High-Paying Careers That Require Little Schooling

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An associate's degree could pave the way to a high-earning career in as little as two years.

By Jennifer Berry

If you think you need to spend years in school to land a high-paying job, you might be in for a surprise. In as little as two years, you could prepare to pursue a career paying an impressive salary of $45,000 a year or more.

In fact, an associate's degree might help you out-earn people who have spent the time and money to earn a bachelor's degree.

During her research, Diane Melville, author of "The Community College Advantage," was surprised to discover the high-earning potential of certain associate's degrees. "Some of the careers you can prepare for with associate's degrees start out at $60K or $70K," she says.

Interested in learning more? Then check out the list of careers below, which were chosen based on their median annual salaries and education requirements, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition, career experts offer their insights into these high-paying careers that you could pursue with as little as two years of schooling.

Career #1 - Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

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This is a career where your inner nurturer could thrive as an important part of a medical team - without investing the long years needed for medical school.

As a diagnostic medical sonographer, you might use sound wave equipment to create images that help doctors diagnose and assess a wide variety of medical conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. You could help save someone's life - and make a good living while doing it.

"Specific technician jobs, like medical sonographer, can be fairly lucrative," says Nick Angelis, author of "How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med  School)." One of the reasons this job pays so well, suggests Angelis, is because medical practitioners are still finding new uses for sonographic technology, for example in emergency room diagnoses, and there's a need for professionals with the specialized skills to utilize it.

"With the right credentials, sonography and technician jobs will pay more than nursing and not require as expensive of an education," Angelis adds.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Sonography Program.

Education Options: So how do you prepare to pursue this career? According to the Department of Labor, these professionals need formal education, such as a certificate or associate's degree in sonography. Employers prefer a degree or certificate from an accredited institute or hospital program, and many might also require professional certification.

Salary Info*:

Median Annual Salary
$65,860
Bottom 10 Percentile
$44,990
Top 10 Percentile
$91,070

Career #2 - Dental Hygienist

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Good health includes good oral health. If you're interested in helping others maintain their smiles, earning an associate's degree in dental hygiene that could really pay off.

As a dental hygienist, you might clean teeth, check your patients for gingivitis or other oral diseases, and educate your patients on how to improve their oral health, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. So why do dental hygienists pull in such a good salary?

"Dentists rank among the highest paid medical professionals, so their employees are paid to scale," says Lynn Mitchell, office manager at Menlo Park Dental Excellence. "As most dentists work through private practices, they aren't as limited by insurance reimbursement rates. And, since hygienists often assist with high-cost procedures, they get a portion of those proceeds."

Dentists may also rely on hygienists to perform much of the routine dental care in dentist offices as their practices expand, which could allow dentists to see more patients, according to the Department of Labor.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Dental Hygiene Program.

Education Options: If you're ready to get serious about a career in dental hygiene, you'll typically need an associate's degree in dental hygiene to get started, notes the Department.

Salary Info*:

Median Annual Salary
$70,210
Bottom 10 Percentile
$46,540
Top 10 Percentile
$96,280

Career #4 - Registered Nurse

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You're detail oriented, compassionate, and committed to helping others. Does that ring true? Then a career in nursing could be right for you.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as an RN you might care for patients, educate the public about various health conditions, or even provide emotional support to patients and their family members. Considering the crucial role nurses play, it makes sense that they walk away with a good paycheck.

Carmen Kosicek, a registered nurse (RN), adds, "Doctors do not hang around to see every hour of the patients' day - nurses do. The nurses administer meds, call when there is something wrong, etc. It is the nurse who is really the first line of defense."

Next step: Click to Find the Right Nursing Program.

Education Options: If this is the career you think you want to prepare for, there are three typical paths according to the Department: A diploma from an approved nursing program, an associate's degree in nursing, or a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Salary Info*:

Median Annual Salary
$65,470
Bottom 10 Percentile
$45,040
Top 10 Percentile
$94,720

Career #5 - Police officer

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When you think of "police officer," you automatically think of protecting and serving your community. And now you're ready to do your part.

As a police officer, you might patrol your assigned area, respond to calls for help, and protect lives and property, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It's an important job - which is reflected in its paycheck.

"An associate's degree is a ticket into the profession for most police departments in the region. It prepares you to succeed," says James Truitt, program coordinator of criminal justice and police basic training at SUNY Ulster in New York's Hudson Valley area.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Criminal Justice Program.

Education Options: According to the Department of Labor, most police applicants must have a high school education or a GED and be a graduate of their agency's training academy. However, many agencies do require some college coursework or a college degree.

Salary Info*:

Median Annual Salary
$55,270
Bottom 10 Percentile
$32,350
Top 10 Percentile
$89,310

Career #6 - Computer Support Specialist

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If you're interested in technology, you could turn your interest into a high-pay career. And believe it or not, it's possible to prepare to pursue a job as a computer support specialist in as little as two years.

As a computer support specialist, you might help people and organizations with their computer software or equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"This is one area where there are more jobs than qualified graduates to fill them," says Melville. "In San Jose, California, 54 percent of job openings are IT jobs, but only two percent of people are graduating with the required skills for the jobs. Anything computer science is so relevant now."

And the future for these types of careers looks bright. "Technology will have a lasting impact 30 years down the road," Melville explains. "You'll have a place in the market for the foreseeable future. These careers have great job security and a low barrier for entry," she continues. 

Next step: Click to Find the Right Computer Science Program.

Education Options: Wondering how you'd get ready for this career? According to the Department of Labor, an associate's degree or postsecondary classes might be enough for some jobs, while a bachelor's degree is required for other computer support specialist positions.

Salary Info*:

Median Annual Salary
$46,420
Bottom 10 Percentile
$27,620
Top 10 Percentile
$77,430

* All salary information comes from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012

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