In schools around the world, thousands of guidance counsellors are saying the same thing: if you want to earn a decent living, you’re going to need a four-year degree. Parents echo the advice they were given by their parents, and teachers remind classes about college applications. It’s a story that has been told for decades—and one you might be sick of hearing.
But is it actually true?
Getting a degree in order to find meaningful work is a powerful idea, for sure. So powerful, in fact, that millions of Americans graduate each year with an average student loan debt of $39,400 based on the promise that their university degree will one day help them outearn that massive price tag.
But a 2017 study from Georgetown revealed the myth behind this common story. The study showed that:
Maybe you’re not academically inclined. Maybe you don’t have the money for a four-year degree. Or maybe you’d just like to start earning and having some financial independence sooner rather than later. Whatever your reasoning, choosing not to do a four-year degree doesn’t condemn you to low wages forever.
As with most things related to careers, a little bit of research can take you a long way. As you think about your future career options, you’ll want to consider many factors: your passions, your skillset, the available work in your area (or your willingness to relocate), and of course, your likely salary. As you explore your options, you may be surprised to find the wide variety of different career options that are available to you—and the types of salaries you can expect to earn.
If you’re thinking about passing on a four-year degree, what options are open to you?
In this guide, we list 50 jobs that could earn you over $50,000 a year, all without a university degree. You might find some surprising, you may have guessed others in advance, and others might make you think, “Wow, I never knew that was a job!”
All of the positions listed in this article are based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The salary data provided by the BLS is based on the average for that occupation in 2017 across the United States. Keep in mind that salaries vary based on a plethora of factors, including company size, your experience, and location. This last one is critical: it’s much more expensive to live in San Francisco than Omaha, for example, so salaries tend to be higher in the former.
Remember, too, that not all of these jobs will have you earning top dollar right away. You may need to work your way up and gain some experience before taking on some of these roles. But this list does show that good salaries are possible at every level of education and experience.
We have separated the jobs on our list based on how much education they require. Many don’t require more than a high school diploma, while for some career paths you need to consider getting an associate’s degree or some other form of post-secondary certificate. These are less expensive and less time-consuming than a traditional four-year degree program.
Do you dream of taking to the skies? A flight attendant’s job is to ensure the safety of crew and passengers, to guarantee regulations are followed, and to respond to any emergencies that may arise. You can expect to receive on-the-job training once you’ve secured a role, and will need to become certified by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). You’ll also need to meet some physical requirements. While you don’t need formal education to become a flight attendant, applicants can increase their chances of working as a flight attendant by gaining experience in hospitality, service or tourism. Check out this guide from The Balance if you’re ready for your career to take off.
There is a certain glamour to the idea of working as a PI. You might picture the little guy up against the machine, looking for clues and solving crimes. But what’s the reality behind the big screen myth? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), private detectives and investigators “search for information about legal, financial, and personal matters” on behalf of their clients, who may be individuals, companies, or attorneys. Your investigative skills could be used in both criminal and civil matters. Many private investigators have previous experience in the criminal justice field, whether as a police officer, loss prevention officer, or another related career. The majority of states require private investigators to be licensed; you can find a list of the PI associations by state here to find out the requirements in your area.
Industrial machinery mechanics make sure factory equipment is well-maintained and repaired. According to the BLS, important skills in this role include manual dexterity, mechanical skills, and the ability to problem solve. The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals can offer more information if you are interested in pursuing a career in this industry.
If you dream of working in the hospitality industry, you may be interested to know that working as a hotel manager doesn’t necessarily require a degree. While some managers may earn either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in hospitality, others get there with a high school diploma and industry experience. If you’re currently a high school student interested in this field, you can explore the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program offered by the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute.
If you have experience in the food service industry, have you considered progressing into a managerial position? Stepping into a supervisory role requires business acumen, the ability to manage staff, and a strong focus on customer service. As you move up, you can expect to earn a relatively comfortable salary. The Society for Hospitality and Food Service Management is a good resource for people in this field.
Plumbing keeps our water systems running smoothly and safely, which is why plumbers will always have a variety of jobs and projects to pursue. You might work for individuals or businesses, on your own, or as part of a larger team. And if you’re looking for a long term career, plumbing is a growth industry according to the BLS, with the employment rate expected to grow 16% over the next ten years.
