A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that while low-skill jobs are on the decline, by 2020 employers around the globe will need an estimated 45 million more mid-level workers who have a high school education and vocational training. Meanwhile, a highly cited study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education last year concluded that in the U.S. "we place far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college." According to the report, 30% of the 47 million new jobs expected to be created in the U.S. by 2018 will only require an associate's degree or a certificate.
With college costs rising—the average student debt burden now at $23,300 and 10% of students owing more than $54,000—it may be time to consider the alternatives. According to Dale Stephens, an educational futurist and author of upcoming book Hacking Your Education, "More and more people are asking themselves, Is going to college the most effective way to spend $100,000 and four years of my life? Instead of choosing between law school and med school, they are making a third choice and walking out." [More from Forbes: The 15 best jobs for young people]
As it turns out, you don't have to have a bachelor's degree to achieve good pay and job security. In the fourth edition of 300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree due out this fall, researcher Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., pinpointed jobs that require an associate's degree or less and offer high earnings, thousands of annual job openings and strong projected growth, using the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those that ranked in the top 20 were concentrated in health care, construction and skilled labor, and sales.
At the top of the list, the No. 1 best job that doesn't require a bachelor's is registered nursing. The field is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 26% and features over 120,000 annual openings. Registered nurses earn a median of $65,950 working in hospitals, doctor's offices, home healthcare services and nursing care facilities. While workers may choose to pursue a bachelor's of nursing, only an associate's degree and passing a national licensing exam is required. [More from Forbes: Most common jobs for Gen Y workers]
The BLS predicts health-care services will experience some of the fastest growth through 2020, and many of these jobs offer good pay and require only an associate's degree. Dental hygienists (No. 2) earn a median of $69,280; radiologic technologists and technicians (No. 4) earn $55,120; diagnostic medical sonographers (No. 8) earn $65,210; respiratory therapists (No. 9) earn $55,250; and physical therapist assistants (No. 13) earn $51,040.
"A four-year degree is more expensive now than ever before, so these careers avoid the full expense and allow you to start earning sooner," says Shatkin. He further advises that those who opt for a two-year degree program find one that a four-year college will recognize and transfer those credits, providing the option to more easily move into a four-year program down the line. [More from Forbes: 15 most valuable collage majors]
Many of the jobs on the list, particularly in construction and skilled labor, call for only a high school degree or its equivalent and on-the-job or vocational training. At No. 3, supervisors of construction and extraction workers earn a median of $59,150 and are expected to grow by 23.5%. Similarly, electricians (No. 5), plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters (No. 6), and brickmasons and blockmasons (No. 14) earn over $45,000 a year and typically learn through a formal apprenticeship.
"By choosing a career that you can learn through on-the-job training, you can earn while you learn," says Shatkin. "Apprenticeships are especially valuable because at the end of your training period you have a credential that you can take anywhere, just like a college degree." [More from Forbes: 20 best-paying jobs for people persons]
Sales positions also generally require no more than a high school diploma, depending on how technical the product is. Wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives (No. 11), excluding technical and scientific products, earn a median of $53,540 and have over 55,000 annual openings. Insurance sales agents (No. 12) are also in demand and growing at a rapid pace of 21.9%. These sales reps often plug into a company's year-long formal training program and shadow more experienced workers. Because it's a commission-based field, earnings potential is high and increases with experience.
Shatkin's full list of the 300 best jobs that don't require a four-year degree also includes several office administrative roles and service jobs, like massage therapists, lodging managers and landscapers. As we move into a more knowledge-based and service economy, these occupations are increasingly in demand. [More from Forbes: The 10 most important lessons for 20-something workers]