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

You don't need a college degree to become wealthy or be successful. Many people can build wealth or become rich without a college degree.
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College is overrated. There, I said something you’ve probably suspected since 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 worked 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?

I think it’s because a college education doesn’t guarantee success. Success is up to many other factors that colleges often don’t teach.

You Don’t Need a College Degree

A college degree is simply a certification

A degree is simply a piece of paper certifying you met a certain level of scholastic achievement. But what happens in the classroom 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. Some degrees have a limited job market.

Simply having a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job, nor should it. Employees need to bring marketable 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 need an education and a desire to continue to learn, work hard, and adapt.

You Need an Education, and You Need Marketable Skills

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

Take technical schools for example. If you know what to look for in a community college, you can gain a valuable education that prepares you for the professional world at a fraction of the cost.

Considering a community college or any other educational paths above can help cut the cost of college tuition while still giving you a solid educational foundation.

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 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 40s 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 electrical 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 about 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 of people who are following in his footsteps. The best part is his job will never go away. People will always need electricians. And plumbers, landscapers, mechanics, and dozens of other jobs don’t require a degree.

But these jobs require education and hard work. These folks have marketable skills and provide services people need. Many of these jobs also require licenses and certifications, which require study and continuing education.

Do You Have a Skill Others Will Pay For?

As you try to chart your career path, it makes sense to stop considering whether you are developing skills others will pay for instead of just going to college because you “should.” In some cases, developing a skill set others are willing to pay for doesn’t require a college degree.

Developing a Marketable Skill

Stories abound of communications majors with $100,000 in school debt and few job prospects.

However, it’s not about whether your degree is useless. It’s about whether or not you can leverage it into a marketable skill that others are willing to pay for.

For example, a friend of mine has a communications degree and a journalism degree. She turned the knowledge and experience gained through earning those degrees into a successful freelance career.

But you don’t need a four-year or advanced degree to succeed in this manner. There are plenty of in-demand skills that you can acquire through two-year programs and certifications earned in six months. It’s also possible to develop marketable skills for free with the help of open courseware and the discipline to read extensively.

Instead of assuming that a degree is a ticket to a good job (in the new economy, it’s not), focus on the skills you’ll develop.

What About Starting Your Own Business?

Developing skills others will pay for isn’t just about getting a job working for someone else. If you want to start your own business, you still need to have something to offer. I discovered that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to pay someone to write on their behalf.

This is especially true online. There is also a demand for freelance skills such as freelance writing and ghostwriting, digital media, design, video editing, coding and development, technical support, optimization, and a host of other online skills.

You can do the same if you plan to start your own business. Think about your skills and expertise and how that can translate into a service you can provide for others. You can make money from your skills if you can provide something others need or want.

It’s not about education as much as the skills you are developing and how you plan to market those skills.

A College Degree is Beneficial, but Not Always Required

Some jobs require a degree. Jobs in science, engineering, and math often require at least a bachelor’s degree — and you can often find a pretty good job with such a degree. Additionally, professional jobs like those in health care and law usually require a degree if you want to work at the highest levels. If those are the jobs you want, you have little choice but to pursue a degree.

However, plenty of jobs don’t require long years of schooling. Develop those skill sets with the help of other educational options, and you can start earning money earlier and get ahead of the game, at least a little bit.

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.

Highest Paying Jobs Without a Degree

Here are some of the best-paying jobs that either only require a two-year degree or no additional education:

1. Air Traffic Controllers

Most air traffic controllers directing our nation’s airplanes in and out of crowded airspace only have an Associate’s Degree. But don’t let that fool you, they are highly skilled individuals. And they are well compensated for it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for an Air Traffic Controller was over $100,000 in 2010, or over $50 an hour.

2. Military Service

Many military members start with relatively low pay. However, annual salary and benefits can quickly increase as service members increase in rank. Full-time benefits, including tax-free allowances for food and housing, free dental and health care, and other benefits, make this an attractive career opportunity for those who do not wish to continue pursuing a four-year college degree.

3. Dental Hygienist

As long as you are comfortable working with people’s mouths, this is an excellent career for any people person. Hygienists have a median salary of nearly $67,000 per year, which is $10,000 more than the median salary for a four-year grad. In addition to the great salary, hygienists enjoy a relatively flexible schedule and can even potentially work part-time. To become a dental hygienist, you will need to complete a two-year associate’s degree—which means you could be working for a great salary just two years out of high school while your former classmates are still working toward their more expensive bachelor’s degrees.

