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How to Start Your Career Without a College Degree

If attending a four-year college isn't in the cards, you can take advantage of other opportunities for a lucrative career

Not heading off to college this fall? We get it. College can be a pricey path to an uncertain future. If it's not the right road for you, there are alternative routes to a well-paying and rewarding career. Some occupations provide higher salaries than positions that require a college degree. Consider this: The average recent college graduate earns $42,000 a year and is buried under more than $25,000 in debt, while the average entry-level police officer in a city bureau earns $49,500 a year with little to no upfront cost. And those in the high-tech manufacturing field easily make $50,000 annually to start, in some cases with free training from a vocational program in high school. Check out our selection of the 10 best jobs you can get without a college degree for more examples.

But to reach those pay brackets, you'll need to get some training and get your foot in the door. Here are five ways to start down your desired path.

Work side-by-side with a skilled pro.

On-the-job vocational training with, say, a plumber, electrician or mechanic is a proven way to learn and hone skills that are much in demand. An apprenticeship can give you an idea of what it's like to work in a particular field and can lead to a good job. Such careers typically pay well -- the average pay for plumbers is more than $46,000. This route can even pave the way for you to start your own business as a contractor.

Don't be shy about asking local plumbers and other local contractors for tips on getting started. And you can find apprenticeships in your area on this U.S. Department of Labor Web site.

Build a better mousetrap.

If you have a good idea, it can make you a lot of money. For instance, take Adeo Ressi, who dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and went on to create one of the first commercial Web sites on local lifestyle and entertainment, Total New York, in 1994, before "online" became a household word. By 1997, AOL Inc., then known as America Online, bought the site for $675 million.

Not every new venture turns out to be a million-dollar idea. But if you've got that entrepreneurial spirit, you can increase your odds of success by seeking advice and establishing a solid plan from the beginning. You can tap the Small Business Administration for advice and resources. Or for an average cost of $1,050, you can attend Ressi's Founder Institute for IT start-ups. Four-month-long classes are taught by successful executives, who can advise you on your business ideas and plans and guide you in getting started. "The reason the vast majority of start-ups die is rookie mistakes within the first few months of the company's formation," says Ressi. "You pick a bad co-founder, you don't get the intellectual property from people you're working with -- either of those mistakes will kill you or they'll diminish your long-term value."For more entrepreneurial guidance, see our Six Steps to Starting Your Own Business. And for tips on raising funds through crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter, see Online Communities Help Raise Start-Up Cash. Not sure if you're ready to jump into business with yourself? Take our quiz to Test Your Start-Up Know-How.

Earn a training certificate.

Training certificates are a popular way to quickly prepare for a career at an affordable cost. Currently 18% of U.S. workers have such certificates -- given for a wide variety of careers, from cosmetologists to court reporters, according to Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees.

The average annual earnings of a certificate holder are $35,000, not far below the average $42,000 salary for a recent college grad. Some fields do better than others. For example, holders of computing and information processing, electronics and engineering certificates usually earn $55,000 to $70,000 a year.

More than 54% of certificates take a year or less of schooling at a community college or a for-profit college. Figure on paying about $7,000 to earn a certificate at a public school and up to $20,000 at a for-profit school.

Check out your local community college or trade school for more information. The Association for Career and Technical Education has a database on each state's system for technical schools. There's also a database of private trade schools: RWM Vocational School Database.

Consider law enforcement.

Though some law enforcement agencies require 60 hours of college credits (equivalent to a two-year degree) and a few, such as the FBI, require a four-year degree, most require just a high school diploma or GED (General Education Development diploma).

Applicants are required to complete a written exam and undergo a thorough background investigation, along with a polygraph test, physical fitness test, psychological exam and drug testing. The average salary for a law enforcement officer is $55,000. Get more information from The International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Join the military.

Serving your country can also jumpstart a good career. All branches of the military provide educational benefits and have job-placement programs for careers in the engineering and legal fields, among others. Moreover, any service member is eligible for educational benefits after 90 days of active duty. And all tuition and fees for public in-state college or trade school are covered by the government. For private or foreign schools, the amount is capped at $17,500 per academic year.

To be eligible to join any branch of the military, you need to be at least 17 years old and have a high school diploma or the equivalent. The average starting salary for soldiers is around $18,000 a year. If you're interested in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard, visit their Web sites or your local recruiter for more information.

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