You are here: Home » Career and Education » Education and Wealth: You Don’t Need a College Degree, But You Need an Education

Education and Wealth: You Don’t Need a College Degree, But You Need an Education

by

College is overrated. There, I said something you’ve probably suspected since you were in high school and may have confirmed several years after you entered the workforce. You probably know many people who excelled in college and can barely string together a cohesive thought. And you probably know many successful people who never went to college, barely made it through college, or work in a field unrelated to their degree.

Why is that? How can some people struggle when they have a degree from a quality institution, while others can be successful without a college degree or in a field unrelated to their degree? In my opinion, it’s because a college education doesn’t guarantee success. Success is up to many other factors – things college often doesn’t teach.

You don’t need a college degree

Do you need a college degree?

Do you need a college degree to become successful?

A college degree is simply a certification. In basic terms, a degree is simply a piece of paper certifying you met a certain level of scholastic achievement. But what happens in the class room doesn’t always translate into the real world.

College degrees don’t always pay well or guarantee a job. There are many high paying degrees. But for every high paying degree, there are two low paying degrees. There are also degrees that have a limited market. Simply having a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job, nor should it. Employees need to bring skills to the table, as well as the ability to continue learning, growing, and providing value for their employer.

I am not saying people who choose low paying degrees aren’t successful – far from it. Many people choose degrees based on what makes them happy, and it is easy to admire someone who chooses happiness over wealth.

The truth many people aren’t willing to admit is you don’t need a college degree to be successful. But you do need an education, along with a desire to continue to learn, work hard, and adapt.

You need an education

An education is different from a degree. An education can be formal, informal, self-directed, on the job training, professional licenses and certifications, or any other form of education.

There are hundreds of careers which don’t require a degree. And they all share one thing in common: They require results, and in many cases, require years of hard work and study to achieve success.

It’s easy to discount athletes, musicians, actors, and others who don’t go through a traditional four year degree program. But the amount of hard work, training, practice, and study they go through to achieve their success often equals or far exceeds the amount of effort put into an average 4 year degree. But let’s look beyond those careers, which are far too rare to be a practical vocation for most people to aspire to.

A more realistic example. I’ll use a friend of mine as an example. He is in his 40′s and is by most measures, a successful man. How successful? He brings in a quarter million a year as a small business owner.

“Oh, one of those…”

Yes, one of those. Want to know what he does? It’s not sexy, but it’s a great career. He is an electrician… or, I should say he owns a small business focusing on residential and small commercial electric installation and repair jobs. He built his business from the ground up in a manner that almost anyone can do if they want to. His story is along the lines of the tortoise and the hare – slow and steady wins the race. It just takes time, hard work, and a continuing desire to learn and improve.

He started as an electrician’s apprentice out of high school, achieved his license, and eventually started his own business. He now employs a couple people who are following in his footsteps. The best part is his job will never go away. People will always need electricians. And plumbers, and landscapers, and mechanics, and dozens of other jobs which don’t require a degree. But these jobs require an education and hard work. Many also require licenses and certifications which require study and continuing education.

A college degree is beneficial, but not required

I am not against college degrees. I have one, and recommend college for many people. But some people are better off not going to college because it doesn’t align with their skills or career aspirations.

Success doesn’t rely on a piece of paper. And it shouldn’t. Success is the actions you take to achieve your dreams and goals in life. If that means attending college to receive a traditional 4 year degree, then awesome. And if that means doing on the job training and studying at night to get a license or certification, then that’s great too.

There is a lot of emphasis put on achieving a college degree, but it’s not the right choice for everyone. And it shouldn’t be. Choose the career path which makes you happy, work hard, continue to learn and provide value, and success will follow.

image credit: Our Lady of Disgrace


Published or updated June 12, 2012.
Print or e-mail this article:
Print Friendly

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Craig

although not required, a college degree is definitely and investment and studies show it helps you earn more over your lifetime. Most corporate companies won’t hire someone who doesn’t have a college degree. Now I am trying to figure out if an MBA is worth it or not.

