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The Best States for Workers Without College Degrees [Data Study]

Alex Miller's image
Alex Miller

Alex Miller

Founder & CEO

Countries Visited: 34U.S. States Visited: 29

Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, Alex is a leader in the industry and has earned and redeemed millions of points and miles. He frequently discusses the award travel industry with CNBC, Fox Business...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury

Keri Stooksbury


Countries Visited: 41U.S. States Visited: 28

With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now Editor-in-Chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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    “College will be the best years of your life,” they say. “It will open up so many opportunities you would never otherwise have access to,” they say. “You’ll meet lifelong friends that help you grow your interpersonal skills, be equipped to follow your dreams, and break through to higher income brackets,” they say.

    While the above sentiments certainly can be the case, and obtaining a college degree does increase earning potential, they often forget to mention a weighty downside of going to college: debt.

    Students are saddled with an average of $34,909 in school loans once all is said and done. Overall, Americans collectively owe $1,419,140,000,000 in student loans — a number far too high for the human brain to comprehend. In addition to being an enormous financial burden (one that may actually negate the benefits of higher potential salaries), it can also delay other important life milestones like moving out on your own, getting married, and having kids.

    For some prospective students, the pros outweigh the cons. For others, the decision to go to college is a bit fuzzier or even a non-starter. At Upgraded Points, we know that being financially successful doesn’t always require a college degree. But where can Americans without a degree make the most money?


    To determine which states offer the highest wages to non-degree holders, we started with a list of the top 25 best jobs that don’t require a college degree in 2021. Then we collected the average annual mean wage across these careers in every U.S. state using the most current Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. We also determined which job pays the most in each state. Read on to see what we found!

    The U.S. States That Pay the Most for Non-Degree Holders

    The top 10 states for the highest average salary for non-degree holders are:

    1. Washington: $53,090
    2. Massachusetts: $52,923
    3. Alaska: $52,902
    4. California: $52,402
    5. District of Columbia: $52,190
    6. New York: $50,735
    7. New Jersey: $49,592
    8. Hawaii: $49,242
    9. Connecticut: $48,977
    10. Oregon: $48,810

    The top 10 states for the lowest average salary for non-degree holders are:

    1. Mississippi: $33,834
    2. Alabama: $35,478
    3. Louisiana: $35,621
    4. West Virginia: $35,655
    5. Arkansas: $35,896
    6. South Carolina: $37,313
    7. Kentucky: $37,490
    8. Oklahoma: $37,849
    9. Tennessee: $38,077
    10. Georgia: $38,519

    Interestingly, the best states for making money as a non-degree holder were coastal, leaving America’s heartland with something to wish for. Washington doles out the highest salaries to non-degree holders at $53,090 on average. Massachusetts, Alaska, and California tread on Washington’s heels, all paying an average of more than $52,000 per year. In fact, only the final 4 states on our top 10 dip below the $50,000 mark.

    On the other hand, all 10 states with the lowest average salaries for non-degree holders pay below $40,000. They’re also clumped together in the South, sharing at least 1 border with one another. We can’t be sure why based on our limited research, but the Economic Policy Institute states that Southern states do tend to report higher rates of poverty. For example, South Carolina (sixth on our list) pays the 42nd lowest average wage in the country, sending those with middle- and low-paying jobs into the throes of economic hardship.

    It’s also worth noting that there is a rough correlation between our salary data and cost of living in some states. We see the likes of Washington, California, and New York meting out more money to non-degree holders, yet these states are generally perceived as costing more than average to meet the same standard of living. Therefore, it stands to reason that at least some of the extra remittance enjoyed by non-degree holders in these states may be shelled out for rent, bills, and other expenses rather than padding lifestyles.

    So now that you know where to live, what role should you take on if earning the most money without a degree is your ultimate goal?

    The Highest Paying Job for Non-Degree Holders in Every U.S. State

    Insurance agents bag the highest pay out of the careers we analyzed in 30 states across the country! Combined with the incredibly short period of just a few weeks standing between non-degree holders and licensure, selling insurance can be a satisfying and lucrative career choice that requires almost zero lead time and no college degree.

    While money is arguably not the best motivator to serve the public clad in blue, police and sheriff’s patrol officers hold the highest paid job for non-degree holders in 13 states. Because police work is highly specialized, officers typically complete specialized training instead of attending college for a typical 4-year degree.

    Still, there is a surprising amount of variance in average salaries for police and sheriff’s patrol officers — even in states where they are paid more than in the other 24 careers in our analysis. In California, officers take home $107,440 on average, while in Utah the average salary comes in at $59,450.

    The next best bet for non-degree holders is being hired as a plumber, pipefitter, or steamfitter, which are the highest paying careers for non-degree holders in Alaska, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Missouri. Although these careers are categorized together by the BLS, plumbers typically deal with residential piping while pipefitters and steamfitters work on industrial and commercial pipes that flow with chemicals, acids, or gases. We’re guessing they never run out of frozen pipes to repair in the Alaskan tundra — but they’re probably not complaining about job security or their average of $88,150 per year, either.

    Flight attendants’ average salaries soar above the rest in Indiana ($63,860) and North Carolina ($62,900). Exercise trainers and group fitness instructors pumped up the highest average salary in Vermont ($58,580). Finally, wind turbine service technicians are putting their trade schooling to work in New Mexico, where they pull down $62,880 per year on average.

    Final Thoughts

    If you don’t have the opportunity to go to college, remember that there are many grants and scholarships that might give you the additional funding you need to make your dreams come true. If you simply don’t have the desire to commit tens of thousands of dollars to a 4-year education, that’s just fine, too. There are plenty of fulfilling careers for non-degree holders that tick all the boxes, including livable wages. For more financial tips and advice, read more in the finance section of our blog.

    About Alex Miller

    Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, Alex is a leader in the industry and has earned and redeemed millions of points and miles. He frequently discusses the award travel industry with CNBC, Fox Business, The New York Times, and more.


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