Fast-growing careers without four years of collegeSeptember 7, 2011: 1:38 PM ET
A new book identifies 100 fields where demand for highly skilled workers is on the rise -- no bachelor's degree required.
By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I had hoped my oldest daughter would be heading back to college right about now, but after doing all right academically in her freshman and sophomore years, she decided she'd rather look into other opportunities instead. I'm trying very hard not to think of this move as "dropping out," but I can't help worrying about her future if she doesn't finish school. One of the careers she's considering has something to do with computerized medical record-keeping. (She's very good with computers.) Do you know anything about that? Could she make a decent living at it? — Concerned Dad
Dear CD: Your worry is certainly understandable, but consider your daughter could be on to something. Exactly what a four-year college degree is worth, in dollars-and-cents terms over the whole course of someone's career, is a complex question.
On the one hand, according to a new study from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, bachelor's degree holders earn, on average, 84% more than people who have only a high school diploma. That's a marked increase from 75% more in 1999.
But at the same time, those averages can be deceptive. The Georgetown researchers note, "People with lower educational attainment can often make more than those with higher attainment as a result of occupational differences."
For instance, their analysis found that more than a quarter (28%) of people with a two-year associate's degree make more than the median average pay of workers with bachelor's degrees, and 40% of bachelor's degree holders out-earn the median income for people with master's degrees.
As the study puts it, "these figures reflect a critical aspect of the education and earnings game: The actual job that someone does -- the work they perform -- has a significant effect on earnings."
One thing is certain: With or without a four-year degree, "rapid changes in technology now require people to continue learning throughout their work life," says career expert Laurence Shatkin. "Jobs are constantly upgraded, and many of today's jobs can't be done by people who have only the knowledge and skills that were adequate a few years ago."
Shatkin has been studying the labor market for the past 30 years, with particular attention to how the ever-evolving economy affects which skills are in demand. He is co-author of the recently published 10th edition of Top 100 Careers Without a Four-Year Degree, which is a gold mine of information on fields -- from ad sales to welding -- where the rate of job growth is projected to exceed the average for all fields (and where job openings will outnumber qualified applicants) over the next seven years.
Of the 100 promising careers the book covers, 11 are in health care. One of them, a category called medical records and health information technicians, sounds like what your daughter has in mind. Health care providers plan to hire 20% more technicians with the know-how to computerize medical records by 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
Demand for these workers will be especially strong over the next three years: Federal law requires all hospitals to put electronic record-keeping systems in operation by 2014, and many are nowhere near ready. In addition to an associate's degree, records technicians typically take an exam, administered by the American Health Information Management Association to earn the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) certification.
Certifications for medical coding, such as the one offered by the Board of Medical Specialty Coding & Compliance, are also a hot commodity right now, and no wonder. Federal regulations dictate that hospitals start using an entirely new coding system, with more than 155,000 codes, by October 2013.
In other words, although a bachelor's degree is a great thing to have, your daughter could do a lot worse than to get trained in this field. And look at the bright side: With the economy still shaky and unemployment stubbornly high, her decision to pursue a specific marketable skill may turn out to be smarter than you think.
Talkback: Has a four-year degree paid off for you? If you don't have a bachelor's degree, has the lack of one been an obstacle in your career? What skills have served you well instead? Leave a comment below.