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The highest-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree
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The highest-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree

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Over the past ten years, undergraduate enrollment has been on the decline. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, total undergraduate enrollment decreased by 8 percent between 2010 and 2018. As the COVID-19 pandemic further disrupts higher education and employment prospects, many Americans are evaluating whether a four-year degree is the best path to a successful career.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, higher levels of education generally correspond to better employment opportunities. In 2019, the overall unemployment rate was 3 percent, but that number was only 2.2 percent for college graduates, 2 percent for master’s degree holders, and 1.1 percent for those with a doctorate. While unemployment rates have risen sharply this year, research suggests that workers with more education have generally been less affected.

Similarly, individuals with an undergraduate or advanced degree have significantly higher earnings than those without. While median annual earnings for full-time workers across all education levels in 2019 was $39,810, that for bachelor’s degree holders was $64,896, and the median salary for both doctoral and professional degree holders was nearly six figures.


Although higher education usually leads to a higher salary, the rising cost of education has created a precarious situation for many bachelor’s degree holders. Since 2003, total student loan debt held by American households increased by more than 500 percent. Total outstanding student loan debt currently sits at a staggering $1.54 trillion, second only to mortgage debt. In addition, the delinquency rate on student loans was nearly 11 percent in the first quarter of 2020—the highest rate across all loan types tracked by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Even if degree holders stand to earn more after graduation, the difference is not sufficient to cover loan payments for many borrowers.


While going to college might seem like the norm, more than 62 percent of American workers do not have a bachelor’s degree. However, the percentage of college graduates varies widely across states. For example, Massachusetts is the only state in which more than half of the labor force has a college degree. By contrast, in several states in the South and non-coastal West, more than 70 percent of workers do not have a college degree. The states with the lowest percentage of degree holders include Nevada (73.5 percent), West Virginia (72.3 percent), Arkansas (72 percent), and Mississippi (71.3 percent).


In some states, such as California, there is an enormous spread in educational attainment across major metropolitan areas due to differences in local economies. For example, over 80 percent of workers in the Bakersfield and Stockton metros do not have a bachelor’s degree, compared to just over 40 percent of workers in nearby San Jose and San Francisco. Whereas Bakersfield and Stockton have disproportionately high numbers of agricultural jobs compared to other major metropolitan areas, San Francisco and San Jose have some of the highest concentrations of workers in computer and mathematical fields, according to U.S. Census data.


The burden of student loan debt, as well as the economic uncertainty of COVID-19, raise the question of whether it’s possible to have a lucrative career without a four-year degree. Fortunately, many jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree pay roughly two to three times more than the national median of $39,810 per year.

To find the highest-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, researchers at Self Financial analyzed median wage data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections Report. For each job, they also included the projected job growth rate from 2018-2028. Notably, these projections are the most recent available, but were made by the BLS prior to this year. For reference, the projected employment growth between 2018 and 2028 across all occupations is 5.2 percent. Here are the top 15 highest-paying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.


The Highest-Paying Jobs Not Requiring a Bachelor’s Degree

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15. Magnetic resonance imaging technologists

  • Median annual wage: $73,410
  • Total employed nationally: 39,400
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 10.9%
  • Typical education needed: Associate’s degree
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: New Hampshire

Magnetic resonance imaging technologists, or MRI techs, work in hospitals and other healthcare settings. These professionals use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners on patients in order to take images of internal organs, which assist in the diagnosis of different diseases. The projected employment growth of 10.9 percent is well above the average for all occupations, reflecting the increased need for healthcare services as the population grows older.


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14. Web developers

  • Median annual wage: $73,760
  • Total employed nationally: 160,500
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 13.0%
  • Typical education needed: Associate’s degree
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Washington

While some web developers have a bachelor’s degree, many are able to enter the field with only an associate’s degree or no degree at all. Web developers use computer programming languages such as HTML and Javascript to design websites for their clients. Web developers might specialize in back-end development (the technical construction of the website), front-end development (how it looks and functions to the end user), or both. The employment growth projection for web developers is more than twice the national average.


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13. Petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers

  • Median annual wage: $74,180
  • Total employed nationally: 39,700
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: -1.9%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Louisiana

Petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers work in the oil and gas industry. These professionals are responsible for tasks such as regulating the flow of oil into pipelines, monitoring equipment to detect issues, and controlling pumping systems within a petroleum refinery. Employment in this field is expected to decline 1.9 percent by 2028.


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12. Diagnostic medical sonographers

  • Median annual wage: $74,320
  • Total employed nationally: 72,900
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 19.5%
  • Typical education needed: Associate’s degree
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: West Virginia

Another occupation within the healthcare field, diagnostic medical sonographers take diagnostic images or conduct diagnostic tests on patients’ internal organs by using an ultrasound transducer. Sonographers often specialize in working with specific body parts, such as the heart (echocardiographers), blood vessels (vascular technologists), or abdominal organs (abdominal sonographers). Diagnostic medical sonographers also have the highest projected growth rate on this list, at 19.5 percent.


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11. Supervisors of non-retail sales workers

  • Median annual wage: $74,760
  • Total employed nationally: 397,600
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: -1.7%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: New Hampshire

Supervisors of non-retail sales workers are responsible for managing an organization’s sales team and implementing procedures to increase sales. These workers may also be involved in customer service, training and development for sales employees, and pricing strategy. With 397,600 workers as of 2018, this occupation has the highest employment on this list.


