It’s conventional wisdom these days that to succeed in a white-collar job, you need a college education. In the past three decades, the wage gap between college grads and high school grads has tripled, and an adult with only a high-school degree is about twice as likely to be unemployed as a college grad. You’re dead without a college education. Or are you?
When I put out a call for people who had found success without a college degree, I got way more responses than I anticipated, from entrepreneurs (mostly) and traditional corporate success stories, including a vice president of PR. Yes, these success stories are anomalous. (If you’re a teen and you’re reading this, don’t try this at home! Go to college!) But they’re an important reminder that there’s more than one path to success.
Lauren Miller is 29, and serves as vice president of public relations for a women’s coaching and development business called Leadership Gold 4 Women. “I have always been keenly aware that my lack of degree makes me undesirable by modern employment standards,” she wrote to me. “Having sat in the hiring chair myself at other positions, I know from firsthand experience what people think of those without a degree: lazy, not smart enough, lacking in business sense, or (my personal favorite) not motivated.” That used to make her nervous, she explained. But in the years since she postponed school — it felt too expensive since she didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do with it — she’s come to see her lack of degree as an advantage:
I won’t tell you that it was easy. I spent years waiting tables, working retail, and generally wasting my time and my paychecks on early-20s nonsense. But around 24, I began to want more for myself, and I realized that I couldn’t get it if I was always working behind a counter. So, I started working a little harder. I decided that I didn’t want to wear an apron ever again, and began to look for a foot in the door to the business world. I accepted low-paying administrative positions in small businesses, and developed a reputation as someone who climbs the ladder. What I found was that, because people assumed I was destined to wear an apron, I was that much more committed to proving I could do better. …
Because I did not have a degree, I seized every opportunity to prove my worth, demonstrate my skills, and add to my workload. Then, I solicited feedback every step of the way. At least once a week, I would sit down with my boss and ask if there was anything I could be doing better, or any way I could improve. And while this undoubtedly opened me up to hearing things I didn’t want to hear, it ultimately taught me to be OK with admitting my weaknesses.
Accepting my lack of education as an opportunity to learn in real life built my sense of confidence in taking risks. It taught me in-the-trenches business skills that you can’t get from a text book. And it pushed me to change my attitude about not having a degree from guilt to pride. Achieving success, in my life, has always been about attitude, and what I’ve learned along the way is that no person is ever entitled to anything. If you’re willing to earn it, you can go as far as you want to go.
Amber Dixon went back to school at 33 while working full-time and caring for her children. But before that, she had already become a marketing manager and director at her company. She also founded a nonprofit women’s networking group, and serves as vice-chair of the Workforce Development Committee, a group developed by the Salt Lake City Chamber. “I had dreams of going to school, but my parents were not advocates of furthering our education because they had both found success without a college education,” she explained in an email. But when her parents refused to help pay for her schooling, she moved out on her own at age 18, got a job, and moved up from there.