Devil's Advocate 

You Don’t Need College To Succeed

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This is a Devil's Advocate post.

Thinking about college? Good for you! College is very important and it’s something everyone should consider, whether or not you end up attending one, but before you make that decision, I think it’s important for you to know that you don’t need college to succeed in life. This isn’t going to be an article where I redefine success as having a happy and healthy family (which is one very good definition of success for some), no, by success I mean financial success. Financial success differs from one person to another but at the most basic level it means you have enough money to do whatever you want, within reason. Based on that definition of success, I believe you don’t need to attend college to be successful.

College Doesn’t Guarantee Success, It Guarantees Debt
Compared to not having a degree, graduating college gives you a better chance at landing a job, that point is not disputed. However, a degree does not guarantee anything except the fact that you’ll have paid thousands of dollars and likely be in debt. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost (tuition + room & board) for a 4 year public institution for the 2004-5 academic year was $11,441/yr, for a 2 year public institution it was $6,334/yr. At a 4 year private institution, the cost jumped to $26,489/yr and at a 2 year private institution you could expect to pay about $19,899/yr. (Source) That puts the total price of a four year institution on average anywhere from $45,764 (public) to $105,956 (private)!

On The Job Training
In school I learned all sorts of algorithms, discrete math problems, and numerous other theoretical constructs of computer science – in three years I’ve only had to use one sorting algorithm I remembered in college. With the advent of Google and other powerful searching engines that have opened up the world of knowledge to me and the average worker, if you’re smart you can learn something quickly and on the job. Everything I’ve learned about blogging was learned as I went along. The college education I received personally was invaluable but not indispensable. While it did prove I had the fortitude and determination to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem (I had more than a few of those in college, not one of which was convincing my current fiancee to go out with me), that alone isn’t a requirement of success. It may be a necessary but not a sufficient precondition of success (I once was going to fence, yeah with foils, a logic professor of mine and when I asked him if I needed to let him win to pass the test, he told me ‘that’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition’… it’s an awesome line for all you nerds out there).

You Can Succeed Without College
Bill Gates (Harvard). Steve Jobs (Reed College). Michael Dell )University of Texas). Rush Limbaugh (Southeastern Missouri State University). Tom Hanks (CalState Sacramento). F Scott Fitzgerald (Princeton). There are plenty more… a college degree is not a prerequisite for success.

College Is For Networking As Much As Learning
I had a friend whose brother attended Harvard and everyone he knew was either the son/daughter/nephew/niece of a Senator, Representative, officer in an armed service, or otherwise famous individual; or an All-American athlete; or, and this was a smaller group, brilliant. There was and still is grade inflation (who wants to give Senator XYZ’s son an F?) and college life is essentially one giant networking session designed to put the children of those people in the system in touch with each other to build that network. While there is much learning involved, that network is the most valuable thing you leave college with.

What this means is that if you’re good at networking, you don’t need to go to college. If you’re capable of finding ways of extending your network, you don’t need to go to college in order to build that solid network from which you can reach out to in your times of need. My first internship was at a company that my high school friend’s dad worked at. Sure I had to prove I had the skills to do the job, at least marginally well considering, but I basically got that job because of my friend’s dad… otherwise I wouldn’t have had the opportunity. My second and third summer internships were also through friends I met in college. History is full of these types of stories and mine is not atypical.

{ 30 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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30 Responses to “You Don’t Need College To Succeed”

  1. Patrick says:

    It seems like the focus of this post is more on white collar jobs, but don’t forget trade schools, apprecticeships, and other on the job training. Construction workers can graduate into foremen or start their own contracting company. This can be a very lucrative endeavor. In fact, many people who start their own companies do not have college degrees and end up doing very well.

    But, I agree, if you are not a super athlete, have a premium skill set such as acting or music, or have an entrepreneurial tilt, then college is probably better path to take to become financially set.

  2. KMC says:

    I guess I’d agree with the devil on this one. I think going to college just might be overrated. Besides the debt you point out, there’s also the opportunity cost while you’re at college for four or more years.

    Also, consider that according to the U.S. Census, 25-34 year old college graduates saw their median earnings fall 8% since 2002.

    I think at some point soon, the cost of college will intersect with the value and it won’t make sense for many to do it. Does a doctor need college? Of course. Does a salesperson? Not in my opinion.

    • saladdin69 says:

      What “we” think of a degree does not matter.
      It is the people who do the interviewing.
      If the job lists a degree as required, than yes it matters. You will not even be asked to interview.
      My job requires one just to be interviewed, but not to actually do the job. Funny hugh…

      I do think it is becoming overrated to a point, but fixable. If colleges stop making kids take classes like “Mythology” and focus on actual skill sets than a degree becomes worth more. The idea of school is to get a “better job” right?

