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7 valuable associate degrees

Larry Buhl, special to CareerBuilder

With annual tuition for many two-year programs costing as little as $5,000, an associate degree is just about the best bang for the education buck you can find. According to the Census Bureau, associate degree holders earn an average of $400,000 more over a lifetime than high-school graduates.

These seven areas in particular have the hottest job prospects:

1. Accounting
With an associate degree in accounting under your belt, you'll be prepared for a number of entry-level accounting jobs.

One such occupation is an accounts receivable/payable clerk. According to, earnings start at between $21,000 and $27,000 -- though you could rack up overtime pay, too – and reach nearly $50,000 with experience. A bachelor's degree can bring a significant salary bump, and company size, industry and geographic location will also affect your income. With additional education, experience and certification, you could become a controller or certified public accountant, with a salary that could top $100,000.

2. Nursing
An associate degree in nursing can land you a staff position in a hospital or other inpatient facility. Job growth in the field should remain strong through the decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Starting salaries for registered nurses are around $30,000, and hospitals generally pay more. In addition to base pay, RNs are often paid extra for night and weekend shifts. According to the BLS, the 2010 median annual pay for full-time RNs was just under $65,000.

3. Information technology
An associate degree may qualify you for a job as an IT specialist, network technician, help-desk analyst, support specialist, computer specialist or data-processing auditor. You may need to earn vendor certification to work with certain computer or network systems.

Entry-level salaries for computer-support specialists fall between $30,000 and $50,000, based on an examination of CareerBuilder job openings. The national average for all computer support specialists is nearly $60,000, according to 

According to the BLS, job growth in all IT areas should remain high through 2018, with plenty of opportunities for advancement. Many experienced workers choose to start their own computer-consulting businesses.

4. Applied science 
This broad field of study can include concentrations in aviation maintenance, air traffic control, telecom engineering technology and digital media technology. It's possible to land a job with only a two-year degree, but many of the best-paying positions require some internship experience and certificates.

Nuclear technicians, for example, assist nuclear physicists, nuclear engineers or other scientists in laboratory or production activities. The BLS reports that salaries range from about $40,000 to more than $90,000 for experienced workers.

5. Paralegal studies
Lawyers are increasingly turning to paralegals and legal secretaries to handle research, document preparation, court transactions and client depositions. Average annual pay is $46,000; paralegals just out of school can expect about $35,000, based on analysis of CareerBuilder job listings.

6. Medical and dental specialties
With this two-year degree and a specific course emphasis, you could land a job as a medical assistant, pharmacy technician, dental assistant, radiology technician, cardiovascular technician or coding specialist.

Medical billing and coding specialists have an average starting salary of $22,860, topping out at $51,510 annually. Medical billing and coding clerks usually work full time for a hospital or doctor's office, although part-time positions are available. If you work for a smaller facility, you may double as a receptionist.

According to the BLS, dental technicians typically earn around $22,000 right out of school and can reach $47,000 with experience.

Keep in mind that most medical-specialties jobs require state certification. Many of these jobs are first steps to higher-paying specialties and administrative jobs.

7. Electrical engineering
Course work for the degree combines general education subjects with hands-on training in electronics and circuit wiring. You also might engage in computer exercises to solve electrical technology problems.

One occupation an electrical engineering degree prepares you for is engineering technician. These workers assist electrical engineers in designing, testing and producing electronics or electrical parts. Telecom employs the majority of these workers, with pay starting at $33,000, according to the BLS.

Larry Buhl researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for 

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