Society tells us to go to college, but that isn't the only route to financial freedom.
From a young age, many are taught to go to college, get a degree, join the white-collar world and climb the corporate ladder. That is success. But what about the people who break the mold and become successful outside the norm? How do those people become rich without going to college?
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg became highly successful without college degrees. They dropped out of school and started their own companies: Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. While they are some of the most famous to reach the highest levels of success without a degree, they are far from alone.
How these experts did it
Joy Gendusa, founder and CEO of PostcardMania, dropped out of high school when she was 17 and began maintaining a design and print broker firm. While trying to promote the business, she created the concept of PostcardMania – a marketing company that specializes in lead generation for small businesses.
The leap to create PostcardMania started out rough, and Gendusa was initially only able to pay herself a $40,000 annual salary to support her and her two boys. In time, she made the bold decision to double her marketing budget. The next year, the company doubled its revenue from $750,000 to $1.35 million. Revenue doubled each year until 2003, when it reached over $10 million.
Gendusa said the book The Millionaire Next Door was crucial to her success from the beginning. The advice in this book helped her lay a good financial foundation and stay out of debt. She also credited proper communication for keeping her business afloat during hardship.
"I had a credit card with a $5,000 limit on it, quickly maxed that out, and then basically grew on the backs of my amazing vendors," Gendusa told Business.com. "Net 30? More like net 200. But we always paid, eventually. The key was staying in really good communication with them so they kept servicing us."
Another successful professional found her career without a degree through networking and coding. Katherine Huang, contributor at Inkvest, dropped out of Yale during her junior year. She supported herself by freelancing and tutoring while she learned coding through free online resources. She started working on small data set analysis projects, and soon began freelancing for data science at Twitter during the company's infancy.
Her network and skill set expanded, and she later joined Uber as an early employee on the team. She began working on the Uber surge feature and eventually became part of the founding team for Uber Eats. Currently, at the age of 30, she is looking at a seven-figure payout from her stock.
Huang explained why those without college degrees might be better suited to seeking out companies in their infancy. "The smaller and newer a company, the more open they are to hiring people who don't have conventional backgrounds. The hiring standards may change as a company matures and becomes more bureaucratic. For example, at Google and Facebook, HR screens for undergraduate degrees."
If you don't have a degree, it can be helpful to have other proof of your hard skills, such as a history of contributing to open source.
Overall, we heard from a dozen professionals who found success without earning a college diploma. While they all ended up in different places professionally, their paths to success were often similar. Of those we spoke with, the average dropout age was between 19 and 20. While most of them attended college for about a year before dropping out, some didn't even finish high school. They each had little to no financial assistance and primarily funded their endeavors on their own. Many either launched their own companies or started at ground zero with companies that eventually became successful.
Industries that don't require college
While many industries require a college education, such as medicine and law, there are also many that don't. Entrepreneurship is perhaps the most obvious route to success, as you don't need a degree to own a business. However, there are certain industries that you can be hired into as well, such as these:
- Trades (e.g., power plant operators, power dispatchers and maintenance repair)
- Creative industries (e.g., art and fashion)
- Local police and fire departments
- Marketing and advertising
- Writing and coding
- Commercial piloting
- Tech startups
- Real estate
These industries may not require a college degree, but that doesn't mean they don't require education. You should be knowledgeable about the field you want to work in and ready to learn even more.
According to Gendusa, formal college education often has very little to do with employee performance, as opposed to personality. "What matters is if someone has a willingness to do a job well and the ability to learn how to get to that point. You can basically learn about and study any subject online these days."
Advice for those who can't or don't want to attend college
Remember that formal education and success are not always synonymous, just as dropout isn't synonymous with failure. The route you take should be what is best for you.
According to Jorge Cevallos, successful entrepreneur and marketing director at Media Jet Marketing, it is crucial to take full responsibility for your actions. If you want to create an alternative path that doesn't include college, you still have to listen to people, read, learn and invest in yourself.
"In my opinion, college is an amazing tool to network, build work ethic and have the tools to learn at your fingertips," said Cevallos. "That being said, if you are able to build those traits and have the discipline to search for information and have a system to get to where you want to be, I believe there are no limits."
Along those same lines, Gendusa emphasized the importance of hustling. When she started PostcardMania, she focused on hustling, even if it meant working 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Her dedication eventually provided her with a stable career and great work-life balance.
"Be ready to make sacrifices and go for it," she said. "Do your research, read up on others and what they did, read blogs and books and anything you can get your hands on, and be frugal … There are so many resources available that people can get ahead in if they really commit to the hustle."
According to the experts, becoming rich and successful is only possible if you continue to learn and improve. If you want to start your own business, Cevallos said it is important to create an idea, back it with knowledge in the field, assemble the right team and then use your connections to make it happen. College can help you with your career, but your own drive is what ultimately determines your level of success.