For a long time, I never saw any other alternative to going to college; it seemed like the most natural pathway after high school. But then I started wondering, can I succeed without college? Is it true college isn’t for everyone?
There is no need to go to college to be successful in life. Many famous people, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, never graduated from university. However, according to numerous studies, college grads make on average $30,000 a year more than people with just a high school degree.
But let’s first start with this question:
Why would you go to college?
One of the most fundamental reasons is that some employers like to see a degree or have it as a requirement. I mentioned this in a previous article, but I will say it again. My dad works as a director of engineering, and part of his job is hiring software programmers.
I asked him if he would ever consider hiring someone without a college degree, and he said yes, but he also said it’s unlikely he would ever meet someone without a college degree. This is because there is software that sorts through submitted resumes, and one common way the program sorts through the applications is the requirement of a college degree.
Connections are one of the most valuable things, in my opinion, you can get out of your time in college. And the more prestigious the college/university gets, the more valuable your connections get.
It’s one of the main reasons people are willing to pay the extreme tuition prices that come with elite institutions. Regardless of the college’s prestige, you will likely meet people who could help you with your future ambitions.
And these connections can come from anyone. Professors who have recognition and power in the field. Children of rich families. Or perhaps just ordinary students who will, one day, grow and become successful.
I also think internships are one of the most important reasons why you would go to college. Having a degree isn’t enough anymore.
An employer would rather hire the person they know has the skills to complete the job rather than the applicant with just a college degree because what assurance can that person give that they will succeed in the real world?
Sure, graduating from Stanford is great and all, but do you have anything to offer besides your school’s name on a piece of paper?
I was reading this article on CNBC, and it basically talks about how people are no longer using their degrees because of rapidly changing technology, which is having a huge impact on which career paths are dying and which are rising. One paragraph summed it up perfectly:
“The future of work won’t be about degrees. More and more, it’ll be about skills. And no one school, whether it be Harvard, General Assembly, or Udacity, can ever insulate us from the unpredictability of technological progression and disruption.”
Is my life over if I don’t go to college?
No, fortunately, your life is not over if you do not pursue higher education. For a long time, going to college was a given for me.
And I have not changed my mind about going to college because I still see value in doing so, but I have changed my perspective. I have realized that a college education is worth nothing if I don’t make the most out of it, and having a degree does not equate to success.
A few months ago, I was completing an unrelated assignment for school when I randomly came across this amusing article.
Elon Musk, one of the richest people in the world, basically said college should not be a requirement for job placement because “college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.”
His companies, Tesla & SpaceX, require job applicants to have college degrees. Still, Musk hopes to drop that requirement because the only requirement should be “exceptional ability,” and a college degree doesn’t attest to ability.
As I mentioned earlier, a college degree isn’t enough anymore. You need experience and talent to show the employer you are irreplaceable. That you have the skill to contribute and make a positive impact on the team.
I was actually interviewing a girl from Northwestern named Sohae who told me something similar. I asked her if she felt Northwestern (a top school) had prepared her enough for post-graduation and into the workforce.
You would expect that you would get invaluable opportunities and skills in return with the money you’re paying for these top colleges, right? Apparently not. Sohae said she doesn’t feel prepared at all. She said the things she learns at Northwestern would serve her minimal use when she graduates.
If you want to hear more about what Sohae told me about her experience at a top tier school, check out my episodes with her:
How about cases where people succeeded without going to college?
Despite Elon Musk saying he doesn’t see the real use in college for building skills, he did go to college. So are there any examples of success without a college degree?
I think the most commonly known example is Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard to focus his time on what we now know as Facebook.
Another quite famous example is Steve Jobs dropping out after one semester and then finding Apple. Steve Jobs’ story is kind of funny because the college he went to offered some calligraphy classes which he took. Many years later, when his team was creating the first Mac computer, he used the skills he learned in that calligraphy class to give us the many fonts we love and use today.
However, when I think about people who have been successful without college, a different person comes to mind: Richard Branson of Virgin Group.
