Here’s how to know if you need a college degree, according to experts

We tend to equate success and employment with a college degree. But with the student loan crisis now in the trillions and with nearly a third of college graduates working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree to pay off said loans, is the sacrifice— both mentally and financially—involved with obtaining a college degree even really worth it anymore?

The business world, after all, is changing. Many people are seeking success and monetary gain via less traditional routes, including entrepreneurship and social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. With 62% of U.S.billionaires being self-made, who can blame us for seeking fortune and gold outside a classroom? After all, neither Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates hold a college degree.

But should we do away with a formal education altogether, or is it simply a matter of changing our perspective on a one-size-fits-all education and instead, seeking to tailor a career path around an individual’s talents, interests, and skills?

HelloGiggles talked to a panel including educators, a career recruiter, and a self-made entrepreneur, for their advice on whether a college degree is necessary.

Dr. Corbin Cambell, the associate dean of academic affairs at American University, on why she recommends students pursue a college degree

I would recommend all students pursue a college degree—although, I understand that this is a choice for each individual student to make. The simple correlations are astounding, and the research on outcomes shows similarly, that increasing one’s level of higher education is associated with a whole host of important life outcomes both for individuals and society—from increased wages, to better health, to life satisfaction, to being more likely to be civically involved. On average, students who get a graduate degree do fare better than those who hold a bachelor’s degree, who will do fare better than those who hold an associate’s degree, who will do fare better than those who hold a high school diploma.

Additionally, statistics show that racially marginalized students receive a greater payoff from a bachelor’s degree in terms of proportional earnings compared to white students. I also would say that for students of color, it is important to find a college campus where you feel a sense of belonging, where there is racially diverse representation among the faculty and leaders; and where the curriculum and teaching hold culturally responsive perspectives—these will all play into a student’s ultimate success while in college.

What do students need to consider before selecting a college?

I think the message here is to find a college that has a cost that makes you feel comfortable, a climate where you feel a strong sense of belonging, a format that works for your lifestyle (online/on campus; traditional or alternative schedule) and, most importantly, with exceptional educational experiences both in the classroom and in co-curricular experiences. This kind of education can be found across all kinds of schools, not only at the most “elite” or the most expensive colleges and universities.


Bridgette Gray, chief impact officer at Per Scholas, on why she favors alternative education

We know that nearly a third of today’s college graduates end up in jobs that don’t require a college degree to begin with. This means that there is not only a significant portion of people who are spending years in school and paying thousands of dollars towards tuition, but they’re also not seeing the economic return of their degree.

So while college might be the right path for some people, our point of view on this is that that a college education shouldn’t be the only pathway that leads to a high-paying, middle-class career.

The bigger reality is that no one finishes learning when they get a degree, especially in tech. A changing economy will require workers to provide fresh perspectives and commit to lifelong learning. Linear education pathways are going to be increasingly uncommon, and we need to ensure that all people have access to the training they need to be successful.

People who come from lower-income backgrounds aren’t just limited in their ability to complete college degrees–they’re also limited in their accessibility to pre-employment training, apprenticeships, and data-driven training programs like Per Scholas. Working collaboratively with lawmakers, businesses, and post-secondary education institutions, we hope to play a role in changing that by advocating for increased corporate/federal investments and creating clearer hiring pipelines/career pathways for American workers.

Our enrollment has tripled since 2015 and our impact data, year over year, shows incredible success rates across each of our campuses. Upon graduation, Per Scholas graduates also enter or re-enter the workforce in roles that on average pay four times their pre-training wages. To me, this is a great indicator that not only should we be scaling tech training programs, but also replicating this kind of education model across industries. By investing more heavily in evidence-based programs, we have the opportunity to create long-term impact not just for the individuals participating, but for their families and community at large as well.

Jackie Ducci, recruiter and CEO of Ducci & Associates on why she would hire someone without a college degree

I see many employers requiring degrees for higher-level finance and accounting positions (a qualified Controller should have a B.A. in Accounting, for example). Or perhaps a role that involves extensive writing will require a degree in English, Journalism, or something similar. But for more generic roles (admins, sales) or even highly specialized positions where real-world experience trumps any degree (construction Estimators or IT professionals), many employers are willing to hire a candidate regardless of whether or not they have a degree. The simple reason is that college degrees are simply more helpful and relevant in certain industries or level of position than others. In some situations, the education that the candidate received will be directly helpful, and in others, it really won’t be relevant.

What would that person without a college degree need to have in order to be hired?

A great attitude, excellent work ethic, a genuine desire to be in the role (and the ability to clearly explain why), and relevant “real world” experience in lieu of the college degree.

Would there be any sort of judgment cast towards an applicant that doesn’t have a college degree?

It’s possible, but honestly, I am seeing this less and less of this judgment nowadays. What employers care most about is whether someone can do the job well and that they have the right attitude. In many cases, that’s possible for someone to have these things without having a degree.


Are you seeing more applicants without a formal education?

If anything, I’m seeing more candidates with formal educations who expect it’s going to get them ahead. Then they are surprised and frustrated to find that their degree isn’t very relevant in the hiring process because it’s not getting them the leg up that they believed it would.

Rachel Wells, entrepreneur and career coach, on why she doesn’t think the formal education route is for everyone.

I was raised homeschooled by my mother without a formal education or a college degree. I chose to go straight from being home-schooled to running my own career coaching business.

We have been taught to follow a standard education system which is one-size-fits-all. Everyone is told, from the time they are little, that in order to be successful and earn good money, you need to go through the conventional classroom schooling methods all the way until your teen years, and then once you complete high school, you go on to college and then get a degree. And for some reason, despite the fact that getting a degree doesn’t equate to guaranteed job opportunities (as this is already apparent due to six months or more of unemployment after graduating), we are taught that we need to spend three to five years in university.

For me, that simply wasn’t the route I felt comfortable pursuing. I am an advocate of the belief that if you want exceptional results, you often need to go the unconventional route. And I went the unconventional route. When I was 16 years old, I completed my schooling and went straight on to pursue my interests and passions, getting to know myself as a person. I wrote and published my first book at the age of 17, as well as getting work experience in a gym, and then landing my first job working for the government, without any prior qualifications or experience whatsoever. I took a course and became a certified gym/fitness instructor at the age of 18. I volunteered as a youth mentor when I was 14, which opened the doors for me to start my own successful profitable venture as a career coach, which I now run and is continuing to receive five-star reviews from well-pleased clients and a loyal client base, which I am currently expanding into group training workshops and seminars.

I have worked with CEOs, executives, corporate directors, professionals and graduates, people from all ages, professions, and careers, and at different stages in their careers, and yet, I have been successful in coaching them to discover their unique gifts and develop their potential, and help them land their dream jobs, even though I have never been to college to get a degree. I am living proof that you do not need a degree to be good at what you do. I am good at what I do, people pay top money to work with me, because I was self-taught. I researched my craft and perfected it, mostly online and through my own practice. I saw what works and what doesn’t work. I learned from those around me while at work.

The great thing about abandoning the traditional college degree route is that you have more options to spread your wings and experiment. You have the freedom to be yourself to express yourself to learn at your own pace and in your own style, and even learn on the job at an apprenticeship (which I always highly recommend to those who have just finished school). At the same time, you are gaining a valuable skill set you simply wouldn’t have if you were sitting in a classroom all day. Plus, you save yourself the enormous pile of student debt.

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