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Do You Have to Go to College to Be Successful?

Girl high school student at home researching information about college on her laptop and taking notes with a pencil in a notebook

The idea that college is the obvious next step after high school graduation has probably been hammered into your head; I know it was for me. After all, getting a degree guarantees a successful future… or does it?

For all the young people out there, I wanted to take the time to explore whether you really need a college education to be successful and help you decide whether pursuing higher education is the right choice. As a recent college grad, the pressure to get a degree is real. But as I’ve discovered since joining the professional world, everyone’s career path is unique and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Is college worth it? What recent numbers say

Most Americans with degrees view their collegiate experience as valuable. Seventy-nine percent of college grads said higher education helped them grow personally and intellectually, while 70% said it opened doors to professional opportunities. 

And yet, more Americans are deciding that college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Enrollment has been on a gradual decline over the last decade, with the total number of 18- to 24-year-old students down by about 1.2 million from the college enrollment peak in 2011. Young men, in particular, are increasingly deciding to skip out on four-year degrees. 

It’s no surprise that money was a driving factor in the decision of people who did not complete college. Among non-students who do not have a Bachelor’s degree, 42% said a major reason is that they could not afford college. While I was lucky enough to receive scholarships, those costs can add up quickly, so I get it! But finances aren’t the only factor; 29% of people in this group said they simply didn’t want to go to college.  

From money to personal preferences and more, there are numerous considerations that influence a person’s decision whether to pursue higher education. So, let’s look at the pros and cons of each of those options. 

Pros of going to college

Lifetime earnings

Plenty of high-paying jobs do not require a college education, but generally speaking, people with a degree earn more money over the duration of their careers. Bachelor’s degree holders, on average, have salaries that are 84% higher than workers whose highest education is a high school diploma. That amounts to $1.2 million in additional earnings in the average lifetime. 

Skill development

College helps you gain skills that can increase your employment prospects. You’ll have the chance to test your hypotheses in a science lab, put your skills on display by building a portfolio, and gain real-world experience during an internship, just to name a few of the skill-building opportunities college can offer.

Job opportunities

Having a college degree means you meet the minimum requirements for more job openings than you would with only a high school diploma. Often, getting hired is a numbers game; the more jobs you qualify for, the more interviews you can complete, and the more likely you are to ultimately receive an offer. 

Networking 

College is filled with opportunities to build relationships. Networking with your fellow students, professors, counselors, and mentors can yield connections that benefit you in the future. Finding the same level and frequency of networking opportunities outside of a higher education environment takes a lot of work. College also helps refine skills that make you a better networker, like written and verbal communication and public speaking.  

Ability to explore interests

College students have many ways to explore careers they’re interested in. You can take classes, participate in extracurricular activities, attend seminars and other events, volunteer, take part in internships, and more. These exploratory opportunities may give you greater focus on what you ultimately want to do, which could lead to a more fulfilling career.  

Cons of going to college

Expense

Going to college costs a pretty penny. Depending on your financial situation, you may need to hold down a job at the same time as attending school to pay for it or rely on student loans, which come with their own challenges. The average federal student loan debt has more than doubled over the last 16 years, rising from $18,233 in 2007 to $37,090 at the end of 2023.

Time-consuming

For many people, the college timeline extends well beyond the four years typically allotted to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Only 62% of people who start a degree program finish it within six years. This completion rate hasn’t changed in nearly a decade.

Limited focus

While it’s true that college allows you to explore diverse subjects you’re interested in, you’ll only get to take a deep dive into the one you choose as your major. This can force you to limit your focus in a way that can stifle and prevent you from exploring other fields that could be a good fit. 

No guarantees

Even after putting in all the hard work that comes with obtaining a degree, there’s no guarantee you’ll land a job in your desired field. Since the pandemic, new college graduates have fared consistently worse than other job seekers, with a higher unemployment rate than other age groups. Plus, there’s no assurance that you’ll ultimately enjoy the field you enter; millions of people wind up changing careers or even going back to school to pursue something different than their original degree. 

