Can You Be Successful Without College?

By Brian Wallace

January 21, 2019   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

What does your college degree say about you?

On the surface level, it tells others where we went to school, what we studied, and perhaps how long we spent in education. Beyond that though, some graduates would agree that it has very little bearing on them as individuals. Some would even go so far as to consider it the most expensive piece of paper they own or even a pricey mark of conformity.

In reality, our college degree does not define our worth, skills or even our success in our careers. With the cost of college on the rise, many are beginning to wonder whether finding success even without college is possible.

Defining Success

Let’s take a step back in time, if just for a moment.

The year is 1944 and the United States is welcoming home returning World War II veterans. Under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an era-defining bill was signed into law that allowed nine million veterans to attend college or trade school.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or better known as The G.I. Bill, covered not only the tuition but also living expenses and other costs totaling $4 billion between the years 1944-1949. Returning vets were given the opportunity to retool their skills and reintegrate into the workforce.

After decades of steady growth, total college enrollment is declining. Once a status symbol and a cultural badge of honor, costs of advanced degrees like law and medicine have increased more than 8 times — but wages in these careers have less than doubled in that same time period.

On the other side of the working class, however, highly skilled yet non-degree holding workers are making three times more today when compared to that timetable. It shows a much higher rate of value increase in some non-degree jobs than those traditional advanced degrees.

A Hard Look at the American Dream

The modern college education does not exist in a vacuum. And to understand the impacts of education and at what cost, we must understand the sum of its parts from family ideals to what we consider “success” — in other words, the American Dream.

The beauty of the American family lies not within uniformity, but within diversity. That said, the traditional American dream leaves very little to the imagination and seems only possible through a very specific set of successes, putting it at odds with real-life American families.

This standard falls apart as more young folks begin to see simple financial stability, rather than the white picket fence, as the long-term goal. In the United States:

  • Average family size in 1948 – 3.64 people; in 2017 – 2.14 people
  • Average children per household in 1948 – 1.19 children; in 2017 – 0.88 children
  • Non-family households in 1948 10%; in 2017 it has grown to 34%

Ideals in American “luxuries” are shifting as well, as young people are paying more to make do with less. Most Americans want more vacation time, more and improved technology, and even more frequent restaurant dinners. Unfortunately, these luxuries become more sparse as basic living expenses grow.

Rent skyrockets beyond inflation while the average apartment size shrinks — about 8% over the last decade. Adjusted for inflation:

  • The average cost of a home in 1940 was $52,976; in 2018 it was $220,100
  • The average cost of apartment rentals in 1940 was $487/m; in 2018 it was $1,650/m and continuing to rise

The College Question

A college degree does not guarantee employment. In fact, more graduates than ever are pursuing careers in fields unrelated to their degree, often out of necessity in a poor job market. What’s more, 88% of 2017 grads said they considered job availability before choosing a major.

See Also: 5 College Skills That Have Lasting Value

Another alternative career path exists though — that of non-degree certificates.

In 2016, total college enrollment included 5.28 million students — 999,000 of them graduating with an associates degree, and 939,000 walking away with a non-degree certificate. The difference is that less than half of those students who earned a non-degree certificate went into debt over it and many of them began working in their field right away. These include career paths such as opticians, dental assistants, plumbers, and HVAC techs.

Priced as a luxury and treated as a necessity, students are finding themselves priced out of the unfair and crippling status quo of the American college experience. Forging a new path is never easy, but you can be successful without getting a college degree.

Take a look for more on the past, present, and what’s to come for higher education, from student attendance to financial demands.
Successful Without a College Degree
Source: Online College Plan

Brian Wallace

Brian Wallace is the Founder and President of NowSourcing, an industry leading infographic design agency based in Louisville, KY and Cincinnati, OH which works with companies that range from startups to Fortune 500s. Brian also runs #LinkedInLocal events nationwide, and hosts the Next Action Podcast. Brian has been named a Google Small Business Advisor for 2016-present and joined the SXSW Advisory Board in 2019.

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