Reply

2 Ryan

Craig, I agree 100%. Most traditional “white collar” jobs require a degree just to get an interview. It works great as a screening tool. Many “professional” jobs require a degree as well, for example doctors, lawyers, nurses, etc.

My purpose in the article is to look at the other side. I know quite a few people who don’t have a degree and who are very successful. Whether you need a degree or not should depend on your career goals more than anything else. I wrote a series on MBA programs. This article may be helpful: Do You Need an MBA ?.

MBAs have a lot of value if you have the experience and specialization to back it up. You will certainly learn a lot if you go for it. How much it benefits you will depend.

Reply

3 The Yakezie

Ryan, did you get your MBA?

Reply

4 danielle

you hit the nail on the head by mentioning achievement. i’ve had many discussions with friends on why some people succeed and others don’t – regardless of intelligence. some of the most intelligent people i know still can’t find a steady job and live on their mom’s couch. my belief is that college is only a facilitator that allows individuals access to setting and achieving goals; and i think accomplishment leads to many paths to a better life. the highly intelligent guy who’s not a doer is just a guy who doesn’t do anything.
great article!!

Reply

5 Craig/FFB

For me, I want my kids to understand that whatever they do they need to try their best at it. If they want to act, be in construction, or be a lawyer, it’s all good so long as they work towards their potential.

Reply

6 basicmoneytips

While I understand that you do not need a college degree, statistics show you have a better chance of landing a decent job. However, I also agree that it is not necessary. As the jobs you mentioned are good jobs (electrician/plumber/etc) there are also plenty in the health care field as well. If you examine those jobs, they still require a lot of effort. If you think become a master electrician is easy, think again.

Reply

7 Ryan

BMT, I agree – the statistics show people with college degrees have an easier time finding a higher paying job. College degrees have almost become a commodity in our current market. But there will always be good paying jobs which do not require a college degree (but require a lot of hard work, education, certifications, etc.). The key, in my opinion is to work hard and never stop learning.

I also agree with your sentiment regarding becoming a master electrician – it’s not easy. I was an aircraft mechanic while I was in the USAF and my specialty was electrical-environmental systems, which included aircraft power production and distribution (basically aircraft electrician) and aircraft air systems (heating, cooling, pressurization, etc.). It takes a lot of work to understand how the different systems work together, how to troubleshoot and repair those systems, and other aspects of the job. Residential and commercial electric work is just as involved. It also shares a common thread: it doesn’t require a college degree, but it requires years of study and on the job training.

Reply

8 Ryan

Joe, in my experience, parents who push their children in any direction tend to push them toward a job the parents perceive to be better than their standard of living, regardless of what that standard is. Many parents would love to see their children run a successful business, but the perception is strong that college is the best, or only, way to achieve that. Many people don’t look at alternative career options because they perceive them to be limiting.

Reply

9 Blair

Great piece Ryan; couldn’t agree more when it comes to the importance of learning and self-education, whether you choose college or not. Jim Rohn always had a great quote: “If you work hard at your job, you can make a living. If you work hard on yourself, you can make a fortune.” I think that same thing applies when facing that hard work in school. Whether you complete the process & get a degree, whether you go for a few years or whether you don’t go at all, you need to be accumulating knowledge for yourself in learning your respective trade & much of that can’t be found in the classroom.

Also, with regards to the earnings gap between college grads and non-college grads, many of those statistics that are thrown out by The College Board & others associated with the business of academia are intentionally misleading. In reality, the gap is shrinking more and more as the burdens of student debt continue to increase:

http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748703822404575019082819966538.html

-B

Reply

10 Ryan

That is a great quote, and one I truly believe… thanks for sharing! And thanks for the link on the earnings gap. There are many factors to take into consideration when comparing the vlue of a degree, and student loans is one area I think many people don’t consider (or earning money while learning a trade, as in the example I gave about my electrician friend).

In my opinion, there is no right or wrong way to go, just different ways. In the end it comes down to working hard and providing value and results.

Reply

11 danielle

i agree, that’s a great quote!

Reply

12 myfinancialobjectives

Great “against the mainstream” message. Crazy that you posted this, another PF blogger and myself also recently posted about how you should really consider your options when thinking about college.

