A college degree’s impact on earning potential is well known, but new data questions whether an associate’s degree can beat out a bachelor’s.

Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures.org and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, told NBC many associate’s degrees “are worth a lot more than I expected and I think they are worth more than other people expected.”

A recent CollegeMeasures.org report found that of the most popular courses of study, recipients of four-year nursing degrees earned the most during their first year out of college with a wage of $48,959. Those with two-year nursing degrees averaged only slightly less at $45,342. This greatly outperforms some four-year programs, and other data says this phenomenon exists in other majors too. Political science and history majors’ earned average was $31,184 and $30,230, respectively, in their first year out of college.

There’s more data to suggest that completing community college can sometimes earn students a ticket to the upper-middle class.

NerdWallet’s look at jobs that require an associate’s degree showed the median 2010 pay for Air Traffic Controllers was $108,040. Construction managers brought in $83,860 and radiation therapists received $74,980.

To be sure, bachelor degree programs outperform associate’s degrees in most industries. For example, engineering majors can look forward to a median starting salary above $60,000, according to PayScale.com. But Schneider told NBC this pattern of finding workers with two-year technical degrees out-earning many four-year grads has been consistent across the states it has studied so far.

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