If school isn't your thing, but you would love a big salary, consider a job that requires only a two-year degree. By training for a specialized healthcare, technology or trades job or heading for the police academy, you can be out of school and quickly working at a high-paying job where Monster's Salary Wizard puts the median salary at $45,000 or more.
Before you head off to campus, be forewarned that an associate's degree can lock you into a particular job, says Mark Szypko, CCP, managing director at Salary.com, which powers the Salary Wizard.
"When you get into these programs, they can be limited, and your career can be inflexible," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that if you enjoy what you're doing. But if you get tired of what you're doing, there may not be a lot of career options open to you."
Make sure you're comfortable in the niche you choose before you invest two years of your life and thousands of dollars in tuition getting ready for a new career. "If you don't like going to the dentist, you probably won't enjoy being a dental hygienist," Szypko says.
Test-drive the occupation by doing informational interviews and internships as soon as you're eligible.
Among the high-paying jobs you can land with an associate's degree are:
Registered nurses have more career flexibility than other associate's-level healthcare workers, but there's a catch. "You can break into the nursing field with an associate's degree, but nurses with bachelor's degrees are becoming so plentiful that there will be fewer jobs for those looking with an associate's degree," Szypko says. Seek an employer that will pay for additional education, and plan to go on for a four-year nursing degree if you want job security.
Like many high-paying jobs you can get with an associate's degree, you'll perform the same tasks over and over when you're a dental hygienist. You'll clean teeth, talk to patients about brushing and flossing, and assist the dentist. Many dental hygienists work part time.
You may need only a two-year degree, but you'll have to take tough courses, like chemistry and anatomy to graduate with an associate's degree in respiratory therapy. Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, which means evening or weekend shift work, testing and treating patients with breathing issues.
Within IT there are a number of highly paid positions where experience and certifications can stand in for a degree. Programmers who know .Net, Visual Basic, C# or Java see salaries above the $50,000 mark after two or three years in the field, says Ashley Waggoner, vice president of Robert Half Technology in Menlo Park, California, a professional placement firm.
This job may sound simple, but it takes a lot of technical know-how, so you'll need a two-year degree or trade-school certificate in electronics. You'll boost your salary by joining the Communications Workers of America or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Industrial Engineering Technician
If you love math, but not enough to go to college for a four-year degree, consider an associate's degree in mechanical, electrical or industrial engineering from a program accredited by ABET. Industrial engineering techs earn the most, but salaries for electrical engineering techs aren't far behind.
You can get hired onto a local force if you have a high school diploma and can pass an agility test, but federal law-enforcement jobs require a college degree. Not only do police officers and sheriff's officers make good salaries (especially with overtime options), but they can also retire after 20 or 25 years in some jurisdictions.
While you can get HVAC training from a technical school or community college, you can get into this field with just a high school diploma by doing an apprenticeship -- in fact some states require HVAC professionals to do an apprenticeship before sitting for a licensing exam. You'll also need to become certified to handle refrigerants. An HVAC job with local government may be your best bet for a solid salary.
Most paralegals get into the field by earning an associate's degree or a certificate. To be happy as a paralegal, you should enjoy reading, writing and organizing paperwork for attorneys. The highest-paying jobs for paralegals are usually at large law firms located in high-cost areas.