There are a lot of ways to handle the high cost of a college education. Most experts agree that the cost will be made up over the life of a career by higher-paying jobs that require that college degree. But maybe you aren’t sure it’s worth it. Or maybe you just can’t afford college right now and aren’t sure you ever will.
The truth is, college isn’t for everyone. But just because you don’t have a college education doesn’t mean you can’t find any a job with good pay. We did some research using the Occupational Employment Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and found several good careers that don’t require a college degree. Some require training or a two-year associate degree, which still cost far less than a four-year bachelor’s degree.
For many of these jobs, all you need to do is learn the ropes and perform well. Of course, this is easier said than done. It helps to know what your natural talents are, as well as what kinds of tasks you find satisfying. Do you prefer to work alone or with people? Do you like working with your hands? Are you a good writer or good with people? The more you know about yourself, your preferences, talents, and any limitations you might have, the better you can decide whether you have what it takes to do a particular job well.
We found some jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree and where you can earn near or above the median salary in the United States.
Dental hygienist. Becoming a dental hygienist requires an associate’s degree and a state license. Almost all jobs are in dentist offices with regular hours. The work generally requires the use of small tools and equipment requiring dexterity. Hygienists need to be attentive to details, have an ability to follow strict routines and, of course be able to work with people, who are sometimes under stress. The pay is above average (median pay was $77,810 in 2022) and the job prospects for dental hygienists are better than average.
Commercial pilot. Commercial pilots need a high school diploma or equivalent as well as a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Airline pilots require a bachelor’s degree. Commercial pilots might fly or navigate smaller aircraft and helicopters. Pilots usually have variable work schedules, with overnight layovers that are more common for airline pilots. Median salaries for pilots is approximately $100,000. Although job opportunities are expected to grow, most openings will arise from older pilots leaving the job force.
Police detective. Detectives may only require a high school diploma in some states, but they must graduate from an agency-approved training academy and go through a probational on-the-job training period. They must be U.S. citizens, at least 21 years old, and complete physical and mental requirements. The BLS states that median pay for a detective was $66,000 in 2022.
Paralegal or legal assistant. Most paralegals work in law offices, but there are also jobs in corporate legal departments and the government. Paralegal work involves reading and research, writing documents and administrative tasks such as filing and answering phones. Your chance of success increases if you are organized, flexible and discreet. You may get little credit for your work, which often goes to the attorney for whom you work. But you also have little direct responsibility; it’s more a behind-the-scenes job. Opportunities for paralegal assistants have soared in recent years and continues to grow faster than average. Median pay hovered around $56,000 annually in 2021. Of course, competition for these jobs is also high. To compete, you may want to consider at least a certificate from a respected institution (community college or university) or even an associate’s (two-year) degree. To ensure this training serves your best interest, be sure to inquire about the institution’s placement record — how many of its graduates actually get jobs as a paralegal assistant after receiving the training. Familiarity with using computer databases is also a plus.
Licensed practical nurse. While some nurses get a bachelor’s degree, you can also become a registered nurse by earning a post-secondary non-degree award, an associate’s degree or even a diploma from an approved nursing program. The pay is around $48,000 for a licensed practical nurse. Demand for healthcare is increasing so the job outlook is better than average. Nurses may work in hospitals, but also in physicians’ offices, nursing care facilities, correctional facilities, and schools, as well as home healthcare, and government facilities, including the military. Nursing requires good observational and communication skills, compassion, patience, and self-confidence. Some jobs may require holiday, weekend, and nighttime work. There are also on-call positions. About 20% of nurses work part-time, and many work in contracted jobs. If the medical field interests you, also check out occupations for technicians who operate special diagnostic equipment, including sonographers, cardiovascular technicians, and vascular technologists.
Repair and service jobs. There are some good job opportunities for repair or service persons, especially in certain industries. Wind turbine technicians are currently in demand and earn approximately $56,000 annually. Other service jobs include medical equipment repairers; heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics; computer support specialists; and industrial machinery mechanics and millwrights. Most require some post-secondary training, but none requires a college degree. Most of the training is on the job. For computer support specialists, there are many paths to a career and some do require a college degree; but entry to the industry is still possible without one.
Sales person. Good sales people are personable, honest, and persistent, learn details quickly, can communicate clearly, and are able to withstand failure without losing confidence. Job growth and pay for sales positions is good (about as fast as average), especially in wholesale and manufacturing — where you sell goods to businesses and government rather than directly to consumers. If you are young, any entry level position that involves selling, from fast food to retail, will help you figure out whether you have what it takes to earn good money in sales. Insurance sales positions require a high school diploma, and usually companies will offer on-the-job training for positions that will earn around $50,000 per year.
Web developer. A web developer is someone who builds websites. One way to gain entry into this field is to train yourself in your spare time while you hold down another job. You can also get an associate’s degree in web design. The pay and job prospects are better than average; 2021 salaries were usually around $77,200 per year according to the BLS. Most web developers work full time in design firms and about 25% are self-employed. Web development work can be tedious. Successful web developers tend to be detail-oriented, disciplined, and have good listening and good problem solving skills.
Skilled trade jobs. Being a plumber, electrician, carpenter, or mason (bricklaying, cement, and stone work) are trade jobs learned through an apprenticeship. Training occurs on the job as you gain experience in your chosen field. It helps to have an eagerness to take direction, to remain flexible, and to meet deadlines. Job prospects for each of the four trades listed here is better than average; the BLS states median pay for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters was around $60,000 in 2021 . The work can be physically demanding, sometimes under adverse conditions on construction sites. There can also be periods of unemployment. You can generally increase your job prospects and pay by learning quickly, performing well, and developing skills in new areas such as solar and wind power, pre-fabricated construction, green (environmentally efficient) construction, and renovation versus new construction, as well as developing skills as a supervisor or manager as you get older.
If college isn’t in your plans, consider exploring job opportunities in many industries that offer good employment prospects and good jobs that pay a living wage. Just because you don’t plan on a college education doesn’t mean you can’t find good paying jobs in a career that you enjoy. Some type of training is always involved. But if you tap the talents you have, are willing to learn new things and work hard, there are some great jobs out there.
For more articles on jobs and wages:
- Fun jobs for retirees
- Money tips for new grads
- How to get your adult child out of your basement
- Teach your kids about budgets