Excellent personal example as well. As you said, electricians, plumbers, etc, will always be needed. The trick is to make yourself marketable. Perhaps a combination of the trade + some business education would do the entrepreneur best.

Reply

13 Ryan

Absolutely. I think there is the perception that “blue collar” jobs aren’t marketable and don’t have a long term future, when that is simply not the case. If you work hard and continue to grow personally and professionally, then there are no limits. Owning a small business is a great way to creating wealth, or at least a healthy living.

Reply

14 danielle

my washing machine broke and i thought i could try to fix it myself…until i learned washing machines have a transmission LOL

i called up some guy who gave me an estimate over the phone and i paid him $130 to change out some part that i had no idea existed or was broken. who knows how much that part cost him, but i’m pretty sure he made a decent amount for 1 hour of his time. i’m sure he gets tons of calls like that. and he deserves every penny. i’d call him again in a heart beat.

Reply

15 Shaun

I just recently decided to drop out of college for at least a semester. I run about 6 websites/blogs, and work on them full-time. I was expecting a lot of people to get upset at my decision, but was surprised that most have been completely understanding. Like my dad said, “If you make more than double the average income, there’s really not much anyone can say.”

Earning a great income requires more than just a degree, especially in a world where:
a) Degrees cost thousands of dollars, and
b) Everyone has one.

This isn’t to say that degrees are bad — they can be fantastic investments, depending on the person and their financial values. It really just depends. Finance is rarely a one-size fits all world. :)

Once again, great article!

Reply

16 Ryan

Shaun, You probably made the right move. I had my sights set on going to a top tier MBA program, but this site and the others I run were taking up too much time. I had to decide which was more in line with my long term goals – having an MBA or running a business. I chose the business and have no regrets. I can always go back and attend an MBA program, and this way, I never have to ask myself “what if?” You are in the same boat. You can always go back to school if that is where your passions lie. :)

Reply

17 Bruce

Not to get off subject, but shouldn’t a parent push their son or Daughter into a situation to that child’s desire? Then coach them in a means as to how they may be able to sustain themselves doing just that, what the child wants to do?

My degree has little to do with my profession yet it is perceived to have just that. Master in accounting doesn’t make me a Tax Professional. Yet that is what I am. And no I don’t have my degree hanging on the wall. It’s a misperception.

Reply

18 Ryan

I think so, Bruce. Most parents want what is best for their child, but in many cases they want what “they think is best” not what their child thinks is best. I think parents should try to work with their children to help them understand their options, then try to help them achieve their goals.

My degree helped me get started in my professional career, but it doesn’t do too much for me now – other than fill a blank on my resume. This article isn’t designed to slam degrees, though. The goal is to say there are other options for people who aren’t inclined to get a degree.

Reply

19 Bruce

I know it isn’t a “slam” on having a degree. But I love it for what it is saying

Reply

20 Dolla Thug

This article definitely makes a lot of sense, but it’s true – many employers won’t even think about employing you if you don’t have that little piece of paper from a college or university that says you ate pizza and slept through classes for four years of your life. It’s come to the point where the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma! It’s become a standard given and now the MBA or other grad degree is the new way to stay competitive. The MBA isn’t worth the investment for me (…yet), but hopefully I’ll just be able to be my own boss and live off blog proceeds…one day…lol

Reply

21 Nick

Great stuff, Ryan. Like J. Money points out there are a lot of life lessons / growing up that college offers in addition to the education. But I completely agree that going to college isn’t a ticket to success. In my field, college is a requirement for a license. But once you get there, it’s really a battle between the book smart folks and the street smart folks. They both succeed, but the street smart folks out earn the bookworms by far.

Reply

22 Ryan

I agree – college is a necessity for many people, and a great experience. My goal was to play the devil’s advocate and take the other side. I know a lot of people for whom college was a waste of time and didn’t advance their career. They may have been better off not going to college, but went because it was expected. It really all depends on your career goals and desired field.

