Career

No, Really, Not Everyone Needs To Go To College To Be Successful

By Andrea Mew··  11 min read
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“You have to stay in school. You have to. You have to go to college. You have to get your degree,” said former First Lady Michelle Obama. She and many thought leaders promote higher education as the most important investment you can make in your life. News flash: you can have a bright future without college.

Going to college is largely performative. You’re seeking higher education to send a signal to your future employers that you have molded yourself into shape as an employable young professional. 

To be fair, schooling has the ability to provide you with a wide net of knowledge, but it’s entirely up to you to figure out what you can do with it. Some people don’t really do anything with it. We’ve all experienced classes where you get paired for a group project and you have to carry the weight of the whole team while a couple of teammates cruise through. 

The bottom line is that just because you’re there earning a degree, you’re not guaranteed a better livelihood than someone who isn’t. With the value of a Bachelor’s degree on the decline, it might be worth forgoing the process entirely.

Could you do more without those hours spent in desks, taking notes, and bubbling in Scantrons? Should you go to college if you’re going for the sake of having said you went?

College Isn’t Worthless…Yet. But It’s Less Valuable Than Ever

Too many people are going to college. And too many people going to college degrades the value of the degree. It’s a depressing thought, but it’s entirely true. Here’s another way to look at this principle: imagine if the Hermès Birkin Bag was the standard women's tote for daily use. 

Every gal would traipse around with a Birkin on their arm, and because demand is so high, then Hermès would have to increase their production. With increasing production, they might have to lower manufacturing standards, employ more workers, and lower the overall costs of the bag. Owning a Birkin would no longer be a social statement. The exclusivity of a Birkin is built into the fashion piece. If everyone could have a rare bag then it wouldn’t inherently hold the same value.

The same goes for higher education. At one point, attending college wasn’t so easy or accessible. People would start their lives right after high school, seeking an honest living by working rather than spending another chunk of their lives in classrooms and only getting their family established years later after graduating. 

The emphasis on college for all people, no matter what career path, is what makes the degree worthless.

This is not to say that college is worthless. You’re still making a great accomplishment by putting yourself through years of coursework, studying, projects, and tests – if that’s the route you choose and if it takes you on a career path you’d like to excel in. But the emphasis on college for all people, no matter what career path, is what makes the degree worthless.

Let’s be frank, humanities, gender studies, and most other liberal arts degrees aren’t career focused. There isn’t usually a path straight to a job after getting an English literature degree. You can go the route of psychology, which is a bit more career-focused, if you want to go into psychiatry, but if you’d like to earn more than $50k a year, you’re expected to do post-graduate work.

Even for career-focused degrees like marketing, business, or communications – all of which are included in the most popular paths for undergrads – your degree will become devalued because of the sheer volume of college students studying those topics. And for full disclosure, this is coming from a gal with a B.A. in Communications! I feel lucky to work in the field that I studied (without racking up a dollar of debt either) but that’s not so common anymore.

Ever Heard of “Degree Inflation”?

We’re witnessing a newer phenomenon that some call “degree inflation.” What this means is that there’s a rise in demand for jobs to require Bachelor’s degrees when they didn’t previously require one in the past, nor do they probably need to require one now. When society insists on pushing for these “middle-skill jobs” to require a college degree when they previously only required more than a high school diploma, it excludes a lot of people from upward mobility or any sense of career progression beyond an entry-level position.

One of the pushes against degree inflation is the increased awareness of technical schooling or apprenticeships.

A man wanting to earn his living as a lineman for a local utility company didn’t need a four-year college degree. His prerequisites used to be physical strength, mental strength, and a great work ethic. Technology was introduced to create useful automation and he still has to work with his hands, but he also has to be trained to understand the technology and solve problems. Apprenticeship programs through community colleges and technical schools exist to fill this need – no costly Ivy League education required.

One of the more empowering things about going through the apprenticeship route – rather than getting a worthless degree in a field you’re not even sure has a direct path toward a career – is that while you’re studying and in training, you can often earn a wage under guidance and supervision. It may be as short as a full-time two-year program, but those rigorous two years give you the power to train to become a skilled professional and make money while you’re doing it.

You could have quick financial stability sans the pricey degree by going the trade school route.

Compare that to the college route where you go through two or three years of general education, begin courses related to your major, are finally encouraged to do an internship in your final few semesters, and all the meanwhile you’re racking up student debt. 

If plumbing, pipefitting, or fiber optics tech work doesn’t sound up your alley, there are so many other trade school options that shouldn’t get lost in the world of useless college degrees. Whether you go the route of becoming a dental hygienist, medical sonographer, MRI tech, respiratory therapist, real estate appraiser, real estate agent, licensed practical nurse, cosmetologist, or any of the countless trades out there, you could have quick financial stability sans the pricey degree.

There are also many pros to going the route of nixing any college or trade school entirely and training yourself in freelance work. Think about the amount of time you might spend on social media that you could be independently teaching yourself web design, graphic design, video editing, copywriting, or stenography. Maybe you have the heart of an artist. It’s easier now than ever before to create your own Etsy shop, design your own goods, and market your personal brand online. No one needs a college degree to create nourishing soaps or non-toxic, custom-poured candles. 

