How To Earn a 6-Figure Income Without a College Degree

Written by
Josh Jordan
March 14, 2022

College isn’t for everyone. But the traditional belief in our society is that getting a degree is a sure path to becoming rich. In fact, many are taught that it’s the only way to succeed in life.

In reality, the collective amount of student loan debt in the United States is $1.6 trillion. To put that in perspective, that’s about 3/4 of the total currency in circulation in the United States today (more than $2 trillion). That sounds like the opposite of riches.

That isn’t to say that college isn’t right for some people. In order to be a doctor, you literally have to go through undergrad and medical school. The same goes for lawyers, astrophysicists and most types of engineers. But what if those careers aren’t right for you?

Just because you don’t want to be a brain surgeon doesn’t mean you have to settle for a low-paying or demeaning job. There are still plenty of ways to make 6 figures without going to college. All you need is the right attitude and the dedication to making it happen.

The Cost of Earning 6 Figures

Let’s be realistic — there is no world in which earning a 6-figure salary is going to be easy (unless you have rich parents or win the lottery). But then you’re not really earning the money, are you?

The fact is that no matter how you do it, earning 6 figures is going to cost you something, whether that be money, time, hard work or some combination. Any program or methodology that tells you otherwise is a scam.

With any path to wealth, you have to decide if you’re willing to pay the price to have what you want.

Let’s break down a few general examples of how people earn that kind of moolah.

Getting a College Degree

Even if you don’t want to be a doctor, lawyer or a mechanical engineer, you might go to college to shortcut your way to a higher position at a company. For some people, that piece of paper shows that you’re better management material (though anyone who’s worked at an office can tell you it’s not a guarantee).

But while some people with 4-year degrees can make better starting salaries in the same position, there is still a cost to taking this path. Unless you get really good scholarships, you will still be left with student loan debt. In many cases, you will still have to work hard to prove yourself to the company for years before reaching the 6-figure mark.

Beyond that, getting a college degree will cost you time. To become an anesthesiologist (a job with a median salary of $308k), you’ll need to complete 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of med school and 4 years of residency. Not only does this leave you with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, it’s also 12 years of your life spent in school that you’ll never get back.

Investing in Entrepreneurial Endeavors

Instead of spending all that time in school, why not invest in something or start your own business? Some of the richest people in the world made their money this way after dropping out of college. If you’ve ever dreamed of being your own boss, this might seem like a good path for you.

If you can manage to gather enough money up front, you could invest in the stock market, trade foreign currency or buy commodities. The obvious cost to making money this way is the initial investment. Since you can’t just take out a loan for it, you’ll have to find a way to get the money in the first place.

But beyond that, trading stocks isn’t something you just pick up one day. While you may not need formal education, you will need to study how the market works and learn techniques from those who have been successful in the past. You may also lose a lot of money in the learning process while you try to make this work as a career.

On the other hand, you can take out a loan from the bank in order to start your own business. Assuming you have good credit and get approved, all you have to do is pay the loan back over time.

But while you could make a lot of money with the right partnerships and a solid idea, it may take many years to see a profit. During that time, your independence will likely cost you in security. If you are your own boss, you are responsible for your own health insurance, 401k and other benefits you could receive when working for a more established company. While you will have to work extra hours at times to keep the operation afloat, you still run the risk of losing a lot of money if your business idea doesn’t work out.

Good Old Fashioned Hard Work

For many people, gaining an entry-level position at a company and working up to a better salary is a legitimate career path. While you may not need a college degree to start, you will likely need to put in a few years of hard work to earn 6 figures this way. Depending on the industry and the size of the company, this may become a lifetime commitment. You may also need to pay for some form of training to pad your resume or develop your skills for a promotion to succeed on this path.

Hard work isn’t always back-breaking or even physically taxing. In essence, working hard means dedication to doing the best you can (and more) each day. It means pushing yourself to go above and beyond in whatever you do. Whether that’s working overtime, doing grunt work or simply stretching your abilities on a consistent basis, doing anything worthwhile will likely require hard work.

In short, it is always going to cost you something to have what you want. The only question that matters is this: is it worth it to you?

12 Potential 6-Figure Career Paths

Despite what you might think, there are many career paths with a 6-figure earning potential. While this is not an exhaustive list by any means, these are real jobs that you can do without a college degree and still make 6 figures (or more). Use this list to get your ideas flowing and start designing your own path toward a better career.

Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers help commercial and private planes move in and out of airports. Using radar, computers and other technology, air traffic controllers keep airplanes from crashing into each other and help them land safely. Not surprisingly, they tend to make $124,000 per year on average. High earners could end up making $175,000 per year.

In lieu of a college degree, air traffic controllers usually need to have some on-the-job experience and pass the FAA air traffic pre-employment test.

That said, you may have to relocate multiple times to different airports or work strange hours in this position, depending on staffing needs.

Commercial Pilot

As long as you aren’t afraid of heights, being a commercial pilot can offer you a very lucrative and exciting career. What’s not to like? Fly back and forth across the country in huge planes, dress like the coolest guy in the airport and bring home $84,000 to $127,000 a year.

As long as you can handle the pressure of hundreds of people in your cabin all depending on you to transport them safely in a flying metal tube, you’re set. Beyond that, some pilots have to work a highly irregular schedule and may have to be away from their families for long periods of time.

While you don’t need a degree to be a pilot, you will need to get a pilot’s license specifically for commercial planes. To become a top earner, you will also have to put in a lot of flight hours to develop and prove your skills to the airline. If you don’t own your own plane, you’ll have to work to get in time flying in other people’s planes — and sometimes it’s a long line to wait in.

Sea Captain

If you’ve ever dreamed of being a pirate without the looting, scurvy and other illegal activities, then being a boat captain may be a good career for you. While there are many different types of boats you can work on, tug boat and commercial boat captains are most likely to make 6-figure salaries.

Tug Boat Captain

As a tug boat captain, you’ll be responsible for pulling or pushing other boats toward a port. This usually happens when a ship wrecks or stops working. The median salary for a tug boat captain is $101,000. High earners can make up to $153,000 per year.

In addition to a Merchant Mariner certification, the USCG requires that you spend at least 540 days as a shipmate before you can be considered for a captain position. Because of this, most people gain experience as a deckhand or steersman (helmsman) and work their way up to a captain’s position.

Commercial Boat Captain

Commercial boat captains drive large ocean liners, usually carrying cargo or oil. They may also drive cruise ships full of passengers. This is a whole different tier of boat that requires many years of experience working on the sea and special licensing to gain a captain position.

It can also be dangerous. You may be out at sea for many months, and depending on where you sail, you may risk running into real pirates. That said, top-earning commercial boat captains can make up to $186,000 per year.

Construction Manager

If you like working with your hands and building things with tools, then you might be well-suited to a career in construction. That said, you probably won’t make a lot of money as a general worker. The real money is in construction management and commercial projects. While you could make good money building big expensive houses, you are more likely to make 6 figures working on large commercial buildings like offices, hotels, resorts or stadiums.

To become a construction manager without a college degree, you will probably need to start as a layperson and work your way up to manager. Once you have enough experience, you could also start your own construction business as an independent contractor. In this case, you may need to work to do your own marketing and secure your own building contracts.

But if you love the construction business and are willing to put in the work, it can really pay off. While the median salary for a construction manager is $79,000 per year, top performers can make up to $159,000.

Elevator Mechanic

The job of an elevator mechanic is exactly what you’d expect — repairing elevators. You don’t need a specialized degree to do this job.

If that fact makes you want to take the stairs for the rest of your life, don’t worry. In reality, elevator mechanics are required to spend many years as an apprentice (learning from a certified professional) before they become licensed and certified themselves.

Because they need both electrical and mechanical knowledge to do the job well, these blue collar workers boast a median salary of $79,000 per year. Depending on location and level of experience, you could bring home up to $120,000 in this position.

However, keep in mind that a broken elevator can create a sudden emergency. For this reason, many elevator mechanics are always “on call” and may need to show up to do a job at any time.

Power Plant Operator

As a power plant operator, you will be managing and controlling machines that help generate and bring power to surrounding areas. While you only need a high school diploma or GED to do this job, many power plants will ask you to complete a pre-employment exam to test your aptitude in math and science. If you want to work at a nuclear power plant, you will need to be licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Power plant operators have immense responsibilities. To do well (and not cause a disaster), you’ll need to be good at following instructions carefully and solving problems under pressure. While efficiency and safety are your first priority, you will likely be on call to manage abnormal or potentially dangerous situations if they arise.

Due to the complexity and pressure of this job, the median salary for a power plant operator is $71,000. If you work your way up, you could find yourself making up to $108,000 per year.

