Key takeaways

  1. Many big companies no longer require college degrees for many roles
  2. Many careers are available with just a two-year degree or the right certification
  3. Plumbers, electricians, police officers, and firefighters are increasingly in demand; no degree needed
  4. On average college graduates earn more, but a four-year degree can cost six figures

With the average cost of a four-year traditional college degree easily reaching six figures, many students and families are asking if the price tag, not to mention the time commitment, is worth it.

On average, workers with four-year degrees earn $22,000 per year more than those with only a high school diploma. 

Even figuring the cost of college and the four years a student will spend there instead of working, a bachelor’s degree pays off over time.

But like the statistician who drowned in a river whose depth averaged just three feet, averages don’t tell the whole story.

Some industries emphasize certifications over a college education. Others hire based on what you know, not where you’ve learned it. 

Many companies, even some prominent household names, have waived the college degree requirement for many positions.

Speaking of household names…

Successful people without a college degree

Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Jay-Z, Ted Turner, Anna Wintour, and Larry Ellison all have one thing in common: none of them have college degrees. (Well, two things in common: they all have a very high-paying job.)

Larry Ellison dropped out of college twice before founding Oracle and now owns his Hawaiian island. 

Russell Simmons never finished college, but that didn’t stop him from co-founding Def Jam Recording.

Steve Jobs launched Apple with co-founder Steve Wozniak from his parent’s garage and became a billionaire several times over.

Becoming an entrepreneur and founding a company doesn’t require a degree. Neither does becoming an entertainer.

Take Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), for example. He dropped out of high school to become a wildly successful musician, producer, and filmmaker. Even his mother, a public school teacher, approved of his career choices.

Abraham Lincoln passed the bar without ever attending law school, which was fairly common at the time. Obviously, his lack of a law degree didn’t harm his career.

A lack of a college degree won’t harm your career at some of the biggest business names in the country, as it turns out.

Companies that don’t require a degree

Several major corporations offer in-house certification programs and on-the-job training in lieu of mandatory associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

Founded by two college dropouts, Google (Alphabet) has dropped college degrees from the list of requirements for many positions. Instead, Google offers a certificate program in IT Support to help students attain entry-level IT roles.

Google isn’t an outlier, either. People without college degrees can get hired at Apple, Netflix, Starbucks, Zoho, and QBurst. 

IBM has been hiring non-college graduates for decades and offers an in-house apprenticeship program to help train and hire people without degrees. 

Bank of America, Costco Wholesale, Tesla, Dropbox, Penguin Random House, and many others favor ability and attitude over a college degree for many positions.

Not only are companies discovering that many highly-qualified applicants don’t have college degrees, but there is mounting evidence that requiring a college degree disproportionally excludes candidates of color.

Careers that don’t require a degree

Many healthcare and construction careers require job training and/or certification but not a four-year degree. 

Other careers, and some are high-paying jobs, are easily attainable with only a two-year (community college) degree. And they don’t necessarily have to involve hard labor, either.

For example, Air Traffic Controllers can make six figures. This non-physically demanding job only requires a two-year associate’s degree (AA) and specialized training. 

Web developers, police officers, firefighters, electricians, and plumbers, can all make mid-high five-figure salaries, some with pensions, without a single day of college. 

The solar panel industry is growing, and technicians that can install panels are well-paid. And the list goes on.

Many industries have apprenticeship and certification programs, and some, like many blue-collar jobs, are eager to find new workers. 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for wind turbine technicians, a job that pays an average of $56k, will grow by 44% over the next few years. 

Other occupations that don’t require a college degree, including movie projectionists, cooks, umpires, and animal caretakers, will also see double-digit growth rates in the foreseeable future.

And many of those occupations can grow into entrepreneurship opportunities: many mechanics, plumbers, and electricians began their careers working for someone else before starting their own businesses.

College and its six-figure cost may not be for you. But many promising careers don’t require ever setting foot on campus.

Final word

The message is clear: there are many paths to success, and college degrees aren’t the only route. 

Not everyone needs or even wants to attend a four-year university program. However, it’s important to remember that obtaining a four-year degree will open more opportunities in the workforce and provide greater lifelong earning potential. 

For those who prefer hands-on training and certifications, there are many high-paying job options available without committing multiple years and thousands of dollars towards a college education. 

In any case, it’s essential to research your career choices thoroughly so you can choose the best path for you. Investing in your own skillset now can open up greater career possibilities in the future.