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10. Transportation inspectors

  • Median annual wage: $75,820
  • Total employed nationally: 30,700
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 3.8%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Wyoming

Transportation inspectors are tasked with ensuring the safe transportation of cargo or passengers by air, rail, sea, or road. These workers inspect the transporting vehicle’s equipment to ensure it adheres to federal regulations and safety standards  The projected employment growth rate for transportation inspectors is below the overall average.


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9. Dental hygienists

  • Median annual wage: $76,220
  • Total employed nationally: 219,800
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 10.8%
  • Typical education needed: Associate’s degree
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Idaho

Dental hygienists work in dental offices to perform routine dental cleanings, take x-rays of the teeth, and examine patients for symptoms of oral diseases. In addition to an associate’s degree, dental hygienists must also have a license. As with the other healthcare professions on this list, the projected employment growth rate for dental hygienists is more than twice the overall average.


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8. Funeral service managers

  • Median annual wage: $76,350
  • Total employed nationally: 23,500
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 5.2%
  • Typical education needed: Associate’s degree
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: West Virginia

Funeral service managers work in funeral homes and crematoriums to organize funeral events, file legal documents such as death certificates, and prepare the deceased for burial. Most employers require these workers to pass a state licensing exam, as well as hold an associate’s degree in funeral service or mortuary science. With only 23,500 workers, funeral service managers have the lowest employment on this list.


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7. Power plant operators

  • Median annual wage: $81,990
  • Total employed nationally: 34,900
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: -4.8%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Alaska

Power plant operators regulate the flow of electricity from power plants to substations, which then distribute the electricity to homes and businesses. Power plants may derive their energy from sources such as coal, gas, nuclear energy, hydroelectric energy, wind, and solar power. While only a high school diploma is needed in most cases, power plant operators who work with nuclear power also need a license.


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6. Detectives and criminal investigators

  • Median annual wage: $83,170
  • Total employed nationally: 110,700
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 2.5%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: New Mexico

Detectives and criminal investigators are law enforcement professionals who gather facts and evidence related to a crime. Their duties may include conducting interviews with suspects and witnesses, reviewing records, and performing arrests. While a high school diploma is often sufficient to become a detective, some agencies such as the FBI also require a bachelor’s degree. Detectives usually start as police officers, and must therefore undertake training through a police academy too.


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5. Elevator installers and repairers

  • Median annual wage: $84,990
  • Total employed nationally: 27,000
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 10.3%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Maryland

Elevator installers and repairers are responsible for the maintenance of a building’s elevators, escalators, and other lifts. Most elevator installers and repairers learn their trade through an apprenticeship program, and a license is also required in most states. The projected employment growth for elevator installers and repairers is about twice the overall average for all occupations.


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4. Commercial pilots

  • Median annual wage: $86,080
  • Total employed nationally: 40,700
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 7.7%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Alaska

In addition to flying, commercial pilots are often involved in administrative activities such as scheduling flights and overseeing routine maintenance of the aircraft. Commercial pilots must have a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as a high school diploma. Although the pre-coronavirus employment growth projection was 7.7 percent, decreased demand for air travel as a result of the pandemic may also change the employment situation for commercial pilots in the near future.


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3. Supervisors of police and detectives

  • Median annual wage: $91,090
  • Total employed nationally: 121,600
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 4.8%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Rhode Island

Supervisors of police and detectives often have job titles such as Chief of Police, Lieutenant, Patrol Sergeant, Police Captain, or Police Chief. These professionals are responsible for training police staff, overseeing charges of misconduct, and keeping the police force informed of new regulations or laws that affect their work. At 4.8 percent, the employment growth for this occupation is expected to be slightly below the overall average.


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2. Transportation, storage, and distribution managers

  • Median annual wage: $94,560
  • Total employed nationally: 131,300
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 5.6%
  • Typical education needed: High school diploma or equivalent
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: Alaska

Transportation, storage, and distribution managers ensure the efficient and safe delivery of products. They are responsible for managing activities related to storing products in a warehouse, inspecting vehicles and warehouse facilities to ensure compliance with safety standards, and coordinating the transportation of products from a warehouse to the end customer. The projected job growth is close to the average across all occupations.


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1. Air traffic controllers

  • Median annual wage: $122,990
  • Total employed nationally: 24,300
  • Pre-coronavirus employment growth projection: 1.3%
  • Typical education needed: Associate’s degree
  • State with the highest concentration of jobs: New Hampshire

Air traffic controllers work in control towers or route centers to monitor the distance between aircrafts and prevent accidents. These workers also communicate with pilots about relevant flight information, such as changes in the weather, runway closures, and takeoff instructions. Air traffic controllers typically have at least an associate’s degree and must pass related exams through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) academy. The pre-coronavirus employment growth projection for air traffic controllers was 1.3 percent, below the average across all occupations.


Methodology & Full Results

The data used in this analysis is from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections Report. Salary and employment data are for 2019. Employment projections were made by the BLS prior to 2020, and reflect the 10-year period 2018-2028.

The final list of occupations only includes those for which the education needed for entry is an Associate’s degree or less. Occupations were ordered by their respective median annual wages for 2019 as reported by BLS. To improve relevance, occupations with fewer than 20,000 employees nationally were removed.

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