From a young age, many people are taught to go to college, get a degree, join the white-collar world and climb the corporate ladder to achieve success. But what about the people who break the mold and become accomplished outside the norm? How do those people become rich without going to college?
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg became successful without college degrees. They dropped out of school and started their own companies: Apple, Microsoft and Facebook (Meta). While they are some of the most famous examples of reaching the highest levels of success without a degree, they are far from alone.
How to get rich without a college degree
There are two main paths to success without a college degree: starting a business and upskilling. These routes can help you gain wealth and further your entrepreneurial dreams.
Starting a business
You don’t have to know every aspect of a business to start one; sometimes you learn as you go. For example, Joy Gendusa, founder and CEO of PostcardMania, dropped out of high school when she was 17 and began a design and print broker firm. While trying to promote the business, she created the concept of PostcardMania, a marketing company specializing in lead generation for small businesses.
Be prepared to take risks as an owner
When Gendusa took the leap to create PostcardMania, it wasn’t easy. Initially, she could pay herself only $40,000 annually to support herself and her two boys. In time, she made a bold decision: to double her marketing budget. The following year, the company increased its revenue from $750,000 to $1.35 million. After that, revenue doubled yearly until 2003, reaching more than $10 million.
“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.”
Tip: Gendusa said the book The Millionaire Next Door was crucial to her success when starting a business. The advice in this book helped her lay a sound financial foundation and stay out of debt. She also credited proper communication for keeping her business afloat during hardship.
Another way to build wealth without a college degree is upskilling. Here are some ways to upskill:
- Seek out online courses that correspond to your niche.
- Apply for an internship.
- Go to a trade school.
- Read bestselling books on the topics you want to learn more about.
Once you increase your knowledge, you can use it to provide value and get paid. For example, Katherine Huang, a contributor at Inkvest, established her career without a degree through networking and coding. After she dropped out of Yale during her junior year, Huang 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.
Huang’s 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 30, she is looking at a seven-figure payout from her stock.
Seek out startups that hire applicants with nontraditional resumes
Huang explained why seeking out companies in their infancy might work for individuals without college degrees. “The smaller and newer a company, the more open they are to hiring people who don’t have conventional backgrounds,” she said. “The hiring standards may change as a company matures and becomes more bureaucratic. For example, at Google and Facebook, HR screens for undergraduate degrees.”
Overall, Business.com heard from a dozen professionals who found success without earning a college degree. While they 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 attended college for about a year before dropping out, some didn’t even finish high school. Each had little or no financial assistance and funded their endeavors primarily on their own. Many either launched their own companies or started at ground zero with companies that eventually became successful.
Did you know? In 2019-2020, 55% of college graduates took home debt with their degrees, according to the College Board.
Industries that don’t require a college degree
While many industries, such as medicine and law, require a college education, others do not. Entrepreneurship is perhaps the most obvious route to success, as you don’t need a degree to own a business. However, you can also get hired in certain industries, 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 little to do with employee performance. “What matters is if someone has a willingness to do a job well and the ability to learn how to get to that point,” she said. “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, and becoming a dropout doesn’t always lead to failure. The route you take should be what is best for you. Here is some advice to get you started.
Taking an alternative path means investing in yourself.
According to Jorge Cevallos, CEO of Media Jet Marketing, it’s crucial to take full responsibility for your actions. Regardless of whether you have a college degree, you still need to perfect standard business skills such as these:
- Listening to people (mentors, employees, vendors, customers)
- Life-long learning as your industry evolves
- Investing in yourself (upskill) and your business (technology, software, smart hiring)
“In my opinion, college is an amazing tool to network, build work ethic and have the tools to learn at your fingertips,” Cevallos said. “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.”
It takes hard work and self-discipline to be successful.
Along those same lines, Gendusa emphasized the importance of hustling. When she started PostcardMania, she focused on working hard, even if that meant 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Her dedication eventually provided her with a stable career and a 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 [use to] get ahead … if they really commit to the hustle.”
If you want to start your own business, Cevallos said, it is important to take the following steps:
- Create an idea.
- Back it with knowledge in the field.
- Assemble the right team.
- Use your connections to make it happen.
According to the experts, becoming rich and successful is possible only if you continue to learn and improve. College can help you with your career, but your own drive is what ultimately determines your level of success.
Skye Schooley contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.