Is a College Degree Necessary for Success?

Before I get into this article, I want to make a couple points clear:

  • While some of the people discussed are high school dropouts, this does not mean I’m advocating for dropping out of high school. Education is important. If you’re struggling, if nothing else, completing your high school degree will teach you to persevere.
  • I have nothing against a college education. The point of this article is that college is not for everyone, and that’s okay. There is more than one way to learn what you need to be successful.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on to the point of this article.

Do You Need a College Degree to be Successful?

Full disclosure: I have an associate degree in psychology but have never completed my Bachelor’s. I have gone back to school a couple times, but, at least for now, it seems my bachelor’s degree is not in the cards. I did well in school, but I refuse to go into debt to continue my degree.

From at least middle school, children begin to hear how important their GPA will be to get them into college. It seems from this point on, the point of their education is to prepare them for going to college.

This is not really the point, but the emphasis placed on these decisions make it seem so to many students. You start to believe that college is the only way to be successful in life, that you won’t ever be able to get a decent job if you don’t get a college degree.

This emphasis can make some students believe they are destined to work minimum wage the rest of their life if they don’t go to college.

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For a portion of students, this isn’t an issue. They know they will go to college, they know they will do well, they already have a career path picked out and are ready to get started.

There’s another segment of students that can become frustrated and overwhelmed by this emphasis, for any number of reasons.

  • Some people have no idea what career path they want to take when they graduate from high school.
  • Some students have struggled through the school experience and dread the idea of another four years of it.
  • Some people don’t have the money for college and don’t like the idea of starting out their careers in debt from getting a degree.
  • Some people want to be able to strike out on their own and hate the idea of another four years of forced group projects.

These and other reasons leave a good portion of students with a desire to avoid college, or at least the inability to pursue it. The problem is, many people, often well-meaning though misguided, make these students feel like failures for not pursuing a college degree.

The thing is, while a college degree may be the best thing for some students, it is not necessary for all. There are numerous options out there to learn the skills you need to be successful without a degree, it just requires a little more creativity and motivation.

How Can I Learn Necessary Skills Without a College Degree?

Learning can take many forms. If you are motivated, you can find a way to get the skills you need. The first step for those who plan to side-step college is to create a plan.

What are you good at? What are ideas that interest you?

Even if you don’t know what you want to do with your life yet (and there are people in their 30s and 40s that still don’t have a clear answer on this), you can still pursue areas of interest. This can lead to a better understanding of yourself and what you want out of life. Create a plan for a pursuit of knowledge and figure out how those pursuits could lead to a career.

Are you interested in helping animals, but don’t want to go to vet school? You can get certification as a vet tech or vet assistant. This requires a little further education in a certification program, but not on the same scale as a degree.

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Do you want to pursue writing as a career option? There are numerous online options for learning skills necessary for this:

  • Some organizations offer online certification programs at reasonable costs. For instance, Copyblogger has a content marketing certification program.
  • Many writers have written books about their writing journey that can give you tips on getting started.
  • Numerous websites exist that give writing, grammar, vocabulary, or other tips that can be a great resource for increasing your skills.
  • Youtube has tons of videos from writers sharing their insights.

The thing is, you must be willing to search for these options. They are numerous, and some resources are better than others.

That’s an important point in pursuing self-education: you will have to sift through the material available to find what will be helpful to you.

I used two examples, but the ideas offered can work for any number of career paths, especially if you want to be self-employed.

Examples of Successful Entrepreneurs Who Don’t Have College Degrees

Do you need more proof that you can be successful without a degree? Let’s look at 10 people who have managed to make a name for themselves despite their lack of degree.

     1) Charles Culpeper

Charles Culpeper was the owner and CEO of Coca-Cola bottling company which he purchased in 1917. He was a high school dropout, but this didn’t stop him from working his way up to creating a successful business model for Coca-Cola company.

The important thing to remember here is that he did work his way up. He started his career with Coca-Cola as a salesman in Philadelphia, eventually moving to sales in New York before he borrowed the money to purchase the company and create a unified bottling company based out of New York.

2) Ellen Degeneres

Ellen Degeneres is well known these days for her successful day-time talk show The Ellen Degeneres Show. Ellen began college as a communications major but dropped out after one semester.

She worked many jobs, including at restaurants and retail stores, but continued pursuing stand-up comedy throughout this time. She started out performing at small clubs and coffee houses before she got her break that led to her current success.

She began touring in the 1980s and started taking parts in movies and television in the late 80s and early 90s. Now she has her own, very popular, day-time show where she has become an influencer in her own right.

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3) Richard Branson

Richard Branson is known for creating Virgin Records, now Virgin Groups. He has had success in the retail music business and with his own record label and has used that success to get involved in travel, with the Virgin Atlantic airline.

By keeping his eyes on market trends, Branson, a high school dropout, was able to transition his company to meet new demands and prove himself to be valuable in the entrepreneur world. He even got knighted for his services to the entrepreneur world.

Richard Branson started out with a magazine, moved into the record selling business with a mail-order service, and managed to turn that into a chain of retail stores. Using his success, Branson was able to transition into the Virgin Records music label.

The success of these endeavors has allowed him to transition into other areas of interest, as stated above. While he had difficulties as a student, Branson did not let this stop him. He has managed to make a name for himself, along with plenty of money to pursue new goals, and all without a high school degree.

4) Anna Wintour

Anna Wintour is a known name in the fashion industry. She has been editor-in-chief of the well-known fashion magazine, Vogue, since the late 1980s, and since 2013 has been the artistic director of Conde Nast. While she has been widely criticized for a cold demeanor and hard-nosed attitude, this hasn’t stopped her from creating a name as a fashion expert.