      I would also add that I have over 200 semester hours of college and will take classes until the day I die. It is more of a personal choice than professional for me.

  3. plonkee says:

    You can certainly succeed financially without going to University. You can also succeed professionally without going to University, quite a few of the people that I work with don’t have degrees but are skilled in their profession.

    Oh and I’m a nerd and I thought that you’re logic professor’s comment was quite amusing.

  4. Ron says:

    This is a timely article. My profession has been going through a transition in which a four-year degree is becoming a requirement in many locations. Here are the problems I see (from the standpoint of a person who did not attend college).

    1. The degree can be in anything. It doesn’t have to be remotely connected to the profession I’m in. When bosses are queried about this point the standing retort is “college life” makes a person more sophisticated and therefore more responsive to those we serve. I personally have not observed this to be true.

    2. The degree does not denote intelligence or the ability to learn. I am in management and typically must correct rudimentary errors in performance with someone who is supposed to be entering the work force with an edge over a high school graduate. I have discussed this with my bosses as well. Their response is that college is not designed to teach people to read, write or develop comprehension skills.

    I have advised my children they must get a college degree to make themselves more marketable in the work force. It is the way of the world today. I have also counseled them that a degree does not equal success. It is simply a means to an end. True success comes from personal commitment to your profession and a desire to do your job to the best of your ability. You don’t need a degree to do that.


  5. bryan says:

    it has become an accepted norm that you graduate highschool and go to college. no questions asked for most people. this is because most kids are really not sure of what they want to do with their lives at 18 years old. so they are shipped to college where they discover themselves and then discover what direction they would like to go.

    expensive? incredibly. worth the money? sometimes. waste of time? sometimes.

    if you go to class to truly learn what you are interested in and it makes you understand your field or even life, i believe it was a worthwhile investment. the sad truth is that the majority of kids go through most of their undergraduate years just partying and attending classes that dont relate to anything they will be using in the future. junior and senior years, it may start to click for some. i graduated with a bachelors in business and really learned A LOT. i decided to go back and get my MBA and completed it in 1 year. tons of work, but i absolutely loved it because I was learning and i loved the material. i went to a small local university and paid about $14,000 for my MBA. what I learned from those courses will no doubt generate & save me millions over my lifetime. (investing, financial sense, tax courses, etc.)

    to each his own, but I dont see the significance of going to college to get a degree in painting or anything similiar. you are either a good painter or you arent. if you arent and want to be, take a class or two and paint your heart out. a degree in general studies will leave you with a $40,000 a year job. you can make that without a degree.

    im totally rambling and my thoughts are not really flowing tonight. forgive me

    • Deebee says:

      I agree with Bryan. If you’re going to finish college, make sure the degree is worthwhile, or just don’t go at all. Psych, Sociology, Liberal Arts, Dance, Music, etc…are all a waste.

      • sarah says:

        music and dance are not a waste of time.!

      • Vladimir says:

        I would say psychology isn’t a waste of time. Being a psychology student myself it helps me get into the minds of people such as yourself and analyze things a greater level. Of course only some courses are useful. As any degree in school %70 of the lessons taught are drivel. My last point is that getting a psychology degree looks remotely professional and is very easy to get, therefore helping you skip the useless experience of college and get a real job.

  6. Master Allan says:

    Bryan – my thoughts exactly.

    Many students attend college with a major of English, Music, Psychology, or Business (with no interest in business). Then they find themselves working a 9-5 desk job complaining their degree is unused. I graduated with a BS in Computer Science, often the only American in a sea of international students. Can’t say I use much that I worked through at the university but that degree has opened doors and presented job opportunities. If I learned anything it was how to learn. As my professors would assign tasks my current boss approaches me with requests to build, solve, fix, evaluate, or present. If unfamilar I hit the books, research, and ask intelligent questions. There is little doubt to me that those skills do not come naturally yet potentially increase your value and earning power in business.

  7. If you want to make money don’t go to college period. You make more just working straight out of high school There is a lot of evidence that self-motivators make money. But college is there for most people because they aren’t self-motivators and don’t really know what they want to do with their lives.

    nice article.

  8. WiseYoungSage says:

    -Great points from all.