You Probably Won’t Get the Education You’re Paying For, and It Doesn’t Come Cheap

Let’s be honest, we all spent thousands of hours in classes through our high school education studying topics we never thought about again after graduation. When was the last time you thought about the Pythagorean theorem? Sine, cosine, tangent? Punnett squares? The rules and characteristics of Shakespearean sonnets and iambic pentameter? Reciting the periodic table? Or what about stoichiometry?

Then we get shuffled into college courses re-learning those same topics at what is supposed to be a higher level, but for many, it just feels like a repeat of high school all over again.

To make matters worse, the goalposts have shifted. Where the standard once was spending two to four years in college education, students are now being encouraged to spend six years, and in some cases even eight years, working on their undergrad. At the same time, graduation rates are stagnating for Bachelor's degrees and there’s a societal push for post-grad programs. Is it really worth going from graduating high school at age 18 (most likely) and then possibly having to postpone your life to finish six to eight years of your undergraduate degree, just to be told you should probably get a Master's or Ph.D. to earn more?

Here’s a scary thought: Americans took out over $1.7 trillion in government loans to pay for their college tuition. It’s been so deeply ingrained in our young minds that college education is non-negotiable and that the financial (and mental) cost is worth it, to the point that it feels rare to know someone who didn’t borrow money to earn their degree. 

Americans took out over $1.7 trillion in government loans to pay for their college tuition.

Now that the student has gone through her Bachelor’s program, earned her degree, gotten herself in half a grand or more of debt, and isn’t making enough money or having trouble finding work entirely in her field, she doesn’t want to pay that loan back.

Many progressive politicians think that’s okay, and that the government should forgive student loans on a mass scale. Lawmakers have proposed canceling $10,000 at the very least for each student and upwards of $50,000 in debt if possible. 

That’s all well and good until you take into consideration where that debt-forgiveness comes from. What forgiving student loans really means is that taxpayers allow the government to dig an even deeper wound into their bank accounts on behalf of colleges that are simultaneously increasing tuition at twice the inflation rate. Let’s also not forget that there’s an entire movement for free college tuition for all students, as if we didn’t already have a bloated undergraduate system.

Remote learning also shifted the perceptions that many people had about the quality of education they receive for what they pay. When top universities like Standford, Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard, Brown, and more all chose to raise their tuition in the middle of pandemic lockdowns – despite classes largely being taught online at the time – it caused a lot of people to consider dropping out for community college or protest their pricey tuition. Students were right to insist that remote learning shouldn’t cost more than or even similar to a typical in-person education. 

Is College Even the Best Place To Learn How To Be Successful?

Perhaps you’re looking to become a physician, a lawyer, you name it, there are plenty of career paths that entirely justify the four years and then some of rigorous coursework and studying. For the sake of the many people who aren’t looking to live that life, we have to normalize alternatives. In some cases, those alternatives can earn you a higher than average income for many of the fields that now require Bachelor’s degrees.

We’ve all heard the examples of the most influential, richest men in the world like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg actually being college dropouts. Their vast riches make them statistical anomalies, but there are plenty of other more realistic examples. Women like Rachael Ray or Ellen DeGeneres, who dominate book stores, daytime TV, and their respective television networks, skipped earning a college degree.

Alternatives can earn you a higher than average income for many fields that now require Bachelor’s degrees.

I assure you, there are many successful career women around you who didn’t go to school or perhaps didn’t finish their degree. They might be the real estate agent you see on signs around your town who makes incredible commissions, especially right now in a seller’s market. They might be working for your city or local municipality in an administrative role or as a police dispatcher. Or maybe they’re the small businesswoman who opened up a shop downtown revolving around her passion for  anything from tea, to flowers, to clothing, to cosmetics.

While I’m certainly not promoting the idea of working for a multi-level marketing company, it is notable that the founder of the Mary Kay brand, Mary Kay herself, never got a college degree! Not only did she work from the bottom up hustling as a saleswoman, but she also took a huge leap of faith at the age of 45 to start her own business with a $5,000 investment. Now, Mary Kay globally employs 3.5 million people and brings in $4 billion in sales.

We need to wake up as a society to the vast alternatives out there to college. I mean, what’s more quintessentially American than starting your own business? Even if being a business-owner wouldn’t be a strong choice for your personality, there are countless trades and freelancing careers that you could learn about. It’s also worth explicitly stating that being a full-time homemaker or stay-at-home mother doing part-time work is a critically important job if your spouse can provide a comfortable living for the entire family without you needing to work. 

Closing Thoughts

College is not for everyone, and yet more and more teenagers and young adults are pressured into attending college. With college education losing its value from the sheer volume of B.A.s out there as well as many students making poor choices for career-focused degrees, we need to stress the amount of opportunity out there in the workforce that doesn’t require the cookie-cutter college education. Who cares what Michelle Obama said – you don’t have to go to college and you don’t have to get a degree to seek and enjoy an honest living.

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