Reply

23 Mike Illenberger

A college degree does help in some way, I believe that but you dont need it at all to be successful. I am not trying to denigrate the importance of college education here. Education is still important of course but we all know that in this day in age, a college degree is now just a “good” thing to have and not anymore a requirement for success in life, and dont get me wrong, I am only talking as an entrepreneur here, obviously you still need a degree to be a lawyer, doctor or an engineer, but having a degree or having an MBA to start a business? I dont think it is required at all. If my daughter comes up to me after graduating from high school and tells me daddy, I want to skip college and start a business, I will tell her “Lets do it, I will be your seed investor” for as long as I see passion and willingness to work hard in her. A guy I know only did one semester in college (never graduated) but became a mentor to somebody who graduated from Harvard and also advised one of the top stock brokers in America. The point I’m trying to drive home is that it doesn’t mean you have finished college, you will be better than the one who did not finish college and college grad or not, The internet made the playing field level, I know 20 year old kids who never stepped foot at a college university but still manage to make 6 figure income a year on the internet. Let’s wrap this up and let me leave everybody a quote by Jim Rohn I think everybody will agree with. “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.” I don’t want to make a living; I want to make a fortune!! :)

Reply

24 Jaime

I think college is great option for some people. Some people really love/loved their college years. You need to absolutely go to college for certain careers. I don’t think college is for everyone though. I’m about to get my 2 year associate degree in general studies. It’s been an interesting experience.

I’ve had a taste of higher education and I’m not interested in more. I’ve toured a couple of state universities to see if I wanted to transfer, and while they were nice, at the end of those tours, I still didn’t want to transfer. I have a 3.6 GPA at my community college but my heart is just not in it.

I’m not rejecting curiosity, life long learning, knowledge, new experiences, traveling, etc. I’m about 3 classes away from my associate degree. I can’t wait until I’m done. I just plan on doing other things with my life, I’ve decided that after I graduate from community college that I will pursue a career that doesn’t require a 4 year degree.

I didn’t go into debt for my degree and I’m thankful that I didn’t. I’m thankful that I did try higher education, I do think that it was important for me to figure out what I wanted from life, and to see what higher education was all about. It’s really important to try things for yourself and then make a decision based on your experiences.

You never know where life might lead you. A lot of people develop interests later on in life, some go back for academic knowledge, and others go back to change careers. That might happen to me, which is one reason I’m keeping my GPA at community college high.

I want to have that option later on if I need to or want to go for a bachelor’s degree later on. It’s always a good idea to have your options open. :)

Reply

25 Barry

But what if people like me that does not have the interest to study, keep on failing on maths paper and aren’t confident in my college degree cert. What should i do ? and i cant figure out what my passion was. Tq.

Reply

26 Ryan

Barry, the idea here isn’t to focus on college as the only way to find a better paying job. The idea is to find something which you enjoy and are good enough at to offer value to someone else. Do you enjoy working with your hands? Then you could begin an apprenticeship as a vehicle mechanic, carpenter, electrician, welder, etc. You don’t need a degree to be a pilot or to get a commercial driver’s license. You don’t need a degree to start a business, be an air traffic controller, a real estate broker, website designer, network administrator, or to wok a variety of jobs in the technical fields. You do, however, need an education to do these jobs. Whether it be specific training or a certification in these fields, or a different level of education, you need to be able to prove you can do the job and earn the certification if need be. If you don’t know what you want to do, then focus on your communication skills and on upgrading any skills you have which are already marketable.

Reply

27 Mike Illenberger

Hi Guys,

I agree with Ryan, also, I’m not really sure how old you are Barry but I didn’t know what my passion was til I was 23. I am a stock trader, I am 31 now and Ive been a stock trader now for 8 years. I did one semester in college then dropped out, like you, I wasn’t interested in studying at all. When I was 18, all I wanted was to become an entrepreneur and I was aware that a college degree wasn’t necessary so I just launched. I tried many things before I found the right one. I sold women’s clothing at a swap meat, I tried mail order businesses, a child care center and they all failed. I stumbled upon stock trading and I love it! I taught myself how to trade, there so much quality information now on the internet and I took advantage of it, so get this, I started my entrepreneurial journey when I was 18 and didn’t find my passion til I was 23, That’s 5 years of trying and failing. So keep trying! You miss 100% of the shot you don’t take.

