Why You Don't Need a College Degree to Succeed

by Darren Wu on 10 April 2013 15 comments

Most people think that a college education is crucial for success in today's working world. However, many people also lament the outrageous cost of tuition these days. In fact, over the past several decades, tuition rates have increased at about twice the general inflation rate. (See also: 12 Business Founders Who Succeeded Without a College Degree)

Could there be a way to get started — and succeed — in the real world without a college degree? Can you live large without budgeting for college?

Absolutely.

The fact is, there are tons of jobs available that don't require a degree. A high school diploma is all you really need to get started in the working world.

No Degree Required

As part of my research for this post, I did a broad search on CareerBuilder for jobs that only required a high school diploma. Guess how many jobs I found?

Over 100,000. That's a significant amount.

Now, let me guess what you're probably thinking. "Most of these are just sales jobs or entry-level jobs. I don't want to do those jobs forever! I can't get ahead in those types of roles!"

I'll address the issue with entry-level jobs later. But first, let's talk about sales jobs.

Learning how to sell is a valuable skill. We're always selling in some way, shape, or form. In fact, nothing happens in business until a sale is made.

We sell ourselves when we're trying to convince a potential employer to hire us. We sell our ideas when we want our colleagues to take a particular course of action. And we sell our products and services so that we have enough revenue to pay our employees' salaries.

So it literally pays to learn how to sell. And it doesn't need to be a sleazy profession. Selling can be done ethically.

Now, on to the second issue — moving up from an entry level job.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Career Development Via Tuition Reimbursement

If you think you'll be confined to an entry-level position for the rest of your career, think again. You can gain new skills and further your education after you first get your foot in the door. Better yet, you can do this essentially without any money coming out of your pocket.

How?

As a benefit provided to full-time employees, many companies offer tuition reimbursement. This benefit covers educational programs that provide vocational skill development. Why would they do this?

To gain a more effective workforce. The more skills you have, the more valuable you are to the company. And as an added benefit, they also get a tax deduction for this.

Currently you can claim reimbursement for $5,250 worth of courses per year, every year. This, like a 401k matching contribution, is like free money that's too good to pass up.

Drilling down on the previous CareerBuilder search, I entered the keyword, "tuition reimbursement." More than 12,000 job openings showed up.

So what courses should you take?

There are many options, and you can certainly take courses that apply to your current position or likely career path. But I'm going to recommend a somewhat non-traditional class — Dale Carnegie Course: Effective Communications & Human Relations/Skills For Success.

Many successful people, including billionaire Warren Buffett, have taken and recommend this course. In fact, Mr. Buffett doesn't hang his diplomas from University of Nebraska or Columbia Business School on his office wall. He does, however, keep his Dale Carnegie diploma proudly displayed. "It changed my life," he said.

If this course made such a huge difference in the life of one of the world's wealthiest men, what could it do for you and I?

You can usually get this course reimbursed if you take it as part of a certificate program. I'm currently completing the program in Organizational Leadership [PDF].

Skills That You DO Need

I'm not saying that a formal degree isn't required in all cases. Obviously, if you want to enter a specialized profession, such as medicine or law, you'll need the formal training and education.

Many other career paths, however, are not as stringent in their education requirements.

If you have the drive, the focus, the commitment, and the self-motivation, you can succeed in the working world without a college degree.

Have you found success in the working world without a college degree? What worked for you?

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Guest's picture

My husband is a computer scientist, and his smartest coworkers have had no more than a high school diploma.

Most of them eventually went on to get degrees so that they could "check the box" to get paid more, promoted, etc. BUT at this point, they went to college on their company's nickel! They didn't pay one red cent for it.

They had jobs because they were brilliant. If they weren't, then, yes, the lack of a degree would have prevented them from being hired. But since they were so skilled, putting off the degree meant they made more money faster and eventually got a free degree when they did decide to go.

Darren Wu's picture

Nancy, thanks for sharing your story.

The experience of your husband's coworkers is pretty much exactly what I was trying to communicate in this post. Getting the degree for them was likely just a formality, and my guess is that they used the tuition reimbursement to cover the cost.

