Is College Even Necessary Anymore To Be Successful?

By Ella Carroll-Smith··  7 min read
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We used to believe that a four-year degree was required to be successful in life, but with the growing number of college dropouts who go on to start billion-dollar companies, we’ve gotta ask: Is college even necessary anymore?

First, a few caveats. College is certainly necessary if you have a specific vision for a career that requires a degree. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, then yes, go to college. I don’t know about you, but if I’m getting brain surgery, then I definitely want a doctor who went to school for 10+ years. There are certain skills that do require some (or a lot) of schooling, and I’m not trying to discount those at all. 

But what if you have no idea what you want to do with your life? In that case, is it really in your best interest to spend four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree that you might not even use? Going to college simply for the sake of checking a box is typically a bad idea because it’s going to leave you with a boatload of debt and four years behind those who jumped into the job market or started building their resumes right away, and that is truer now more than ever before. 

College Dropouts Turned Business Superstars

The dawn of the digital age in the 1990s changed everything about our lives, especially the world of business. Technology made everything more accessible, and it catered to a much younger crowd. By the turn of the century, a college kid could spend hours coding in his dorm room, drop out of school, and go on to launch one of the most successful tech companies in the world. Yes, I’m talking about Mark Zuckerberg, but he’s not the only one.

Besides Mark Zuckerberg, you’re probably also familiar with the names Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Jack Dorsey. Besides going on to start billion-dollar tech companies, something else these men all have in common is that they dropped out of college so they could focus 100% of their time and energy on building their companies. For them, it paid off big time.

Just because you have a college degree doesn’t mean you actually learned anything.

This is not to say that every person who drops out of college or skips the four-year degree path entirely will go on to become a billionaire, but it’s very possible to be successful in business without going to college. It won’t necessarily be easy, but what good things in life ever are?

Education is what you make it. There are some people who drop hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to the world’s most prestigious schools, fail to apply themselves, and come out with a degree but little knowledge or common sense to back it up. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you actually learned anything. Applying yourself and putting in the effort to learn is what actually matters, and college is not the only place where you can do that nowadays. 

Taking an Alternative Route Toward Success

The internet boom made education more accessible than ever before, and that’s only getting truer as time goes on. You can learn pretty much anything on YouTube nowadays. You can download books to your phone, listen to podcasts, and connect with people anywhere in the world who share your interests. If you want to learn a skill, there are much faster and cheaper ways to do it than going to college for four years. 

The real world is another great way to gain experience. I personally have learned more valuable work skills out in the real world than I ever learned during my four years in college or two years of grad school. While I enjoyed reading Dickens and learning about the geopolitics of ancient Rome, none of that prepared me for my real job. I’m not saying those years spent at school were a complete waste of time for me. There was value in them, but besides looking good on my resume, it’s debatable whether they were integral to my professional success. 

If you know what you want to do, then your best option might just be to get out into the real world and do it.

If you know what you want to do and it doesn’t require a college degree, then your best option might just be to get out into the real world and do it. The digital age makes it easier than ever to be an entrepreneur. It’s free to create a social media account or a basic website, so if you have an idea, there’s nothing stopping you from getting started! In some cases, you can even get paid for foregoing college in favor of pursuing your business.

Billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has a foundation that “gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Anyone under the age of 22 can apply, and this foundation does not take equity in your company. They’re not looking for a return on investment, they’re looking to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in younger generations. 

But What If You Don’t Know What You Want To Do?

Let’s say you don’t want to be an entrepreneur though. Maybe you just want to find a good, stable job without going into a ridiculous amount of debt in order to do it. In that case, trade schools could be a cheaper, quicker route that actually gives you the hands-on experience you’ll need in your professional pursuits. 

There’s a major skill gap in today’s job economy because a gender studies degree is typically useless when it comes to carrying out real-life tasks like fixing plumbing, paving roads, and installing electrical wiring. Going to trade school and learning these skills is an extremely valuable thing to do, both for yourself and society. 

Going to trade school is an extremely valuable thing to do, both for yourself and society. 

While trade schools don’t cost as much as liberal arts ones, they still cost money. If that’s an issue for you, then you still have options! Check out scholarship foundations like Mike Rowe’s, where he awards scholarships specifically to “help people get trained for skilled jobs that are in demand.” His foundation has “proven that opportunities in the trades aren’t alternatives to viable careers – they are viable careers. Through this program, we encourage people to learn a useful skill, and we reward those who demonstrate that they’ll work their butts off.”

Even if trade school isn’t for you, you still have options. Many companies now (especially newer, modern business ventures) value real-life experience, like an internship or side hustle like a podcast, blog, or successful social media pages to showcase your skills. There are also a number of well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree or only require a one-year certificate, such as a computer programmer, diagnostic medical sonographer, salesperson, or marketing specialist (among many others).  

It doesn’t matter whether your reason for wanting to skip college is financial or philosophical. As long as you do your research, come up with a viable plan, and put in the work to accomplish your goals, there’s a very good chance you’ll be successful.

Closing Thoughts

Don’t feel pressured to go down one path just because it’s the way people tell you that you’re supposed to go. Maybe going to college and getting a four-year degree is the right choice for you, but if you’re doubting yourself or think it might be a waste of time, there’s nothing wrong with looking into alternative options or attempting to forge your own path, sans degree. 

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