    -Without sounding redundant/cliche..”One size does not fit all”, for the vast majority of individuals, a college degree is normally a necessary evil. However, one must have some sort of “Street Smarts” to augment that degree if they want to truly succeed.
    -Yes many a self motivated individual have done extremely well without having have finished school, but in most cases, they were also extremely talented/skilled in whatever they did compared to the vast majority..i.e..Gates,Dell, etc. Just as in athletics, not everyone who works hard at their sport will become Jordan, Gretzsky, Tiger Woods…etc.

    -In my opinion, a degree, unless one is fortunate to have a “contact” or lucky break, shows most employers that an individual has the ability to focus on a goal and see it to its end. I agree that one should not go to school for a meaningless field, that they are not interested in, but than again, you go to college to discover what field you are interested in.

    -I guess in summation, a degree is essential for the vast majority, not a must. The networks and interraction one deals with on a campus are life-changing and invaluable.

    -P.s..What really breaks some people though is their obsession to get into a school where they will graduate with an enormous mountain of debt. I went to a B tier schoo, but upon graduation, it was my personality, mixture of luck/blessing that landed me a prime job at a major Fortune 500 company..where the “street sense/life/college lessons, have enabled me to outperform many an individual who went to the so-called top-tier programs.

    -Take care and like I said, “One size does not fit all”

  9. Steve says:

    “Financial success differs from one person to another but at the most basic level it means you have enough money to do whatever you want, within reason. ”

    The trouble with this is that your tastes may change, and more importantly employment markets may change. Our tastes and our standards for success tend to be determined by our peers, i.e. the social class you are born into.

    A lot of people say: “I and/or my buddies didn’t go to or finish college and we did well.” The trouble is “well” differs for people. “Well” may be poverty by another person’s standard. It’s best to raise your standards. You may not need the higher income in the forseeable future, but it is good to have the option. Just as it is important to live within your means, it is also important to be able to make more money than you think you might need.

    A lot of people don’t finish college or don’t go at all because they find reading, writing, and/or math difficult. Employers don’t want to hire people like that for top positions. The highest earning areas such as private equity, hedge funds, investment banking, or management always require at least one degree, particularly a degree from a good school. Sure a few entrepreneurs drop out of college and become successful but statistically they are the exception rather than the rule. If this wasn’t the case the incomes for college graduates wouldn’t be higher than that of non-college graduates.

    Networking is essential for any sort of career. The better the school, the more opportunities to network with higher caliber people (it’s best to avoid NCAA Division I schools, or schools that have a big frat scene). Being “good at networking” doesn’t compare to four years of working and living with a pool of very bright people. How else are you going to meet a similar pool?

    That one year at Harvard was probably invaluable to Gates. There were the networking opportunities, and later as a young guy running a company he possessed the imprimatur of the best university in the world. He also had a private high school education, and most importantly, access to computers when he was in junior high.

    The arts are a significant exception because there is less of a need to monitor the daily work of the employee. The quality of the resulting product is clearly evident. In the corporate world where people are working collaboratively, it is more difficult to monitor work quality, hence the need for degrees.

  10. Kris says:

    I just found your Devil’s Advocate series. Very nice!

    I’m a teacher, so a degree is necessary; however, there are many opportunities to work with kids that do not require a degree. I left college with only $5,000 worth of debt, which on my paltry beginning salary was quite enough, but I should say it took me YEARS to to graduate because I was trying so hard to avoid debt. I’m in a position right now where I have to go back to school so I can get better pay. Education is a field where one has to continually go to school (which costs money) to maintain certification and gain pain raises. The good news is that it will be well worth my time to back to school, as it will raise my salary $7-10,000 right away.

    My husband just went into big time debt getting his AA degree so he could work in the IT field. (It’s a 2nd career for him.) He had some experience, but everywhere he looked, experience AND education were required. He has not had difficulty finding positions with his degree, but at this point the cost of that little degree isn’t paying off. Will it over time? I sure hope so. But then, his pay isn’t bad at all. It’s taken me 10 years to earn what he earns as a starting salary.

    In both of our fields I’d say that networking is a important, although the people I knew in college did not help me gain employment when I did finally graduate because there were no openings in the area. I do feel that years later, if I did want to go back to that area, I could have some connections, though. You just can’t discount the importance of knowing people. When you have the same qualifications as a dozen other people, having that edge makes a difference, doesn’t it?

