Higher education is often synonymous with more professional opportunities. There's also a strong correlation between more formal schooling and lower unemployment, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. In March 2006, high school graduates had a nationwide unemployment rate of 4.6 percent -- a rate that plummeted to 3.9 percent for associate degree holders and 2.2 percent for those with a bachelor's degree or higher.
Not surprisingly, investing in post-high school education can also have a strong impact on salary. While high school graduates with no college education collect an average weekly salary of $583, according to Current Population Survey data, that figure jumps nearly 15 percent to $670 for associate degree holders.
About 44 percent of all students are enrolled at two-year colleges, in part for their pocketbook-friendly tuition rates, according to the College Board. The organization estimates this year's average public two-year college tuition to be $2,191 -- or roughly equal to the average individual tax refund, according to the IRS.
(By comparison, public four-year schools command annual tuitions of nearly $5,500 and private four-year university tuitions average more than $21,200.)
A four-year education is not always the ticket to a swollen bank account, however. The following jobs -- ranked by the BLS as the highest-paying jobs typically held by those with associate degrees -- pay more than many jobs that require bachelor's degrees.
1. Computer specialist -- $59,480
Depending on the employer, computer specialists perform a variety of functions, ranging from technical support to coordinating network security. Hiring managers prefer graduates with an associate degree in a computer-related field.
2. Nuclear technician -- $59,200
> Nuclear technicians monitor radiation and operate nuclear test and research equipment. They may also assist nuclear engineers and nuclear physicists with their research projects. An associate degree program in an applied science or specific technology should provide good training.
3. Dental hygienist -- $58,350
One of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation, dental hygienists provide routine dental services including cleaning teeth, taking X-rays and preventative care. Candidates must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school and pass a written and clinical exam.
4. Radiation therapist -- $57,700
Radiation therapists administer radiation therapy to patients afflicted with tumors or cancer. Employers generally require an associate degree from a radiation therapy program.
5. Nuclear medicine technologist -- $55,840
Nuclear medicine technologists administer diagnostic tests that involve using radioactive materials to monitor organ functions. An associate degree in nuclear medicine technology is standard, and many employers also require licensure.
6. Fashion designer -- $55,840
Fashion designers study current fashion trends, sketch out new clothing designs, select the colors and fabrics and oversee the production of their items. Designers often hold associate degrees in fashion design or fine arts.
7. Aerospace engineering and operations technician -- $52,500
Aerospace engineering and operations technicians construct, test and maintain aircraft and space vehicles. An associate degree in engineering technology is standard, and certification can be a competitive edge for job seekers.
8. Diagnostic medical sonographer -- $52,490
Diagnostic medical sonographers -- also known as ultrasonographers -- administer diagnostic imagining technology used during pregnancy and to diagnose some diseases. Many community colleges offer associate degrees in diagnostic medical sonography, and some employers prefer candidates registered through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography.
9. Registered nurse -- $52,330
Registered nurses treat sick, injured and convalescent patients, and provide education on post-treatment care. RNs must have at least an associate degree in nursing and pass a national licensing examination.
10. Engineering technician -- $49,440
Engineering technicians perform a variety of research- and development-related tasks, including building and setting up equipment, conducting experiments, collecting data and recording results. Employers prefer associate degrees in engineering technology, which are widely available at technical institutes.
Copyright 2006 CareerBuilder.com.