Plumbers typically undertake an apprenticeship of 4-5 years to become qualified in their trade and must meet the licensing requirements of their state. Explore the Trades offers a detailed guide on how to become a plumber.
According to the BLS, “Millwrights install, dismantle, repair, reassemble and move machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites.” To become a millwright, you will typically be trained through a 3-4 year apprenticeship, although some people get an associate’s degree in industrial maintenance. Is this the career for you? Check out the Precision Machined Products Association for resources.
The world runs on electricity, which means that aspiring electricians have a wide array of career options ahead of them. Depending on your interests, you might end up working in private homes, for big businesses, or in the great outdoors. You will typically need to complete an apprenticeship program of approximately four years, and most states require you to undergo a licensing or certification process. The Electrician’s Career Guide offers information about how to get started, and information about apprenticeships and licensing.
There are many jobs in the healthcare field that will allow you to turn your passion for helping people into a career without requiring a degree. For example, Hearing Aid Specialists help administer hearing tests and help customers select and fit hearing aids. Even better, according to the BLS, jobs in this field are growing at a rate of 20%, which means that there are excellent employment prospects.
A real estate broker facilitates real estate transactions, representing either buyers or sellers. Brokers can either represent clients directly or hire agents to work on their behalf. The broker will have the ultimate responsibility for all sales throughout their brokerage.
The Balance Careers’ Guide to Real Estate notes that if you don’t have a four-year degree, you will need experience as a real estate agent before you can take your broker’s exam. You can learn more about the real estate industry from the National Agency of Realtors.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The words of Herodotus, chiselled above the New York City Post Office on 8th Avenue, have long defined the role of mail carriers in the public imagination. As a mail carrier, you will brave all weather conditions to deliver mail to everyone on your route. The Postal Service is the second largest employer in the U.S., which means that there are many opportunities for training and advancement. You can learn more and search for jobs through the USPS Careers Website.
If you are organized, reliable, have impeccable computer skills, and can stay calm under pressure, a career as an Executive Assistant (EA) may be for you. EAs are senior clerical professionals with previous experience in administration who support senior executives in their company or organization. This article from Monster offers advice on how to pursue a role as an EA.
For people with experience in construction or the trades, becoming a construction or building inspector is a great way to progress your career. This role typically involves making sure buildings meet codes and regulations, which means you will be making sure we are all safe in our homes, offices, and more. Most states require licensing or certification for inspectors. The International Code Council offers information on certification and relevant job listings.
Many kids say they want to be a train driver when they grow up. But there is a whole range of occupations available for those with a love of trains: drivers, conductors, engineers, yardmasters, switch operators and more. Learn about life as a railroad worker on the BLS website.
Is it your dream to “protect and serve”? A career in law enforcement isn’t without its challenges, but it can be rewarding for those with a passion for upholding the law and maintaining community safety. While a high school diploma is the minimum requirement for most forces, there are many community college programs that can help your police academy application stand out. If you are ready to become part of the “Thin Blue Line,” The Balance has a useful guide on how to become a police officer.
According to BLS, “Boilermakers assemble, install, maintain and repair boilers” and are usually employed by building equipment contractors. This is a job for those who wish to combine their mechanical skills with physical stamina and aren’t put off by working in challenging conditions. With experience, you might move into a supervisory role, managing projects and working with other tradespeople. Boilermakers typically undergo a four-year apprenticeship; you can learn more about the requirements from the Boilermakers National Apprenticeship Program.
As a claims adjuster, examiner, or investigator, you will work in the insurance field to evaluate insurance claims. For example, you might determine whether or not a claim should be paid out, or examine cases for fraud. Many claims adjusters will work for an insurance company and may specialize in a particular type of claim (e.g. auto or medical). If you have strong analytical skills and a good head for numbers, take a look at this Kaplan Financial guide to see whether this role might be the right fit for you.
Requirements for jobs as a subway or streetcar operator will vary depending on where you want to work, but you will generally need a high school education and be able to demonstrate physical fitness for the role. Interested in learning about the life of a transit worker? This Thrillist article gives the inside scoop from New York City MTA workers.