Software Engineer

As a software engineer, you’ll get to build a wide variety of computer programs or applications for independent clients or a large tech company. This isn’t limited to business applications either. Look in the App Store at the huge variety of games, social media, productivity and educational apps people use every day. All of them were developed by software engineers.

While you don’t necessarily need a college degree to become a software engineer, many people who choose this career path go to school for a degree in computer science. At bare minimum, you will need to learn a few programming languages and have good problem solving skills. Many software engineers have a working knowledge of languages like Java, Python, C++ and Scala.

To learn these skills and prove your abilities without a 4-year degree, you will likely need to sign up for a coding bootcamp (or similar training). A coding bootcamp is a short program that teaches you how to code and tests your knowledge for a certification at the end. While a bootcamp will certainly cost less than a college degree, it will still cost a few thousand dollars and around 9 months of your life to complete. Even then, to start making 6 figures, it will likely take a long time to improve your skills and stand out amongst the engineers at your company. There’s also no guarantee that a bootcamp will make you job-ready or prepare you to advance in the company.

The median salary for a software engineer is $88,000 per year. But those who do really well tend to make around $130,000. Keep in mind that extroverts or people who value social interaction at work may not enjoy this type of job. Many software engineers work independently, spending most of the work day buried in code at their desks.

System Engineer

As a system engineer, your primary task is to design, build, repair and maintain computer systems and networks over the course of their lifespan. You may work for a corporation with a large technical infrastructure or in the IT department solving tech problems for other teams. In many cases, you will be providing support to people on the network when it goes down or when something doesn’t work properly.

In order to make 6 figures as a system engineer, you really need to know what you’re doing. To give yourself the best shot at a high salary, you’ll want to understand computer science, develop good problem-solving and communication skills and gain some experience with computer hardware.

The median salary for a system engineer is about $75,000 per year. In order to join the top earners with a $109,000 salary, you’ll likely need to work in the field for at least 4 years.

Real Estate Broker

If you enjoy looking at homes and talking to people, you may be well suited for a career in real estate. Helping people buy and sell homes isn’t easy, but you can make good money as a real estate agent if you work hard and develop a good reputation. However, if you want to make 6 figures, becoming a real estate broker is the best way to go about it.

While real estate agents typically work for an established firm, being a real estate broker allows you to hire agents and start your own firm. The median salary is $59,000, but top earners can bring in $104,000 per year.

To make this happen, you will need to take a licensing course, a real estate sales course and obtain the right certifications to become a broker in the state of your choice. You will also need to gain a few years of experience as a real estate agent before you become a broker.

In addition, real estate brokers need to have a strong entrepreneurial drive and good sales skills. Because you’ll be running an independent practice, you will often need to do your own advertising and build up a good reputation in your area as a trustworthy businessperson.

NBA Player

Hang on, don’t shut this one down. While it is true that many players go through 4 years of college before joining the NBA, that’s technically not the rule. As long as you have been out of high school for one year, you can make those hoop dreams a reality and work your way into the NBA draft. In fact, Lebron James joined the NBA when he was only 18 years old. When asked what made him so good at basketball, Lebron credits his success to flexibility and teamwork.

But if you want to be anywhere near that good, you need to get out on the court and practice A LOT. Pay for lessons, find a mentor and dedicate yourself to getting better at every aspect of the sport.

Then, you need to play in local leagues where you can be noticed for your talent. If you end up being better than Lebron, you could make upwards of $4 million per year. However, even if you don’t get that good, you are still guaranteed to make 6 figures in the NBA (minimum salary is more than $900,000). So it might be worth a shot.

That said, an NBA career won’t last forever. Most players retire in their mid-30s. Once you become a player, be sure to manage your money well so you have plenty of funds to last you for the future. You may also want to set up an exit career as a broadcaster, commentator or some sort of entrepreneur after the fact.

Oil Baron

If you think about it, you technically don’t need a degree to do this one. All you need is a few million dollars for the equipment, workers and a plot of land you can drill for oil until there’s nothing left. You might also want a little extra cash for a 10 gallon hat and a barber to trim your handlebar mustache each week. But that’s about it!

Based on some totally unreliable figures, the average salary for an oil baron is around $15 billion dollars a year — easy money, right?

(Okay, maybe this one is a joke).

Or… You Could Try Software Sales

Let’s say you like technology, but you don’t know how to code. Maybe you like talking to people, but customer service sounds like a nightmare (because it is).

If you enjoy developing relationships and doing deep work to understand business people’s needs, you may be well-suited for a full-time career in software sales.

