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A college education should "help a student grow personally and intellectually"--so say 39 percent of the American public surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2011. Just under half, 47 percent, think the goal of education should be obtaining work-related skills and knowledge. The remainder of those surveyed gave both educational goals equal importance, showing that many Americans agree that the educational experience doesn't necessarily have to be all about a career.

However, your career goals generally dictate what level of education you need. Most jobs require at least a high school diploma, and in an increasingly well-educated workforce, opportunities are limited without further education. A vocational certificate or award generally provides practical training for a specific career. Associate and bachelor's degrees are the minimum education level for many careers and can boost your earnings by 22 to 66 percent over a high school diploma, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Associate degrees provide a general education and offer training for a specific career or background for entry into a bachelor's degree program. Bachelor's degrees can lay the groundwork for a master's degree. Some careers require a master's degree or a doctoral degree as the minimum education level but graduate degrees can also provide additional expertise in your field or allow you to specialize.

There are many reasons to pursue a post-secondary education--a few good ones include starting a career that's going places or changing a career that's not, qualifying for a promotion at work or gaining knowledge in an area that's always fascinated you. And, if you're looking for convenience and a wide range of educational programs, an online degree can be an excellent choice.

Education for the Fastest Growing Careers

The Department of Labor keeps a list of the "50 fastest-growing occupations" between 2008 and 2018, and almost three-quarters require post-secondary education. Take a look at the breakdown of education requirements for some of the most in-demand careers:

  • Post-secondary vocational certification/award: 6 percent of careers. Examples include: Skin care specialists (38 percent growth), fitness trainers (29 percent growth) and HVAC installers (28 percent growth).
  • Associate degree: 18 percent of careers. Examples include: Dental hygienists ( 36 percent growth), environmental engineering technicians (30 percent growth) and paralegals and legal assistants (28 percent growth).
  • Bachelor's degree: 28 percent of careers. Examples include: Network systems and data communication analysts (53 percent growth), financial examiners (41 percent growth) and civil engineers (24 percent growth).
  • Graduate or professional degree: 22 percent of careers. Examples include: Physician assistants (39 percent growth), veterinarians (33 percent growth) and industrial-organizational psychologists (26 percent growth).

Although 26 percent of the occupations on the list don't require post-secondary education, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that for many of the careers, your chances for employment are greater if you do have a degree.

When weighing whether or not to pursue post-secondary education, keep in mind that all of the occupations on the Department of Labor's list of "50 occupations with declining employment" between 2008 and 2018 require only on-the-job-training. That should tell you something about the increased value of having an education in today's job market.

Promotions May Require More Education

Often getting promoted in your current job--or just keeping your job in a tight economy--means continuing your education. For example, in some states, elementary and secondary teachers may be able to start teaching with a bachelor's degree but are required to obtain a master's degree within a certain time frame. Being promoted into a supervisory or executive position may require a master's or doctoral degree. Pursuing an online degree allows you to continue working and meeting family obligations while you attend school.

Choose your educational plan based on your ultimate career goals. Online degrees allow you to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and learn while you earn. Continuing to pursue your education could take you to the highest levels in your career.

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