If you dream of a life spent working in the great outdoors, you might enjoy managing a farm. To work up to a management position—whether it’s for your own property or for someone else—you will likely need to work as an agricultural laborer first, and you may need additional education to meet the demands of 21st century agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs service centers across the country to support farmers and to offer farming education programs.
Transportation inspectors perform a vital role by making sure vehicles meet safety standards. While you only need a high school education to enter the field, most inspectors will obtain further training or education. You can learn more about this career from this guide.
“The house always wins”...so why not be on the winning side? Gaming managers oversee casino operations and will typically have previous industry experience. Learn more at Casino Careers.
Postmasters run post offices and coordinate the work of postal service employees (see number 11). If you begin a career the postal industry, you can work your way up to this role. As with mail carriers, no education beyond high school is required, although some postmasters will go on to get an associate’s degree in public administration or a related field. Visit the USPS Careers Website for more information.
Power plant operators control and operate the machinery that keeps our lights on. If you enjoy math and problem solving, this might be the career for you. Learn more about a career in energy through the Center for Energy Workforce Development.
The next time you step into an elevator, think about the work it takes to keep it running smoothly. Elevator installers and repairers (sometimes called elevator mechanics or engineers) safely install and maintain elevators, moving walkways, and escalators to make sure we can get from point A to point B. To work in this field, you typically need to undertake a four-year apprenticeship sponsored by a union, industry association, or individual contractor. In 35 states, elevator installers also require licenses once they’ve qualified for the role. The National Association of Elevator Contractors has more information about this career.
Maybe you’ve watched every episode of Law and Order and can imagine yourself on the streets, solving crime. If you pursue a career in law enforcement (see number 15) you could one day work as a detective. There is no formal education requirement, although given the competitive nature of the job, an education may give you an advantage when it comes to getting a promotion. If this is your dream job, check out this helpful guide from The Balance on the path to becoming a police detective.
Every day, all over the world, goods move from one place to another. The economy largely relies on merchandise getting from one place to another, whether it’s moving food from farms to the local grocery store or making sure the latest iPhone lands in customers’ hands as soon as possible. Have you ever stopped to think about how that happens? Transportation, storage and distribution managers are vital links in the chain responsible for moving goods safely and efficiently around the world. The job doesn’t require a formal education, but to reach management positions you will need related experience. This study.com guide gives more information on working in this field.
Environmental Engineering Technicians help prevent pollution. Working with environmental engineers they conduct pollution surveys, maintain equipment, and help manage pollution clean-up operations. To become an environmental engineering technician, you will need an associate’s degree in Environmental Engineering Technology from a community college or vocational school, where many of the courses will test your math and science skills. To search for an accredited program, check ABET. This career is currently projected to grow 13% over the next ten years, meaning there are excellent employment prospects.
Do you have a passion for design and an excellent grasp on numbers? Working as a drafter can allow you to combine creativity and logic as you turn engineers’ and architects’ designs into technical drawings. From skyscrapers to circuit boards, blueprints are the basis for everything around us. To become a drafter, you will need to complete a two-year associate’s degree from either a technical institute or community college. Learn more about this career from the American Design Drafting Association.
Paralegals support lawyers. The work can vary by type of legal practice, but typical duties include conducting research, drafting documents, summarizing reports, and liaising with clients, witnesses, and other legal professionals. This is a job for people with a passion for the law, strong communication skills, and an ability to stay on top of a busy workload. There are many options for paralegal training, but some are more legitimate than others. Take a look at this guide from The Balance on how to pick a program that will get your paralegal career started on the right foot.
As the saying goes, there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes...which is why we’ll always need people to work in funeral services. While this career isn’t for everyone, it is extremely important. Funeral directors prepare a body for burial or cremation, help grieving families organize a celebration of their loved one’s life, and file death certificates and other legal documents. To become a mortician or funeral director, you will need to complete a two-year program in funeral service or mortuary science and then train alongside a licensed funeral director or manager. Most states also require licensing once you become fully qualified. Find out more at the National Funeral Director’s Association, including details of accredited training programs.