Reply

28 REYNO RENTON

colleges is much more important to me since this is the only way were i can go for work and be successful in life. i graduated in colleges of doctor of veterinary medicine /and still study a caregiver certificate/ diploma. but all of this education that i get doesn’t make me wealthy since at my vet. med. degree i wasn’t have a professional license and that was the reason why that i can not do my professional field so i work in the farm but not in the title of veterinarian but stockman or general farm worker,farm manager/ supervisor or driver because i have a license in driving professionaly. all of this position when i apply for a job was given to me because i am a colleges degree in my resume and it was related to what i finish in school.entrepreneurship is only successful to those people with money which is already rich.but for those who don’t have money that there only capital in life is to get degree knowledge in school to live.

Reply

29 Alfonso JR

I completely agree, yet I am having trouble persuading my mother into thinking the same. I graduated high school with a very strong GPA and in 3 years for that matter. I jumped into a top private university to study for a biology degree, even though biology is far from what I really am passionate about. A couple years ago I began trading stock, and I have been unable to put a book down since on the subject. I took matters into my own hands and dropped out of college, only 4 months into it. I believe no university can teach what one needs to know when trading the financial markets, and I choose to save myself the time, money, and boredom. Success is not guaranteed because you can get some piece of paper, It comes from within.

Reply

30 Ronald Clark

And there lies the problem Ryan, you don’t need one to be successful but you need one if you plan of having a job, faster then people without a degree that is.

“There are hundreds of careers which don’t require a degree.”
Yes there are. But the problem is as follows, the notion of getting into collage has devalued over the years. Going to collage is almost as trivial as going to high school. And that little piece of paper can and will make all the difference in an interview, especially if you’re applying for a job that doesn’t require a degree. And that’s more common then you might think, there are thousands upon thousands of economics, history, mathematics, political science, philosophy, even legal graduates each year. Statistically speaking the large majority of them will not find jobs in their field, the job market is over saturated in this areas, and they, out of desperation, will turn to jobs that do not require degrees.

And that’s the tragedy, people with experience and no degree will get turned down in favor of someone with a degree, because he “has” more potential. I’ve seen it so many times.

I’m very split on the issue, on one hand I do completely agree with you, it’s not necessary to have a degree to make it big (successful), in fact if I were to draw a conclusion from my personal experience I’d say it’s easier, most people I know that bring home 7 digits every year do no have a degree, most of them being business owners that took risks. But how many of them succeed? The small minority. But if you want to live your life almost care free, then I think you do need one. I base that on an educated guess, I don’t have nor have I searched for any numbers, but I assume that on a global or even national level people with a degree have a better material situation then people without one. As a funny trivia I point to the top 50 most richest people on the planet, very few of them actually have a degree, goes to show that collage is a middle ground. Not too poor but not filthy rich either.

Reply

31 Michael G

Any person can be successful and earn a decent if not excellent salary, provided that they acquire the necessary skills to become one of the best in their field. That said, one of the drawbacks of many blue collar careers is how late in life you can continue to work and earn a living. My dad was an air conditioning mechanic and my uncles all did some sort of manual labor (plumbers, electricians, sheet metal workers, landscapers, etc.). Unfortunately as they approached later years in life (60 or so), their physical abilities declined and years of stress and strain on muscles and bone showed their effect. Conversely, their children became the first generation to get a college degree and their office jobs allowed them to go well into their 70s as productive workers. But in closing, I would say to work your passion if possible.

Reply

32 Cathy

I agree about the non-degree and level of degree. It is unfortunate that many companies only look for the degree first, then the experience. My college education has nothing to do with what I’ve done in my career. I have many certificates on the programs that I have worked in (legal). When I hire, I look at experience first and the interview questions geared toward fit for the company. I have worked with many A-holes with high degrees, no job experience, no people experience and they alienate themselves in the work place, labeling them the person ‘not approachable’. The degree albeit helpful. The hiring companies really need to get with the real world and look at the experienced individual who will add value with maturity, teamwork and ‘usually’ will leave the drama at the door and get the real job done.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

.