SaaS (Software as a service) is a growing industry with a high earning potential for employees, diverse responsibilities and many opportunities for advancement. In this field, there are opportunities to work at companies like:

  • Adobe
  • Microsoft
  • Salesforce
  • Atlassian
  • ZoomInfo
  • Slack
  • Mailchimp
  • Hubspot

While you don’t need a college degree to do well in this industry, you don’t need to be a coding nerd or an expert in technology either. You may even be surprised at how empathy and storytelling skills help sales reps perform better than those with pure technological know-how. Software sales is about helping other businesses benefit from your unique solution. Even as an entry-level sales rep, your job will likely be fast-paced and interesting from the beginning.

In many cases, you can break into the tech sales industry as a Sales Development Representative (SDR) and work your way up from there. In this role, your main responsibility is to bring in new deals to fill your sales pipeline. This means you’ll be researching potential leads, qualifying them to see if they are a good fit for the product and sending them to an Account Executive (AE) to close the deal.

As an SDR in software sales, you could make anywhere between $36,000 to $100,000 per year between your base salary and commissions. From there, the natural promotion for most reps is to become an AE.

As an AE, your job is to close deals brought in by the SDR team. This means you’ll often build a closer relationship with the prospect (potential customer) and your days of cold calling are likely over. Of course, you’ll usually also get a pay raise.

AEs typically make anywhere between $47,000 and $125,000 per year when taking commissions into account. Many high-performing sales reps go on to become sales managers, sales engineers or even C-Level executives. Depending on where you go, you could be making upwards of $300,000 per year on this career path.

Final Thoughts

At this point, we’ve covered a lot of options for 6-figure careers that don’t require a degree. Some of them may seem right for you. Others won’t.

But the point is this: if it seems worth it to you, go for it. Consider the cost of what you want to do. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to have a good quality of life, an interesting career and a salary that can support you and your family for years to come?

At Prehired, we believe everyone deserves the opportunity to further their careers and to create a prosperous and happy life. It’s our goal to expand access to this growing industry with our award-winning training program and industry-leading guarantee — all part of our membership benefits.

We believe software sales offers a lucrative career that isn’t mentally draining, physically grueling or dangerous. It also doesn’t require you to clean muck from a ship deck. And you don’t have to be a genius or a certified technician to succeed. In fact, many people from different backgrounds tend to do well in this line of work. Plenty of Prehired members are former teachers, retail workers or military veterans.

If you have the drive and the right skills, it needn’t take long for you to start making good money in this field. The average Prehired member earns $69,000 in their first year on the job, with 6-figure potential thereafter.

But like many of the careers on this list, it can be tough to stand out among a stack of resumes without some prior experience or training. Even then, landing the job is only the first step. In addition to developing your skills, it helps to have a community to support you on the journey to a 6-figure salary position.

These advantages are exactly what we offer to our members. Prehired is a sales community to help you get hired, promoted and making the income you want, alongside people who have your back for life. With our research-backed Science-Based Sales® curriculum, we’ll give you everything you need to join the top 5% of successful software salespeople.

That said, you might be hesitant to buy into this kind of training for the same reason you didn’t go to law school or invest in an oil field — how much does it cost?

Life sometimes has a way of backing you into a corner. Sometimes, you have no room to invest in your development even though you need a change. Being strapped for time and cash often means you can’t take any risks unless you’re certain they’re going to pay off.

We get the struggle. That’s why we don’t charge our members anything up front. You can start your software sales career for absolutely no upfront cost. You’ll only pay us back for the training once you land a job making at least $60,000 per year at a software company of your choice. Even then, your payments are in direct proportion to how much you make, and they only last for a limited time.

The best part? On average, our members land their first job in just 12 weeks, when putting 10 hours a week into our career launch program.
If this sounds worth it to you, apply to become a Prehired member today.

Josh Jordan

As Prehired's Founder & CEO, Josh Jordan is leading the mission to help 10,000 people launch 6-figure software sales careers by the end of 2024.

How? With Prehired's Science-Based Sales® process -- born from helping dozens of software companies build their sales teams...

...and then consulting with hundreds of Software Sales Managers on exactly what they wanted new hires to know...

...and then helping hundreds of regular folks break into software sales in 12 weeks, on average.

Josh created Science-Based Sales® to help nearly anyone succeed in software sales, because it creates clarity for prospects. No killer closer instincts, charisma or kissing up to decision makers needed.

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