How do you make a factory run smoothly? Industrial engineering technicians help answer that question by designing safe and efficient processes, systems, and workflows. Aspiring industrial engineering technicians should have a strong foundation in math and science and possess strong analytical and critical thinking skills. You can get post-secondary education at technical institutes, community colleges, and vocational-technical schools. You can search for an accredited program through ABET.
Sometimes known as telecom technicians, people in this field help us all stay in touch, installing and repairing the network of wires and towers that support everyday communication. If you are interested in this field, post-secondary programs in electronics, telecommunications, or computer networking should help you get your foot in the door. Learn more about possible educational routes from the National Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning.
Physical therapist assistants (or PTAs) work directly with physical therapists to support patients recovering from injury or illness. This career route best suits people with a passion for helping others. In all states, PTAs are required to have a two-year associate’s degree, and accredited programs can be found via the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education website. PTAs also need to be licensed or certified to work anywhere in the country. There are good prospects for people interested in this career—the BLS estimates that over the next decade, there will be a 29% growth in employment for PTAs, a much higher rate than average. To learn more about being a PTA, check out this guide from The Balance.
Like PTAs (see number 33), occupational therapy assistants (or OTAs) work directly with occupational therapists to provide patient care. This is another career for people who are motivated by helping patients recover their ability to perform everyday tasks. To become an OTA, you will need an associate’s degree from an accredited program—check out the American Occupational Therapy Association for more details. Due to our ageing population, demand for occupational therapy is expected to grow, which is why the BLS has projected a 25% growth in employment for OTAs in the next decade. If this career is up your alley, The Balance has a helpful guide on what to expect.
Much of everyday life relies on the computer systems around us working smoothly. Computer network support specialists help make sure that happens. Frequently, they work with users when something goes wrong. There are many paths into this field. Some employers may require a bachelor’s degree, but they often accept certain associate’s degrees. Needless to say, programs that develop your computer skills and expertise, as well as your problem-solving and communication skills, will be the most useful for your future career. Learn more about this profession from the Association of Support Professionals.
According to the BLS, aerospace engineering and operations technicians help to develop, produce, and sustain new aircraft and spacecraft. The role increasingly involves understanding computer systems and robotics. These technicians play a critical role in ensuring the safety of air and spacecraft, and the job is well-suited to people with strong math and technical skills. To work in this field, you will typically need to earn an associate’s degree in a related field. The Balance has a career guide that includes what to expect as an aerospace engineering and operations technician.
These days, almost everything can take place online. From banking to shopping to socializing, the web is where we get stuff done. Web developers make all of this possible by creating and designing websites, ensuring that intuitive and attractive sites are matched by a stable and functional backend. Developers pair their creativity with strong technical skills—a combination that offers many job opportunities, with the BLS predicting a 15% rise in the number of web developer jobs over the next ten years. Developers often work across industries, and many professionals go on to run their own businesses. The most common requirement to work in this area is an associate’s degree in web design or a related field. Take a look at this Web Developer Career Guide from The Balance for more information on how to get started.
If you are interested in the health field and are willing to complete an associate’s degree program, working as an MRI technologist may be the right fit for you. In this role, you would be responsible for operating an MRI scanner to perform diagnostic tests for patients. The American Registry of MRI Technologists provides information about this career, as well as a database of accredited training programs.
Dental hygienists work alongside dentists to perform the preventative care that keeps smiles bright. A hygienist cleans teeth, completes check-ups, notifies the dentist of any issues, and provides education on proper brushing and flossing techniques. To work in this field, you will need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited program and certification or a license in your state. Once you have completed your training and licensing requirements, job prospects look good—the BLS projects that the number of jobs in this field is likely to grow 20% over the next ten years. For more information about working as a hygienist (and for a list of accredited programs), take a look at the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Nuclear technicians work in nuclear power plants to maintain equipment, monitor radiation levels, collect samples to test for contamination, and provide safety advice and training to other employees in the plant. To become a nuclear technician, you will need to complete an associate’s degree in nuclear science or nuclear-related technology. You will also be required to pass a background check. This career is often popular for military veterans, who may have related experience. The Get Into Energy website offers resources if you are considering a career in the energy industry.