4. Construction Manager

With a median income of nearly $84,000, becoming a construction manager is one of the highest-paying jobs you can land without needing additional education after high school. However, it will take some time and experience before you can step into this job. Construction managers oversee a project’s construction team and must coordinate and schedule the necessary contractors to ensure the project stays on time and within budget. Most construction managers work their way up to this position after many years of working in construction.

5. Funeral Director, Mortician, or Undertaker

This is certainly not a career path that everyone will want to take, but it offers individuals the satisfaction of helping families in times of mourning. Those going into the funeral business must have an associate’s degree in mortuary science, as well as state certification, with a year long paid apprenticeship after you complete your education. If you would like to be an embalmer as well, that will require additional licensure. The median salary for funeral directors is around $54,000 annually, and it is a recession-proof career.

6. Casino Gaming Manager

This is another great option for high school graduates who want to start a career without going to school. Casino gaming managers are responsible for overseeing all of the gaming operations in a casino, which would include everything from setting policies to resolving complaints to determining the servings of food and drink (which is quite important in a casino).

The bad news about this job is that it is one you must work your way up the ladder to get. Many casino managers start their careers as dealers, which is not particularly well-paying. However, casino managers have a median salary of about $67,000 and can sometimes make as much as $110,000 per year. Not bad for a career that requires no extra education.

7. Registered Nurse

Becoming a registered nurse offers one of the best bangs for the educational buck. After completing a two-year degree, a registered nurse can start working in one of the most flexible and recession-proof careers available. With a median salary of around $62,000 per year plus typically generous benefits packages, this is a smart career choice for anyone interested in the helping professions.

Many other high-paying jobs exist:

This is only a sampling of the highest-paying jobs available without a degree. These salaries were taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks occupations and salaries in the US. However, some occupations, such as entrepreneurs and small business owners, are difficult to track. Other opportunities exist in the arts, including computer programming and design, database development, athletics, and more. You don’t need a degree to be successful. But you do need education and the drive to excel.

How to Invest In Your Education

If you decide to pursue a degree, here are some of the best financial moves for college students. Whether you attend a four-year university or get an associate’s degree from your local technical school, these pieces of advice can help you get the most out of your education.

  • Invest wisely: Building a business, honing a skill, or getting your degree comes at a cost. If you plan to open an investment account to save for college, you must strategize your asset allocation. Determine your risk tolerance, assess how much money you’ll need, and adapt your risk levels to maximize your investments.
  • Know your financing options: There are many strategies to pay for college, from work-study jobs to loans, scholarships, and grants. Know the pros and cons of each and come up with a plan to meet your goals and budget.
  • Find financial success in college: Investing in your education doesn’t stop when you sign the tuition check. Live within your means, build a budget and stick to it, and work to establish and maintain good credit.
  • Save where you can: Do your homework, pun intended, and you can find plenty of ways to save money in college, from student discounts to sites that help you with buying and selling textbooks.
  • Make tough decisions: Make choices that help to set you up for future success as you pursue an education, even if they aren’t your first choice. For instance, moving back home after graduation might not be bad as you work to find a job and save money.

Bottom Line

Success doesn’t depend on a piece of paper. And it shouldn’t. Success is rooted in 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.

A lot of emphases is 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.


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About Ryan Guina

Ryan Guina is The Military Wallet's founder. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over six years on active duty in the USAF and is a current member of the Illinois Air National Guard.

Ryan started The Military Wallet in 2007 after separating from active duty military service and has been writing about financial, small business, and military benefits topics since then. He also writes about personal finance and investing at Cash Money Life.

Ryan uses Personal Capital to track and manage his finances. Personal Capital is a free software program that allows him to track his net worth, balance his investment portfolio, track his income and expenses, and much more. You can open a free Personal Capital account here.

Featured In: Ryan's writing has been featured in the following publications: Forbes, Military.com, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, Reserve & National Guard Magazine (print and online editions), Military Influencer Magazine, Cash Money Life, The Military Guide, USAA, Go Banking Rates, and many other publications.

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  1. Shantell Young says

    Thanks for writing this article, I taught middle school for the past eight years and I would often get criticized by other teachers because I was honest with my students about this topic. Many of the students I taught were not going to go to college because they could not afford to, they didn’t have the grades to get scholarships, or they just didn’t want to. I’d tell them that it’s ok because you can still be successful. You just need hard work and a skill you can market. Great article.

  2. Cathy says

    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.

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