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Turn a two-year degree into $40k a year

As college educated workers flood the job market, the degree you choose becomes more important. But recent research suggests a higher degree doesn't always mean a higher paycheck. A 2011 study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that 28 percent of associate degree holders earned more than workers with bachelor's degrees.

Two-year degrees can lead to big earnings

The study, which is titled The College Payoff, found that computer programmers holding an associate degree earned an average of $2.7 million in lifetime earnings, while middle school teachers holding a bachelor's degree earned only $1.8 million. Considering that the average student loan debt for bachelor's degree graduates was just under $25,000 in the 2007-08 school year, according to FinAid.org, the price can be high for choosing the wrong degree program.

Fortunately, there are a number of associate degree options for students who want a strong salary potential without four or more years of full-time study. Take a look at a few popular associate degrees that can prepare you for careers earning yearly wages of $40,000 or more with only two years of training.

Top five associate degrees for $40k+ careers

1. Electrical engineering technician

Personality type: gadget head

This technical career pairs technicians with scientists and engineers to research, develop and test products and applications. A full third of all engineering technicians work with electrical and electronics systems, making it the most popular engineering technician job by far. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that electrical and electronics engineering technicians earned mean annual wages of $56,690 in 2010.

Tuition costs: $27,450 for two years at the Erie Institute of Technology in Pennsylvania, with an extra $3,050 for lab fees and $4,000 for books.  

2. Dental hygienist

Personality type: squeaky clean

In the battle for clean teeth, hygienists do a lot of the dirty work. Before the dentist even enters the exam room, hygienists are there to scrape, scrub and examine a patient's teeth and gums. Skilled wielders of the polishing drill can be rewarded with healthy wages: dental hygienists earned mean annual wages of $68,680 in 2010, the BLS reports.

Tuition costs: $11,262 for two years, including course fees and books at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin.

3. Physical therapist assistant

Personality type: shoulder lender

This health care career has workers lending a hand--often literally--to people who have mobility issues stemming from injuries or permanent disability. Assistants work with physical therapists to help move patients, teach them to use crutches and give them the tools they need to live stronger, fuller lives. The BLS reports that physical therapist assistants earned mean annual wages of $49,810 in 2010.

Tuition costs: $22,790 for two years of full-time tuition at the University of Indianapolis Krannert School of Physical Therapy.

4. Paralegal

Personality type: master organizer

Behind every good lawyer is a great team of paralegals. Workers in the field are tasked with researching prior cases, organizing testimony and interviews, and drafting essential paperwork. These skilled assistants may be employed in government offices and corporate legal departments, but they're most commonly found at law firms. Paralegals and legal assistants earned mean annual wages of $49,640 in 2010, according to the BLS.

Tuition costs: $15,760 in tuition and fees for two-years at NHTI, Concord's Community College in New Hampshire (in-state student rate).

5. Automotive technician

Personality type: mobile expert

The ability to work with cars is a skill worth its weight in gold, and those trained in the art should be valued by anyone who has ever sat behind the wheel. An automotive technician associate degree gives students the technical skills they need to work with highly advanced machines. Automotive technicians working for auto dealers earned mean annual wages of $42,830 in 2010, according to the BLS. That's over $20.50 an hour for training you can earn in two years.

Tuition costs: $7,768 for an automotive technician degree, including two years worth of tuition and books at Northcentral Technical College. Tuition for a more high-tech automotive technology degree was $10,209.

Shop smart for your associate degree

Tuition costs can vary widely depending on the location of your school and the type of program you pursue. Check out different colleges and universities to learn more about price ranges and degree requirements. While no degree program can guarantee a $40k salary, training in the fields above puts you in a good position to compete for careers with a strong financial future.