Why You Don’t Need a Traditional College Education to Be Successful

Not so long ago, adults were able to live well and achieve economic, social and personal success without the rigor of a college education. So, what changed?

Since the turn of the millennia, students have been increasingly encouraged to attend college after high school. The genuine desire to learn aside, 72% of college graduates pinpoint career goals as their main motivation for pursuing a college education.

Just because more students are choosing to matriculate to post-secondary education, it doesn’t mean that this is the only – or best – way to live a good, happy, successful life.

We hear regularly about the successes of college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and yes, even Oprah Winfrey, but are often also taught to view these cases as anomalies that are unattainable for the average person. While comparable levels of success are highly improbable for most people (college graduates or not), the shared characteristics of these individuals provide us with part of the framework to achieve success outside of the realm of convention.

Drive, self-reliance, patience, and passion are just a few of the top qualities of highly successful people, and it turns out we can acquire these traits both with and without a college education. College isn’t for everyone, so it’s important to open up the conversation with students about alternative routes to career and life success. Here are some ideas to consider.

Trade Schools and Vocational Training

Unlike traditional colleges, trade schools offer an education specific to a certain field. For example, a welder attends trade school to learn the craft of welding. These skills are directly and immediately applicable to a trade career, allowing people access to sustainable work and the benefit of forgoing the high cost and extensive time needed to pursue a traditional college degree. Based on this information, we think it’s time that vocational education makes a comeback in U.S. schools.


Starting a business requires initial capital and with climbing rates of student debt, this can be hard to come by after attending a four-year university. While entrepreneurship is still a risky endeavor, there are many access points to funding that make entrepreneurship a more viable route to success than it has ever been before, whether you have a college education or not.

Join the Military

Joining the military isn’t just for students who don’t classify themselves as “book smart.” It’s a highly regarded and valuable path to learning life and technical skills, as well as honorably serving our country. The military is an excellent route for students who want to be held accountable, and it opens up the door to incredible opportunities throughout the career lifecycle.

Go to Community College

If students are unsure about attending a traditional four-year college, community college is a useful way to gain experience and take time to figure out what’s right for them. Community colleges vary widely in terms of topics of study and are a cost-effective way to gain useful skills and job experience.

Seek an Apprenticeship

Apprenticeships are reliable access points to careers in the skilled trades (carpentry, plumbing, pipe fitting, etc.), agriculture, healthcare, and other career paths. The best part about apprenticeships? You get paid to learn. Although they can be highly selective, apprenticeships don’t typically require a college education and take less time to complete than most traditional degree programs.


Organizations like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and other volunteer-based programs are legitimate ways to gain career and technical skills while serving various charitable organizations and endeavors. Service organizations seek out applicants with a wide variety of experience and backgrounds and provide their volunteers with an array of benefits, including pay, transportation, housing, food stipends, etc.

The types of alternative post-high school options are as unique as each person who chooses to forgo the conventional route. Even as the future of traditional college education continues to shift and evolve, it will never meet the needs of every person after high school. How are you discussing the diverse realm of possibilities with your students and children?

Choose your Reaction!