  11. kim says:

    college was an absolute requirement for me.

    my mother never graduated from high school, and i only just met my dad (who also never graduated). i grew up poor and had no networking opportunities – single stay at home teenage mothers don’t exactly have job contacts for their children!

    i ended up homeless for 2 years because of these situations. during that time i worked at endless minimum wage jobs trying to save up for a place to sleep and shower. it was only after i was approved for social security disability based on a genetic neurological condition i was able to live indoors.

    i am now in my final year of college and will graduate with a BS, three minors and magnum cum laude. the volunteer service i’ve done while in school, along with the graduate level courses and references will enable me to either continue on to a MS/PhD program or get a very decently paying job right away.

    working full time when i was homeless i made a maximum of $200/week after taxes. most importantly, this will be in a field i love, wildlife biology. most jobs in this field also require at least a BS.

    for some people college is a necessity.

    not all of us are born into the safety net of networking and high paying first jobs given to us by fathers’ friends.

  12. Tim S. says:

    After reading this string of comments I would proffer the following:

    I came from a poor family with no networks to get to the higher levels. At 17 I knew my grades in H.S. were not good enough to obtain a scholarship nor did I have a clue what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I knew what I did not want; to continue being poor. I went into the U.S. Air Force for four years and lived mostly in Europe where I met my wife. (We have been together since 1986 and still are happy.) When I got out after four years I decided to go to college while working full time. That worked out for two years until I got involved in an MLM (Multi level marketing) specifically an organization within the largest MLM in the country. I quit this MLM after three years with limited success. Being involved with this organization changed my entire thought process for the better in my opinion. I was taught to question why am I going to college and what do I want out of it ultimately. Well, I knew I wanted financial independence and to never be poor in my life. I stopped going to college and focused on my job and my MLM business. The education I received from the organization within this MLM was PRICELESS. I learned how to think and sell. I received a goal oriented training program that has propelled me exponentially beyond my parents realm. I quit the MLM years ago but found that I was being frequently promoted at my work place rising to Transportation Manager then due to my wife losing her job, (she has a four year degree) we decided to move out of state for better weather. To make a long story short I had a couple jobs in two years I was fired from due to my independent thinking and then landed a job with good management where I again was promoted up to General Manager of the local branch of this multi national corporation. I do not have a degree but had I this piece of paper it would have been easier to get my foot in the door, that’s it. People without degrees can succeed but you must be willing to work harder to get what you want and perhaps, start close to the bottom and work your way to promotion through merit instead of credentials. I am now opening my own business and that, that is the most rapid way to financial success anyone can undertake. I hope this helps.

    Tim S.

  13. Anonymous says:

    College does not guarantee a job. Yes it makes you marketable, but nothing is guaranteed. In fact 75% of the jobs in the United States DO NOT require a college degree. College does not prepare for you for the real world, employers look for experience and not a college degree. Save your money, work, and build your resume through experience it will help in the long run. College guarantees nothing but a lot of debt.

  14. Amanda Redfern says:

    i dont think you need a college education to succeed in life because i know a lot of people that do just fine without it!!!!!!!!

  15. Andy says:

    i was just wondering if you needed college for electrical. i live in canada, and my cousins boyfriend said you dont need college for electrical, and that you can just apply at any electric company. and IF they hire you, they give you the same training as they would at school. could you get a certificate from apprenticeship?????

  16. saintiaint says:

    hey. i know this girl who makes 130.000$ a year, only went to college for half a semester… Now it proves your point. you gotta be liked.. I seen the biggest losers on the planet succeed with no college. through pure dumb luck..

  17. cbeesco says:

    College is not necessary the way it is set up now. It’s a part of the political machine in the world.
    I’ve been to 4 universities and I see the same thing over and over. Yes if you are networking that should be your main reason for college along with all the parties. I know people in nearly every walk of life and very few ever use 10% of their college degree. In fact most use none of it. Everything they need to learn can be done by adding grade 13 to high school.
    That includes doctors and lawyers and other professionals. They should start their doctorate in the 10th grade instead of taking all those ridiculous courses like history and geography and so on. College is just business like everything else in a capitalist society.
    You either have it or not. Common sense is something that should be taught in schools, personal finance and credit, personal health and hygiene, math, reading, get rid of all the crap and train that student for real life, not for something they are never going to use that will put a financial burden on three generations. We should do away with colleges and just use on Line College, it’s cheaper and makes the individual work harder. I have a bachelors and an associate’s degree but I have never held a job that required most of that education. I finally saw the big picture and it’s one of deceit and bull. I’ve met tons of individuals who are making six figure incomes by attending tech schools on and off line.
    4 years for a bachelors degree is ludicrous.
    That should be for a doctorate.
    I have students in my computer classes that tell me I taught those more in one night then they learned in six weeks from a local college. I hear it all the time. Anyway, the mans right, networking is where it’s at. One more thing, why are employers so out of touch?
    I hire non degree people in my company with experience or the drive to learn for themselves. They are better employees because they work harder to learn and what would you rather have someone who is trying to prove themselves or someone who thinks they know it all?

