Tips & Resources > Careers

Successful Careers without a College Degree

The indoctrination that a successful career requires a university degree—preferably an advanced degree—coincided with a recession in the 1980s that wiped out manufacturing jobs. The de facto annihilation of the manufacturing sector, along with the widespread elimination of middle management jobs, launched new and demanding expectations for college degrees. Young adults answered the new demands by enrolling en masse into institutions of higher learning, increasing to a total enrollment of two-thirds of high school graduates into college. 

In short order, young adults with newly minted college degrees in their back pockets flooded the labor pool, making college graduates both plentiful and cheap. Business, of course, took advantage of the glut. Before Year 2000, many jobs once reserved for those without college degrees required college degrees without commensurate raises in wage rates. College graduates found themselves slaving at menial jobs for minimum wage.

The expectation and implied requirement of a college degree—even better, a graduate degree—remained necessary for high paying employment continues today. Colleges recruit students, business favors advanced degrees, and student debt grows to overwhelming proportions.

The high cost of a 4-year degree puts a university education out of reach for those unwilling or unable to incur crushing debt. In addition, doubt grows a to whether a college degree is worth its high cost: Will I earn enough money to pay the rent, buy groceries, and repay my student loans? Increasingly obvious, the answer is no, especially for those graduates with niche degrees. The Washington Post noted that a 2015 survey indicated only “38 percent of students who have graduated college in the past decade strongly agree that their higher education was worth the cost, according to results of 30,000 alumni polled by Gallup-Purdue Index.” Only a third of graduates considered their degrees worth the cost of higher education.

So, what options does an adult without a college degree have to develop a successful career that pays better than minimum wage?

Return on investment

The college degree matters. Some careers really do require at least a 4-year education, such as engineers, lawyers, and physicians. Others, however, may state college degrees as necessary in job qualifications, but don’t truly need advanced education to perform, such as clerical, supervisory/managerial, and sales positions. Most such positions did not require college degrees prior to the 1980s.

Writing for Entrepreneur, Sujan Patel states that research “shows that college graduates ages 25 to 32 earn $17,500 more annually than their non-degree-holding counterparts.” For real numbers, let’s use the example of an engineering student attending a prestigious private university. Tuition is approximately $50,000 per year, which puts a 4-year degree at $200,000. Assuming this student acquires a job in his chosen field, Chron predicts that this entry level engineer can expect to earn an average salary of $58,600 per year.

After taxes, this young engineer can expect to bring home around $40,000 from which he’ll have to pay for his living expenses. Let’s say this young professional rents an apartment for around $1,000 per month. Figure another $500 per month for groceries, utilities, and fuel. Add in another $150 per month for auto and renters insurance. Living expenses per month average an estimated $1,650, plus an estimated $1,300 per month in student loan repayments, to equal an estimated $2,950 per month in expenses. After paying necessary expenses, he can expect to net approximately $400 per month. These numbers don’t factor in health insurance premiums.

At the other end of the spectrum, an entry-level administrative assistant (which used to be called a secretary) with a liberal arts degree from that same private university can expect to earn an average of $28,500 per year. After taxes, that works out to less than $20,000 annually, which breaks down further to around $1,600 per month in after-tax income—less than anticipated outgoing expenses. Assuming the same living expenses, this college graduate may well choose to move back in with her parents to avoid defaulting on her student loans. An appliance or vehicular breakdown equates to financial disaster.

These numbers alone speak to the growing popularity of education paths focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math: skills highly valued by business and society today. Humanities and liberal arts? Not so much.

If the field in which a graduate earns that degree matters, research shows that the institution does not. Ivy League institutions and other prestigious universities tout the future advantages of degrees obtained from their hallowed programs; however, many employers only care that job candidates possess degrees, not where those candidates earned them. A survey conducted by Gallup shows that only 9 percent of business leaders put a high priority on where job candidates earned their degrees. In contrast, 84 percent of business leaders surveyed considered the job candidate’s knowledge in the field very important, with 79 percent focusing on a candidate’s applied skills. Such numbers testify to the greater return on investment for public university tuition versus private.

Not all doom and gloom

Study after study shows that a college degree confers an economic advantage over not having a degree. The gap between financial expectations of the degreed and not-degreed depends strongly upon the degree. From Forbes magazine to celebrity Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, opinions grow that many college degrees aren’t worth the cost. Once again the degree matters. According to Casey Bond writing for Forbes, “An arts graduate from Murray State University in Kentucky, for instance, can expect to make $147,000 less over 20 years than a high school graduate, once the cost of education is factored in.”

Reporting for the Chicago Tribune, Gail MarksJarvis offers a more positive outlook: “There are still 30 million good jobs that don’t require a college bachelor’s degree, and people in them earn an average of $55,000 a year.” She adds, “[D]espite the fact that blue-collar employment has declined 30 percent since 1991, there are still solid jobs that don’t require a college degree and offer pay that supports a middle-class lifestyle.”

Because 4-year degrees don’t guarantee high wages—and haven’t for a long time—individuals with 2-year degrees or just high school diplomas can achieve career success without the heavy burden of student debt. Many community colleges offer associate’s degrees in specialized fields that confer long-term economic advantages. For those without post-secondary education who decide for reasons of economics, aptitude, or interest not to pursue a c, skilled services and skilled trades often offer the best, most lucrative career paths.

Finding the right career path

When’s the last time you tried to find someone to fix a broken appliance or repair an engine? Many skilled service and skilled trades do not require college degrees. Whether training comes in the form of formal apprenticeship programs, vocational education, technical schools, or on-the-job training, many such careers pay well. Money, a site maintained by U.S. News, Business Insider, and list up to 50 viable careers in healthcare, law, technology, government, telecommunications, transportation, sales, manufacturing, construction, real estate, oil and gas, consulting and training, equipment rental, and law enforcement and correction, hospitality, and gaming (casinos). Even the agricultural sector provides lucrative career opportunities, although most of those require travel. Many pay above $50,000 annually.

For stay-at-home parents who simply do not have the option to travel within a limited geographic area or work off-site, career options center upon administrative services, sales, technical support, and creative services which can be performed remotely

Even without a college degree, you still need training. Training may be obtained through earning certifications relevant to your field of interest, knowledge of career aptitude, and apprenticeships and internships. Community colleges focus on 2-year, career-oriented associate’s degrees and usually offer robust job placement services for graduates. These programs confer credentials that attest to your experience and competence, which businesses are beginning to value as much or more than college degrees that require course instruction irrelevant to the job.

Finally, no degree is needed to go into business for yourself. Whether you write blogs, repair engines, or install swimming pools, competence marks the professional, not any credential from a university. Entrepreneurs make their own opportunities. As a stay-at-home parent, you can, too.