Should You Go to College or Get a Job Without a College Degree?

FT Contributor
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While it’s difficult to put a value on a college education, the Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that “the more you learn, the more you earn.” In 2017, people with doctoral and professional degrees earned more than triple what their peers who had less than a high school diploma earned. Furthermore, over the course of a lifetime, men with bachelor’s degrees earn about $900,000 more and women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more than those without a degree.  

Graduating from college gives you access to a multitude of high-paying jobs, but there are certain lucrative jobs you can obtain without a degree. Regardless of your career path, earning a consistent salary after college is of paramount importance. After all, your student loans aren’t going to pay themselves.

In some cases, people work and go to school at the same time. This allows them to immediately start earning money without delaying their education. Once they’ve earned a degree, they’ll have funds to start paying their loans back.

Before you decide, consider the following questions to determine whether you should go to college or get a job.

Table of Contents

Do You Need to Go to College?

Going to college or getting a job is a major question for everyone, as there are many things to consider. The short answer is no, you don’t necessarily need to go to college, but it truly is a case-by-case scenario. Ultimately you’ll base this decision on your life circumstances, financial abilities, and career aspirations.

Do You Need College for Your Career?

Some careers require you to have a specific college degree in order to even be considered.  Before you commit to education, it’s important to ask yourself how badly you want to work in a field that demands a degree. Also, consider the competitiveness of that field — will you have trouble finding a job after college? If you’re absolutely certain you want to take a job in an industry that doesn’t require higher education, you may not need to go to college.

Here’s a look at some of the most common career paths that require a degree:

  • Actuary.
  • Petroleum, nuclear, chemical, or electronics engineer.
  • Physicist.
  • Statistician.
  • Mechanical or software engineer.
  • Economist.
  • Civil or architectural engineer.

Are You Going for Someone Other Than Yourself?

In some cases, you may start to feel pressure to attend college from your family and friends. If you make the decision to go to college because you feel that you need to — whether it be a family tradition or peer pressure — you could be unhappy down the line.

Moreover, going to college may not be a good idea if you are not going because you want to. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Examine what you’re passionate about — is there a career path that will make you happy that doesn’t require a college degree? College isn’t the answer for everyone.

Do You Know What You Want to Do?

Knowing what major you want to study is a key factor when it comes to deciding whether to go to college. If you devote time to a major without understanding what it is, you might find you’re not interested in it or the career paths that major will present you with upon graduation.

To choose the major that’s right for you, conduct your own research. Switching majors may cost time and money; you could incur an additional expense to your college debt, and more importantly, a loss of your time.

Before you decide on a college, it’s important to understand what career you want and the education, skills, and experience required for that career. This way you can focus on your college education and graduate faster, all while saving money.

Can You Afford It?

Some people may be in a better financial position to go to college than others. The average cost of a college education varies by university, degree type, and program length. As a reference point, college can cost anywhere from $3,440 to $32,410, depending on whether you go to a public or private university and the number of years it takes to get your degree.

Your financial status should definitely be a consideration. If you’re able to afford a college that offers the major you want to study, be certain of your career choice and whether or not you need a college education to pursue that path.

Alternatives to a Traditional Four-Year Degree

In certain cases, there are alternative ways to get the job you want. Discover some different paths to a traditional four-year college degree.

Consider Community College

This is a great alternative for those who aren’t sure which career path they want to take or those who are feeling the pressure to get a postsecondary education. You can graduate with an associate’s degree and pursue a bachelor’s degree later. If you decide on a bachelor’s degree during your time at community college, you can also request to transfer into the college of your choice.

Community college allows you to explore higher education with relatively little risk. Classes at local community colleges are often more affordable than nationally recognized institutions. Even with an associate’s degree, you can still land a job and earn about $862 per week. There are a variety of jobs you can get with an associate’s degree, too, including everything from HVAC specialists to web developers and registered nurses.

Go to Trade School

Trade school is a viable option for those who like to work with their hands. If you never enjoyed sitting in a classroom and taking tests, the vocational school allows you to learn by actually doing the work.

Often, vocational schools have smaller classes, which means more personalized attention to your education. A trade school education typically takes two years or less, which means you graduate in less time with more hands-on experience. On average, trade school education costs can range from $1,000 to more than $30,000 in total, which is what what one year of college costs at some institutions.

Trade school is a relatively low-risk option that can put you in a position to land an in-demand job. Common trade school educations include welding, contracting, hair stylist, paralegals, or mechanics.

Join the Military

Joining the military opens you up to a world of benefits, including steady work, good pay, and the opportunity to pursue a college education. What’s more, the government will fund your education. The skills you learn in the military can be beneficial for obtaining work in the future.

It doesn’t cost anything to join the military, so there’s no need to budget for education. Some high-paying military jobs include electronics technician, satellite operator, or air rescue swimmer. There is real danger when joining the military — you could be risking your life, depending on your role and where you are stationed. You also don’t know how long your service will be required.

Start Your Own Business

If you have an idea you can’t pass up, starting a business could be a viable option. It’s a good idea to start a business while you’re relatively young, as you have less to lose and therefore more flexibility when it comes to investing in yourself.

As the owner of the business, you decide the extent to which you need continuing education to operate the company at full steam. Ultimately, the success of your business determines how much you stand to earn.

This option is an extremely risky one. If you don’t put enough effort into growing your business and generating a profit, you could go under, leaving you penniless. Without an education, it can be hard to find another job.


Volunteering your time to a cause that you are passionate about can be fulfilling, but it’s not often profitable. Structured volunteer programs like Americorps or the Peace Corps won’t pay a salary, but they may provide stipends for food and housing. If you’re not sure what to do with your life, volunteering can serve as a time to figure things out while giving back to the community.

The risks associated with volunteering are fairly low, but they exist. A lack of education can make it difficult to find work once you’re done volunteering, but the plus side is you come out without any debt on your shoulders.

Before you make a decision on whether to go to college, consider the alternatives and the possibility that you might not need a bachelor’s degree for the type of career you’d love to pursue.

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