She has been involved in the fashion industry in one way or another since she was 15 and her father helped her get her first job at a well-known boutique. A year later, she dropped out of school, with a small stint in fashion classes, which she quickly gave up. She very quickly got involved in the magazine world, thanks to the opportunity from a former boyfriend.

Her first major break was as an editorial assistant at Harper’s & Queen, where she made a name for herself by discovering models and creating innovative shooting styles. With different stints throughout the years, she finally ended up at Vogue in the 1980s, and has been involved with the fashion icon ever since.

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5) Steve Jobs

Chances are, you have heard the name Steve Jobs over the years. If not, he was the co-founder of Apple, and after being forced out, went on to create his own computer development company, NEXT, which later merged with Apple and brought Jobs back where he had started. He also went on to be the chairman of Pixar, most well-known for the Toy-Story series.

Steve Jobs was known as a creative genius, managing to bring Apple out of financial trouble with his innovative ideas. It was through the work of Jobs that Apple created their wildly successful I products.

Steve Jobs originally began attending classes at Reed College, but college was expensive, and he didn’t want to put his family in debt to pay for it. Although he officially dropped out as a student, he did continue to audit classes, getting valuable knowledge for his efforts later.

Jobs had a couple of brief stints at Atari during the pre-Apple years, working with his friend and co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak on some important projects. From this point, Jobs and Wozniak continued to work together on different projects until they went on to create the first Apple computer in 1976.

With the success of the Apple ventures, Jobs found himself a millionaire at a young age. Even after being forced out of Apple, he was able to capitalize on his creativity to take on other successful ventures, the NExT project and funding the purchase of Lucasfilms graphics to create Pixar.

6) Rachael Ray

Rachael Ray is well known for her 30-Minute Meals, teaching people that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. Despite her lack of any formal degree, Rachael Ray has managed to create a successful and profitable name for herself in the culinary world.

Ray came to her cooking abilities through real-world experience. She grew up in a culinary family, watching her parents create and manage different restaurant chains in New York. Growing up, she was surrounded by the food industry, and she loved it.

As an adult, Rachael Ray began her foodie career at a Macy’s candy counter, later moving to the Fresh Foods department (I’m not going to lie, until I started researching Rachael Ray, I had no idea Macy’s had a Fresh Food department). After two years at Macy’s, Ray moved on to help open a gourmet marketplace in New York, working there as a manager and buyer.

She continued in her foodie career, moving on to manage different restaurants until landing her first chef job at a gourmet market in Albany. It is in this role that Ray began the concept of 30-minute meals, the trademark that would lead to her later success.

It was through her 30-minute classes at the market that she landed her first TV gig, a spot on a local nightly news segment. After this new project proved so successful, Rachael Ray went on to land further shows, teaching her 30-minute meals on Food Network.

She moved on to add a lifestyle element to her shows, landing shows on the Travel network. She now has her own day-time show, a line of hugely successful cookbooks, a popular magazine, and a successful non-profit teaching families to have a good relationship with healthy foods.

Rachel Ray has managed to capitalize on her experiences, making her name one of the most popular names in the food industry today.

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7) Simon Cowell

Simon Cowell has become known as the mean guy everyone hates to love. While he is now worth close to $500 million, he started out with some difficulties.

Cowell attended Dover College, but left before completing his degree. After this he took on several small jobs, but couldn’t get along with his co-workers. None of these jobs lasted.

Cowell finally landed in the mail room at EMI music where his father was an executive. He quickly moved from the mail room and became a producer. From there, he moved on to become a partner at Fanfare, a label for indie authors.

After creating several other labels, Cowell moved on to television. He had roles in several shows before moving on to American Idol in 2002. From there, Cowell created a talent show platform.

He is most notable for American Idol, X Factor, and Got Talent.

8) Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Ash is well-known for the shiny pink cars given to top sellers of Mary Kay cosmetics.

Ash graduated from high school and married soon after. This marriage didn’t last and she moved on to begin her career in sales.

Mary Kay made a name for herself at Stanley Home Products where she was consistently a top sales person. She left when her status as a woman kept her from getting deserved promotions.

After further frustrations in the job market, Ash decided to write a book to help women succeed in business. This book led to the founding of Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963. With quick success, this venture brought Mary Kay millionaire status.

 9) Walt Disney

Walt Disney attended the Academy of Fine Arts at night through his high school career. This continued until he joined the Red Cross at 16 (by lying about his age) in 1918.

After Disney returned home, he became a cartoonist for advertising. This lasted a couple years until he decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He showed up with an animated film idea and little money.

With the help of his brother, Disney began his production company with limited tools. They started with short animated films before moving on to bigger productions.

Through the years Disney incorporated up-and-coming technologies to make the Walt Disney brand a leader in animation.

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10) Helena Rubinstein

Helena Rubinstein grew up in Poland where she learned business skills by helping her father with his bookkeeping. At her father’s insistence, Rubinstein went on to study medicine. While she enjoyed the laboratory work (something that would serve her well later), she hated the hospital atmosphere.

Rather than being married off after giving up the medical future, she took off for Australia. This is where her new career began. It started with the sales of Modjeska cream for the weather-beaten Australian women.

After many moves, she ended in America during World War II. It was in New York that Rubinstein began the lucrative business that would eventually become L’Oreal.

“Just as eating contrary to the inclination is injurious to the health, so study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Create Your Own Success

There are many ways to learn the things to help you be successful. If college is not in the cards for you, this doesn’t mean you have to give up. As these examples show, there is always room for someone with genuine desire.

Do you know of another example you think deserves recognition? Let me know in the comments. For more motivation or other resources, check out some of my other articles.


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