: With a mean annual wage of $66,140 as of May 2014, these professionals have plenty of financial support.
How to break in: Basic computer and networking knowledge is key, and is best attained via formal educational like an associate degree program. Those entering the field might sometimes go the technical school route, or pursue a bachelor's, but the two-year path is very common.
Paralegal or legal assistant
Who says you need to go to school for almost a decade to pursue a law career? Paralegals and legal assistants, who typically hold an associate degree in paralegal studies, play an integral role at law firms, assisting lawyers with case research, drafting documents, and helping them prepare for hearings and trials.
Why it's hot: With a 17 percent projected job growth and a fast-track path into the law profession, the case for considering paralegal work is strong.
Dollar details: The mean annual salary for paralegals as of May 2014 was $51,840.
How to break in: Usually, the two-year degree is all you'll need to get started, but completing an internship or earning a voluntary certification can help make you more marketable.
There's often a misconception that to become an RN, you need to complete a bachelor's program. While some nurses go that route, many others put on their scrubs right after earning their associate degree.
Why it's hot: Registered nurses continue to be one of the most in-demand jobs in healthcare and beyond, with a 19 percent projected job growth through 2022. Those with specialized skills have even more opportunities.
Dollar details: RNs earned a mean annual salary of $69,790 in May 2014, with plenty of room for growth should they pursue advanced education or specialized certifications.
How to break in: After completing an associate degree in nursing, candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN, as well as any other state-specific licensing requirements.
For anyone who goes for a dental checkup, you probably spend the most time with the dental hygienist. He or she cleans your teeth, educates patients about oral care, and performs x-rays and other tests.
Why it's hot: With a whopping 33 percent projected job growth through 2022, this career will make you want to open up and say "ahhh."
Dollar details: Of all the associate degree professions included here, dental hygienists make the highest mean annual wage of $71,970, as of May 2014.
How to break in: To get working in a dental practice, an associate degree in dental hygiene must be completed, followed by state licensure, which involves a practical and written exam.
It's safe to say that almost every business needs a strong website to succeed nowadays, and web developers are the ones who design and create them.
Why it's hot: Employment growth for these tech professionals is projected at 20 percent from 2012 to 2022.
Dollar details: Click on this -- web developers earned a mean annual salary of $68,670 as of May 2014.
How to break in: Like other technology positions, becoming a web developer is more about what you know, rather than your credentials. Still, an associate degree in web development can provide you with the skill set you need to be competitive in the field.
When it comes to associate degree jobs like these, it's all about the skills. Once you get your foot in the door and begin adding experience to your resume, you could always decide to head back to school later to advance your career even further. However, given the strong salaries and job prospects in these and other fields, an associate degree might be the perfect educational fit for your career aspirations.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_stru.htm (visited October 16, 2015).
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, www.bls.gov/ooh/ (visited October 16, 2015).