The College (Degree) Myth
In this article on choices, some people got the impression that I believe you must go to college to get an education, but nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, the whole time I was growing up, it was drilled into my head that you really had to go to college to get an education so you could make a good living and be successful. Well, as I near the age of 56, I know for a fact that getting a college degree does not necessarily guarantee you are getting an education and it is definitely not required to become successful or have ample income.
Let me begin with my early childhood. My whole life I was reminded that Mom and Dad both went to college, along with my maternal grandmother. Mom’s Mom and Mom both went to Wesleyan College in Macon (GA), with my grandmother studying art at the conservatory and Mom graduating to become a teacher. On the other hand, Dad didn’t graduate but became a pilot instead. (I discuss Dad’s life here. I discuss Mom’s influence on my life here and here.) Considering that my grandmother was born in 1894 and Dad was one of the first in his family to go to college, college was a big deal in our family. So, this is the basis of why I used to think college was so important, but also where the conundrum began. You see, Dad didn’t graduate but was a successful pilot with an ample income. Now that's a conundrum for a kid raised to think you had to go to college to be a success (and make lots of money).
As I started becoming more aware of things outside of my home life, I began to notice other people whose successes far exceeded their education. The first was the man who started The Varsity, a popular food establishment in Atlanta started by a college dropout. Also, in terms of people that might be more recognizable to the world at large, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t graduate from college either, yet they created two of the most recognizable businesses in the world – Apple and Microsoft. Where would we be without those two college drop-outs?
So, let’s go a bit further – self-education and perseverance are two of the biggest factors determining a person’s success. Sure, there are some careers that are either much easier with a college degree or require a degree so you can qualify to become certified (or sit for a test to be certified), like architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers and CPAs, but this wasn’t always the case. (Can you say, “Government regulations?”) For example, my maternal grandfather was born in 1888 and studied law. To my knowledge, he never went to college. Of course, there were a LOT FEWER laws back then, but my grandfather was a well read and self-educated man far beyond any formal education.
Another thing to think about is all the careers where a college degree is required, but the income doesn't necessarily follow. The main one that comes to mind is teaching. Teachers put in the same amount of time and effort to get a college degree, but the income just isn't there unless you become a college professor and even then, it's not guaranteed.
There are a couple of almost hidden caveats to consider with all of this, though. Corporate America and certain military positions often require degrees, depending on what field you choose. In these situations, you really need to consider where you plan to work and what kind of work you intend to do when deciding on whether or not that piece of paper is worth it.
Within Corporate America, there is often a glass ceiling of sorts and we're generally talking about big corporations with thousands of employees. If you don't have a degree, there's no amount of experience that will qualify you to get beyond a certain level - you can almost guarantee you will never be a manager or anything higher. It may never be put in writing, but that unwritten rule can derail your career aspirations in a heartbeat. My family has personal experience with this, so I know it’s real.
With the military, entering with a college degree generally means a higher pay grade to start and you can qualify to enter as an officer instead of an enlisted person. Yes, there are ways for the military to help you get that education, but it may be easier to get it before you enter. You really need to have an idea of what you want to do before entering military service and research the qualifications. Recruiters don't necessarily have your best interest in mind and often are just looking to check a box or meet a quota.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think everyone could benefit from more education, but it doesn’t have to be in a classroom. It could be anything from reading Aristotle (still on my to do list) to watching how-to videos or watching historical documentaries to understand more of our own histories. Watching documentaries and old war movies or listening to podcasts is SOOOOO much better than sitting in a lecture/history class in college. There’s all kinds of stuff you can read but if books put you to sleep, try a book on tape – besides, you can do that while driving - accomplishing two things at once. Also, hands on experience is invaluable in so many situations and that is something you can’t learn in a classroom (or if you do, you forget it before you ever need to use it).
OK, so back to my original point, becoming successful does NOT require a formal education or college degree. So, if college isn’t your thing or isn’t in the cards for you, just remember that perseverance and self-education will aid you greatly. You may not be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but you just might find a career that gives you the satisfaction and income level you seek.
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