There are many specialized trades and professional fields that offer high wages from the start.

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If you are looking to upgrade your life, higher education is probably the wisest, most effective investment you can make today for a better future.

But since we are talking about an investment, it’s a good idea to weigh your choices carefully and consider what you’d expect in return. And if your time and money are limited, the best investment may not necessarily be a bachelor’s degree or even a graduate program.

In general, the more education, the higher the entry wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage for occupations requiring a high school diploma is $42,840. An associate degree bumps that average to $54,510, and a bachelor’s degree-level occupation brings in $84,000 on average.

However, there are many specialized trades and professional fields that offer high wages from the start, without a commitment of four or more years of training. At Renton Technical College, graduates of the apprenticeship programs (such as carpentry, plumbing or roofing) earn a median wage of about $65,000. Most apprentices actually learn on the job, earning a wage while they complete their studies.

Automotive programs such as Ford ASSET (Automotive Student Service Educational Training) provide a similar experience. In this specialized technical program, students who want to become automotive technicians are sponsored by a dealership, learning new skills in the classroom and practicing their knowledge in Ford ASE-certified automotive centers. Graduates do well for their investment – automotive service technicians and mechanics earn a median annual wage of $43,000 in Washington.

Many careers in health care do not require a four-year degree. Registered nursing is the largest single health care occupation in the United States, with nearly 2.9 million employed in the field. Many nurses start their careers with a two-year degree and certification. Their prospects are strong, with a median annual salary of about $66,000.

Other health care fields with high potential include radiation therapists, respiratory therapists, dental hygienists, veterinary technologists and technicians, and occupational therapy assistants.

In Puget Sound, the career paths with the most options are usually in information technology. In this competitive sector, experience and talent often count more than formal education. However, there are growing opportunities for web developers, network technicians, and other support technology workers who can get started with a two-year degree. In the case of web developers, the median annual wage is $65,000 (U.S. Department of Labor).

In terms of job growth, it makes sense to pursue at least a two-year degree. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges estimates that by the year 2023, 32 percent of job openings will require at least a mid-level education (associate or certificate), compared with 24 percent for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree.

So that covers wages and demand. Let’s now get down to brass tacks: What will it cost to pursue an associate versus a bachelor’s degree?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 2014-15 average annual cost of attending a two-year public college full time, including tuition, board and fees, was $9,586.

By comparison, one year at a four-year public university was $18,632. If you choose to go private, that annual cost jumps to $37,990. If that degree is not in a practical or professional field, you may need further education to be competitive in the job market.

So, yes, when talking about education, you get what you pay for. In the case of a two-year degree, sometimes you get more.

Renton Technical College prepares a diverse student population for work, fulfilling the employment needs of individuals, business and industry.