Pros of not going to college

Immediate workforce entry

The ability to go straight into the workforce is an attractive prospect for many who choose to opt out of college. You can begin building experience and earning money right away, which could put you ahead of similar-aged candidates who postpone starting their career. 

Little or no debt

The tuition bill isn’t the only financial downside of higher education. Carrying debt also comes with a mental burden that can lead to feelings of pressure and anxiety. If you enter the workforce with little or no debt, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes with paying off your bills in full each month. 

Personal freedom

Being a student is a full-time job that leaves little time for anything else. Skipping college can allow you to pursue other things you’re interested in, like traveling or volunteering for meaningful causes.  

Loosening job requirements

Lacking a college degree isn’t the employment barrier that it used to be. More employers are conducting what’s been called a “degree reset,” dropping the requirement for a Bachelor’s degree, especially in middle-skill roles. By some estimates, this could open an additional 1.4 million jobs to workers without a college education in the next five years. 

Cons of not going to college

Wage gap

Workers without a degree, on the whole, make considerably less than their degree-holding peers. In the fourth quarter of 2023, full-time workers over 25 who held at least a Bachelor’s degree earned an average of $1,608 per week. For workers with a high school diploma but no college, that number was $917–a 54% gap. 

Skill development challenges

When you’re not earning college credit in exchange for developing your skills, you have to be much more motivated and dedicated to do so. Without the structure of a college course load to guide your skill development, you’ll need to seek out opportunities to advance your skills through other means like books, videos, and online courses. 

Narrower network

If you skip college, your network may consist primarily of the people you meet through work. You may not be as exposed to differing perspectives and ideas, which could limit your personal and professional growth. 

Alternative ways to be successful without college

While some professional advantages come with earning a degree, you don’t have to go to college to be successful. Some of the most well-known businesspeople, philanthropists, artists, and athletes never graduated from college. Need proof? Mark Zuckerberg, Google founder Sergey Brin, Maya Angelou, Quentin Tarantino, LeBron James, and Beyonce do not hold degrees. 

You don’t have to be the next household name to find success without college. There are numerous alternative options, including:

  • Trade school, where you’ll receive training in one of the skilled trades like carpentry or welding
  • Technical school, where you’ll gain the knowledge required for a specific job like computer programming or dental hygiene
  • Military service, where you’ll serve in the Armed Forces while receiving specialized training
  • Freelancing, where you earn money in exchange for a service, like graphic design or copywriting, without being an employee of a company
  • Business ownership, where you build or purchase and run your own company
  • Stay-at-home parenting, where you work in the home handling domestic chores and childrearing

These are just a selection of the non-college options available to you. You can check out 15 alternatives to getting a degree in this post. 

How to decide if college is right for you

Going to college is a deeply personal decision, so treating it as such is best. While gaining input from family members, friends, and trusted professionals can be helpful, ultimately, the decision comes down to you and your goals. When deciding whether to attend college, consider these factors:

Career goals

Consider your interests, the job you want to have, and what success means to you. When you imagine your future five or ten years down the road, what profession are you in, and what kind of lifestyle do you have? Your aspirations can guide you toward or away from college as a means to achieve your goals. 

Job market

The job market is changing rapidly. Do you really need a degree for what you want to do? The answer might be absolute for some fields, like medicine or engineering. For others, like IT and real estate, a college education isn’t such a fixed requirement. 

Motivations

Does your family expect you to attain a certain level of education? Do you view getting a degree as a challenge you’d like to overcome? Do you find personal fulfillment in expanding your horizons? These motivations and more may factor into your decision. 

Financials

As you determine whether to go to college, consider how you’ll pay for it. Will you have scholarships or family assistance to offset the cost? Will you need to work or acquire debt to fund your education? The money factor is real and should be given some serious thought.

The main thing to know is that a college degree, while helpful, isn’t a deal-breaker in achieving success. Pursuing a path that you’re passionate about and interested in will have better results in the long term than going to college simply for the sake of a title on a piece of paper. 

If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, you should listen to this Finding Career Zen podcast episode about whether college is necessary