  18. Kathy says:

    Just because you “can” succeed….. doesn’t mean you WILL.

    Given the choice, I’d take the education.
    I only have a 2 year degree, and when I was downsized at age 43, it was virtually worthless. I was no better off than someone with a high school education. All the jobs were for 4 year degrees, I couldn’t even apply for them.

    The good ole boy network had its jubilee. They got me out, and they kept me out, while they hired their own buddies.

    I don’t recommend it to anybody, especially to a female, we don’t have the network that the men seem to have. Get an education, if you can.

  19. Scott says:

    Is success defined only by the money that you will make in your employment? I certainly agree that many intelligent individuals never attend college. Typically, the motivated do well professionally; however, there is something to be gained through higher education. College provides the intangible benefit of knowledge depth. Being educated is sometimes its own reward, and I would encourage anyone who has the ability to go for it.
    As someone who has attained a bachelor’s and master’s degree, it has added value to my life. A company that I worked for recently downsized, and my degree(s) allowed me to find employment quickly. Some very skilled coworkers without qualifications found it hard to rebound. In professional and social environments, education garners respect.

  20. Ivan says:

    I totally agree, I tried college out but pretty quickly found that it wasnt for me, I wen’t to a decently well known Private University and couldn’t see the purpose of spending $25k a year and being in such huge debt for the possibility of a $60-$100K job. now 4 months later as you said earlier, networking was key, a friend of mine I went to several LAN’s to offered me a job at a local hospital in IT and was offered what i was going to college for a job in IT. but back to what you were saying I can definitely see where the networking part comes into play at college. However as others have also said success shouldn’t also be labeled as how much money ya got. it doesn’t take an MBA or Accounting degree to be able to walk your kids to the bus stop in the morning or have a happy family I think that to me is the success i’m looking for. And for those that did graduate college I admire you for making it through it certainly wasn’t something I could make it through or take going through!

  21. Keilon says:

    Great discussion I have been out of high school for about two years now and have been procrastinating going to school in good reason I am very motivated, have a very vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and all my hero’s Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc. either have not finish college or never went. If I wanted to be a doctor or a Lawyer then college would for sure be on my things to do list but I’ve yet to see an entrepreneurial degree. both of my parents told me to go so I recently enrolled in a technical college. To chose my degree of study I literally did enee meenee minee mo and landed on business admin. while taking an algebra class Im finding it harder everyday to wake up and go to class because the motivation is not there I believe that college does not determine success, you do and I would feel better if i was going to a college because i wanted to go. Sometimes I feel like a loser and look at all my other friends who are attending college doing degree’s that they don’t care about but are still going to class. I just dont want to give my parents the luxury a couple years down the line to say “I Told you so” But I also believe in following my heart and its hard to denied what I feel. The bright side to all of this is that I currently have no college debt. 😉

  22. aj says:

    my mom has often forced me to finish college but never did… i find no reason to do so as i started working young which paid off and started within the media arena to which building a network seemed not to be a problem to me and never have had a job to where i don’t have a desk… i may say that with focus, sheer guts, confidence and common sense you can be financially equipt if you wanted to… currently, i make 5x the salary in 15 days than the corporate few acquaintances that i know would make in 6 months time…. i should say though that i used to envy these people who go to work in their corporate attire until i realized that a friend of mine who’s an operations manager of a big food chain in our area makes half than what i make in a month’s time…

    the advantage of having a degree though is that it can secure you a job anytime… but to each his own… if you’re not a self-motivated person…ya better need to go to college…

  23. It’s a good encouragement for people without degrees to thrive and succeed in life but this shouldn’t be a discouragement for those who are in college or taking their masters degree. I have finished a couple of years in college majoring in computer programming but worked in an environment not fully relevant to what I graduated from. I’ve learned that the path to success doesn’t always have to be straight. It just need to be somewhere you know you’re happy and making other people on your way happy.

  24. Albert says:

    I find that the only ones defending the high cost of obtaining a college degree are those with a vested interest in the college racket like professors and administrators, or those with an ego to protect like college graduates who are simply trying to reassure themselves.

  25. medina says:

    i agree, but its will be difficult for us (without certificate from collage)to get good position and good salary more then they are from collage, and also difficult for me on 24 years old to get scholarship, not only me, maybe people in the world have same problem like me, we are poor people and cant goes to collage and for scholarship we dont know the link for get it.


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