Yes, being skilled and brilliant is key. And you make a great point that by putting off the degree, they entered the workforce sooner and started making money sooner. And if they put that money towards smart investments, they'd reap the benefit of more time for that money to compound and grow.

Darren Wu's picture

Sorry, I meant thank you Jenny, NOT Nancy!

Guest's picture

I feel like you don't necessarily need a college degree to succeed, but it definitely helps. With a growing competition in the job market for higher paying jobs and more advanced careers, the backing of a Bachelors or a Masters degree can make all of the difference.

Darren Wu's picture

Morgan,

Thanks for the comment. Sure, a college degree can signal that you're a more skilled person. And as I hinted at in my post, you can often use tuition reimbursement to cover the costs of Bachelor's and Master's degrees.

But the main point is to get your foot in the door of a good company with your high school diploma - which is free.

Guest's picture

I agree that college isn't necessary to succeed, in fact I recently wrote about this very topic on my blog. College can teach you things that may take you a while to learn in the workforce. Likewise, being in the workforce can teach you things you will never learn in college. However, that little piece of paper you get at the end of college is often worth more than it should be. Some employers will look at that piece of paper before they even try to assess the skills of the individual applying for a job.

Darren Wu's picture

Thanks for your comment Nick.

I agree that some employers require that piece of paper before they're willing to assess the skills of the individual applying for a job. Fortunately, as I mentioned in my post, there are also hundreds of thousands that don't!

Guest's picture

I can see both sides of the argument on this issue and I don't think it has to be as black-and-white as "Degree" or "No Degree." You mention the extraordinary costs of some degrees, however, there are also ways to get college degrees at very low costs. These degrees allow you to "check the box" that you are college educated without breaking the bank. Many employers are not all that concerned with the school you went to anymore and just want to see that you have the discipline and initiative to accomplish something like getting a college degree. Online degrees or community college degrees are quickly becoming a great bang for your buck.

Darren Wu's picture

Good point about the availability of low-cost degrees that just show other employers that you have the ability to accomplish a goal. Thanks for your comment.

Guest's picture

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, my grandfather . . . need I say more?

I completely agree that you don't need a college degree to succeed. Education certainly helps you out, but it's what you learn while you're in college – not the degree – that's beneficial (in many cases).

Thanks for the article!

Darren Wu's picture
Darren Wu

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates arere two notable names without degrees that I first thought of as well.

Thanks for sharing John!

Guest's picture
Ree Klein

Great post, Darren. I'm a 54-year old female and I can say without hesitation that not having a college degree never held me back. While education is critically important, you can educate yourself through many channels as you pointed out.

In my opinion attributes more important than a college degree are your attitude, ability/willingness to learn, being observant, being open to new opportunities and willing take on roles that feel like a stretch, asking for more responsibility, etc.

As a hiring manager, I did take stock of applicants' formal education because when you don't know the person, that certainly says something about their ability to commit to a goal. But what I looked for during an interview went far beyond the credential; I was looking for aptitude, attitude and fit.

Ree - I blog at EscapingDodge.com

Darren Wu's picture
Darren Wu

Ree,

Thanks for validating that what I'm writing is legit! Congrats on your success without a degree. It's all about having a no-limit, take-charge mindset.

Guest's picture
Daniel Hilsden

I think being academically smart doesn't matter as much as it used to - those amongst us who are naturally inquisitive will want to learn and gain more skills regardless of our educational background/s.

Take blogging as an example of this.

You don't need a huge educational background to set-up your own blog. You grow an audience, create content and network with peer groups to create a buzz around your site; these skills are essential for anyone who's interested in marketing roles - little to no formal education required.

That said, blogging isn't the only area where you can be self-taught and successful - the internet offers start-up businesses lower overheads, thus it's a great platform for entrepreneurs and the like.

Starting to tangent a bit, but I make your philosophy Darren - spread the word! ;)

Dan

Darren Wu's picture
Darren Wu

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dan.

I agree, having an inquisitive mindset can beat the best educational background out there - as long as you keep gaining useful skills.