A couple of years ago, I think, I was listening to this podcast that interviews entrepreneurs who managed to build the big companies/services we know today.
One of my favorite episodes was with Richard Branson, who co-founded Virgin Group, which, according to Wikipedia, is a “British multinational venture capital conglomerate.”
Virgin Group owns tons of companies, and Richard Branson is a billionaire. And guess what? He didn’t go to college – he didn’t even graduate from high school because he struggled with dyslexia.
Let me tell you, when I heard that a 16-year-old high school dropout with dyslexia later grew to become a billionaire, my jaw didn’t drop to the ground, it passed through the floor.
Another example from that same podcast was Steve Madden. He did go to college for a short time but dropped out due to some money issues. I remember he worked for many shoe brands in different stores before creating his own brand.
Obviously, you don’t have to be a billionaire to be successful, but we can’t deny that he has achieved quite a bit of success without a college degree.
I now want to bring in an example that doesn’t involve becoming a billionaire and will be more relevant and relatable to the majority of the populous. My dad did receive the American equivalent of a bachelor’s degree back in our home country.
However, one fear we had when he came to America was that he wouldn’t be able to find a job because he had no American education, and the education he had received was from a university virtually unheard of by Americans.
In fact, when he was in the interview process, and everything was looking good, the employers were trying to verify his education, but they couldn’t reach the university my dad had attended.
Anyways, my dad still has no American education, but he is incredibly skilled at computer programming. He was still able to find a job coming into the US, and now he has created a very comfortable life for my siblings and me. We live in a great area, go to fantastic schools, and never have to worry about our needs.
As great as all this sounds, there are some instances where you absolutely need to go to college. A surgeon can not become a surgeon without receiving many, many years of education. You absolutely need multiple college degrees to pursue such a career path.
Another career path that depends on a college degree is law. I was writing another article called “How Important is College Name Recognition?” and I came across something rather interesting. If you want to find a job at one of the country’s top law firms, you absolutely need a degree, but you also have to go to a specific university.
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the top law firm in the country, recruits exclusively out 7 universities, those universities obviously being some of the most prestigious and highly ranked universities in the country.
In that same article, I looked at more STEM-oriented jobs to see if college name recognition made a difference there.
For STEM jobs, the college you go to generally doesn’t matter. Like I mentioned with my dad’s example, he couldn’t even get his non-American education verified, but he still landed the job. Computer programming would fall under STEM, so that’s why they didn’t care as much about his education.
Is college worth the debt?
Some people may feel that college isn’t right for them and are wondering if they can be successful without college. But others may be contemplating not going to college because of money conflicts.
There are a couple of things I want to address here.
Number 1 is the misconception that if your family income is low (<$65,000), you won’t be able to go to college. Absolutely not. In fact, those whose household incomes are on the lower side can attend college for free.
For example, Harvard’s financial aid page says “if your family’s income is less than $65,000, you’ll pay nothing” and “for families who earn between $65,000 and $150,000, the expected contribution is between zero and ten percent of your annual income.”
I know the former statement is true for most colleges, private and public. The latter statement is something more specific to Harvard, but there are many colleges out there that have a similar way of determining the cost of attendance.
I go more into depth about full-tuition and full-ride scholarships in my article here.
Number 2 is whether or not you should go to debt over college. Some debt is not bad. However, if you are thinking of pulling out a $150,000 loan to pay for your education… Let’s put it this way: 20 years after graduation, do you still want to be paying off student loans? I would recommend not to.
Now, I personally don’t think this is a good idea, but I was interviewing this college coach Mark Stucker, and he put it this way: people pull out loans to buy a house, so why not do the same for your education?
To combat this debt, you can do things such as applying to private scholarships or working a job to cover tuition costs. I talk extensively about those in my article “Should I Go To A College If I Can’t Afford It?”
It’s true that college is not for everyone and is not necessary to succeed in life. However, there are certain cases where a college degree and where you get your college degree matter.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.