LEAVING SCHOOL is no reason to stop learning. A growing number of post-secondary, sub-degree programmes are available to help nudge your education up to a slightly higher level. In today's knowledge-based society, a secondary education is rarely enough to secure a good place on the job market. Having that extra piece of paper can make all the difference when getting that job interview or being accepted to a higher institution. For mature students, returning to the classroom part time can be an enriching experience that can also help kick-start a stalled career. Sub-degree qualifications are becoming increasingly recognised and valued by employers and educational institutions. Aside from the academic and vocational value of a course, simply committing yourself to further study demonstrates a strong drive for self improvement. Sub-degree programmes are offered by a large number of institutions in Hong Kong. The seven publicly funded universities plus the Open University of Hong Kong all have continuing education departments that deliver post-secondary courses. There are also award-bearing courses run by various colleges and associations, including Po Leung Kuk Community College, Caritas Francis Hsu College and Hong Kong Institute of Technology. According to information on the website of the Education and Manpower Bureau, fees for sub-degree programmes range between $24,000 and $50,000. For students who may have trouble coming up with the fees up front, the government's Student Financial Assistance Association offers various grants and loans - both means tested and non-means tested - to make further education more affordable. The most popular and most widely recognised sub-degree qualifications are associate degrees, higher diplomas and professional diplomas. Courses for all three generally take two to three years to complete, but they have a different focus and learning structure. The focus of associate degree programmes tends to place emphasis on purely academic subjects, while higher and professional diplomas have a more practical and vocational focus. The professional diploma is designed to ready students for the workplace. Courses are often aimed at a specific trade or set of skills. They are ideal for school leavers who want to get a head start on a career in that field. Higher diplomas and associate degrees are intended to give students the option of continuing on to further study. They can be a useful stepping stone to a full university degree. The associate degree is considered to be higher than a Form Seven education, or the equivalent of one third of a three-year university degree - or 50 per cent of an American-style four-year degree. Thanks to a government drive to promote tertiary education, a proportion of university places are reserved for students coming out of sub-degree programmes. Some universities allow students holding associate degrees or higher diplomas to transfer directly into the second year of their bachelor's degrees. For those not wishing to take their studies any further, the associate degree and higher diploma are valuable qualifications in their own right. To promote the recognition of these qualifications, the government has begun recognising them for entrance into the civil service and several professional associations have followed suit.