Radiation therapists work directly with cancer patients to deliver radiation treatments. The role requires compassion, strong interpersonal skills, and a high degree of attention to detail. One of the most common routes into this field is to get an associate’s degree in radiation therapy. Most states require licensing or certification for radiation therapists. Learn more about this profession by visiting the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, where you will also find information about accredited programs.
If you knew how many aircraft—military, private, and commercial—take to the skies every day, you would understand that logistics and safety at such a large scale need meticulous organization. Air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring the routes of different crafts and ensuring that planes are kept at a safe distance from one another. They also keep pilots informed about critical conditions and respond to emergencies. To work as an air traffic controller in the U.S. you must be a citizen, pass a medical exam (including drug and alcohol tests), pass the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) pre-employment test, pass the Air Traffic Controllers Skills Assessment Battery, and complete a training course at the FAA Academy. It’s a tough process and a job with a lot of responsibility, which is why it’s matched by a high level of compensation. To be considered as a candidate for an air traffic controller, you will need an associate’s degree accredited through the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative.
Computer user support specialists offer advice to customers or clients who are experiencing issues with computer software or hardware (depending on the role). In this position, you might be working directly with customers or as internal support for a company’s IT department. Computer experience is the key skill necessary for this role, and according to careers website The Balance, this could mean anything from taking a few classes to a full computer science degree. It depends on the employer and the type of role.
Court Reporters create a word-for-word transcription of all events that happen during a trial. Lawyers, judges, and juries need to have an accurate record of what was said, making this role a valuable part of the justice system. There are a wide range of options for training as a court reporter, from taking classes and acquiring certificates to gaining an associate’s degree. Many states also require court reporters to be licensed. For more information about the role, visit the National Court Reporters Association.
Sound engineering technicians work in TV, radio, film, and at concerts to ensure excellent audio quality for both recordings and live events. In order to work in this field you’ll probably need to complete some form of post-secondary training—either a basic certificate program or an associate’s degree, depending on the job that interests you. Desirable skills include computer skills, math, and the ability to problem solve. Learn more from the Society of Broadcast Engineers.
If you are interested in pursuing a career as a firefighter, you might also consider similar positions in the field. Fire inspectors make sure buildings are up to code, while fire investigators examine the causes of fires and explosions. To work in this field, you will have likely worked as a firefighter first—a role that doesn’t necessarily require education beyond high school. Requirements for working as a firefighter vary by state. However, training as an EMT is seen as a plus, as are certificates in fire science. To discover more about working as a fire inspector or investigator, visit the National Fire Academy website.
Can you create stunning new looks armed just with a foundation brush? Have you always dreamed of working in theater, TV, or the movies? Would it surprise you to know that performance makeup artists can make over $50,000? This highly creative role is, according to the Beauty Schools Directory, one of the most lucrative areas in makeup artistry, but also one of the most challenging and competitive. Many states require licensing or certifications for makeup artists, which include educational components. Check out this list of state-by-state requirements to see what is needed in your area.
As you might guess from the name, aircraft mechanics and service technicians work on aircraft to keep them flight-worthy. The FAA outlines the requirements for becoming an aircraft mechanic, which include either graduating from an approved program or getting a required amount of on-the-job experience (between 18-30 months, depending on the type of certification you want). While the certification process is extensive, you can certainly look forward to a solid salary in this career.
Do you dream of commanding a ship, ferry, or tugboat? Here is a career in transportation you may not have considered. You will likely have to pay your dues working as a crew member before you take charge, and as you advance up the ranks you will likely have to earn some kind of post secondary credential. You will also need to be certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. This study.com guide walks you through the steps you’ll need to take for as a budding mariner.
Ship engineers maintain engines, boilers, machinery, and other equipment aboard ships. According to Marine Insight there are a growing number of career opportunities for aspiring marine engineers, as well as opportunities in education and training. Marine Insight also provides a list of the top schools for marine education in the country.
Mark Zuckerberg, Anna Wintour, Steve Jobs, and Rachael Ray all went on to have enormous success in their respective fields without a university degree.
While we won’t all become billionaires, we can all aspire to use our skills wisely, make good decisions, and work hard. Education can be an important stepping stone into a career, but the traditional four-year degree route isn’t your only option. And these days, with the ability to take online courses and gain new skills in unexpected ways, there are more choices than ever.
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