College is the stepping stone to a good career.
That's been an accepted fact for generations of Americans. College graduates earn higher salaries than those without degrees. They have more opportunities to work in a wider range of fields and industries. They also, however, typically have a heavy load of debt to carry as they start their working lives.
The cost of a four-year bachelor's degree now ranges from roughly $50,000 at in-state public universities to potentially more than $200,000 at private universities. Sixty-nine percent of 2014 college graduates had student-loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
"College is expensive, and higher education isn't for everybody," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for HR consultant CareerBuilder. "It's no secret that a degree affords you more opportunities, but there are other options."
Indeed, individuals who either can't or don't want to spend four years at an expensive university — currently about 70 percent of Americans over the age of 25 don't have a bachelor's degree — can still find rewarding jobs.
"There are plenty of jobs available for people without degrees that offer good opportunities and high wages," said Charles Lehman, director of the Employment and Economic Information Center of New Mexico.
According to him, two sectors that offer particularly good prospects are advanced crafts/construction and the medical/health-care industry.
In the first case, demand for skilled tradespeople, such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters, will continue to increase. The career path into those trades typically involves some form of non-college certification and apprenticeship or on-the-job training.
There were 628,800 electricians in the country in 2014, and they had a median annual wage of $51,880, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau is projecting that 85,900 new positions for electricians will be created by 2024 — a 13.7 percent increase and more than twice the projected 6.5 percent growth in total employment.
There are also still opportunities in manufacturing, as well, although the decades-long decline in the manufacturing sector will likely continue. The jobs are changing in nature, with more automation and the need for workers capable of operating computer equipment.
"Manufacturing is still on the decline, but workers are retraining on new technologies," Lehman said.
The oil-and-gas industry, despite the recent volatility in the price of oil, will be a source of many new high-paying jobs in the future.
Health care and social assistance, meanwhile, is expected to surpass state and local government, and the professional and business service sector as the largest employing sector of the economy by 2024. The BLS projects that the top three occupations in terms of new positions created through 2024 are personal-care aides (458,000), registered nurses (439,000) and home health aides (348,000).
"Most of the fastest-growing jobs are in health care or fields related to health care," said Teri Morisi, a branch chief at the BLS. "With the aging of the baby boomers, there's going to be a lot more demand for these types of services in 2024."
The problem is that many of these jobs don't pay well. Personal-care aides and home health aides, for example, both make a median annual wage of under $22,000 — significantly less than the $36,000 median wage for all occupations in the United States.
There are scores of other health-care occupations that do have higher salaries, and they typically require some training and certification to qualify.
The key to accessing the higher-paying jobs in any field is upgrading your skills. It can be done through on-the-job training, which increasing numbers of companies offer, according to Haefner at CareerBuilder, or through trade schools and community colleges that are focused squarely on job-related skills.
"Education comes in many different forms," she said. "If someone doesn't want to do a four-year degree, that's OK, but people should commit to growing their skills."
While it can certainly pay to target growing industries and hot occupations within those sectors, Lehman at the Employment and Economic Information Center of New Mexico suggests that individuals first look at themselves to determine what career path is best for them.
"Don't just pick jobs from lists of the highest-paying or the fastest-growing occupations," he said. "Get some career counseling and figure out where your interests and abilities lie. It shouldn't be just about where the money is."
— By Andrew Osterland, special to CNBC.com