Education can come in many forms, from years of schooling to months of hands-on training. But, today, it seems the highest and most credible accomplishment in education is a college degree – something not only encouraged but often expected by employers.
Statistics show that today’s population is the most educated in U.S. history. In 2020, there were 2.04 million bachelor’s degrees awarded, and that figure is expected to increase to 2.45 million by 2031, according to Statista. About 100 years earlier, there were only 48,620 bachelor’s degrees awarded, demonstrating major growth in education over the century.
The most common degree employers look for on resumes is a bachelor’s degree, with higher company positions requiring a master’s or above. Popular majors among graduates include STEM, business, health care, liberal arts and education.
Though it seems that a college degree is necessary for almost any job, there are other ways to train for a career. We’ll cover these below.
Is a college degree necessary to succeed in business?
“At some point in the last 20 years, the idea developed that you needed a college degree to ensure professional success,” said Robin Schwartz, human resources director at Welldoc. “That has evolved to many pursuing four-year degree programs and even master’s degrees without being entirely sure what they want to do professionally.”
While a college degree developed into a must-have in the business world, some fields don’t require it. Here are some elements that determine whether such higher education is necessary.
An overwhelming number of workers, including those with impressive degrees, feel that degrees are not necessary for career success. However, experts said most companies and hiring managers don’t reflect this belief.
“I have two college degrees that I barely use, so I would say at face value, no, you don’t ‘need’ one,” said Valerie Streif, marketing manager at GetMyBoat. “But, unfortunately, the way HR departments have evolved and hiring strategies have changed, it has become an essential box to tick, something that must be on a resume for you to be considered for a position, even if the position wouldn’t require skills that you acquired while earning that degree.”
For instance, Alex Membrillo, CEO of Cardinal Digital Marketing, said that a standard prerequisite for post positions in his marketing agency is a four-year degree. If a candidate doesn’t have one, their application likely won’t even be reviewed.
“The reason for this is because the agency manages large advertising budgets and media spend for clients, and it’s important that we’re staffed with qualified employees,” he said.
Many managers believe that degrees validate qualifications, and they’ll usually choose a candidate with a degree over one without.
Research potential career options to see what types of degrees are sought after in those opportunities. This will help you decide whether college is a necessary path for you.
This issue is also highly dependent on the industry. For instance, someone who works in psychology would need a higher degree to counsel, whereas someone in construction would need more hands-on experience.
“People can certainly be successful without a degree,” said Membrillo. “However, they need to choose a path or career where it’s not necessary.”
Even at his marketing agency, there are some positions that Membrillo doesn’t require a degree for, such as marketing content writers. He hires them based on writing samples and tests, and he would consider anyone regardless of whether they graduated from college, going off talent and experience rather than schooling.
Occupations requiring hands-on experience or trade skills are less likely to require a college degree. For example, about 50 percent of glaziers are hired with a high school diploma or equivalent, and about 23 percent are hired with some college experience but no degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other occupations that may not require a degree include plumbers, farmers, parts salesmen, cashiers, barbers, pavers, choreographers, service technicians and DJs.
Additionally, some occupations may not necessarily require a high school degree, either. Animal breeders, agricultural equipment operators, greenhouse or crop laborers, and ranch workers are possible career paths for those with limited educational experience who enjoy hands-on work.
Everyone is different. There is no right or wrong level of education, no matter what society says. People learn in various ways, and it ultimately comes down to what works best for them.
“It is up to the individual to decide how they view and measure success,” said Jacob Dayan, CEO and co-founder of Community Tax. “There are many variables to help measure your own unique success. For example, you can find success without a college degree by taking on a family business at an early age. This is a success story for small business owners. It is up to the individual to find their own unique type of success that both challenges them and gives them purpose in life.”
Alternative options for a college education
If you don’t have the resources or don’t want to attend college, there are other paths to take. Here are the most common. [Learn how people got rich without college.]
Trade schools are great for those with specific interests who want to receive accelerated training and education for a given trade, from elevator installment to radiation therapy. At the end of their studies at a trade school, students typically receive a diploma and certification in their field. This route requires less money and time.
“By earning an associate’s degree at a community college or trade school, many students can avoid accumulating a mountain of student loan debt,” said Schwartz. The average trade school cost is $33,000, compared to a bachelor’s, which is roughly $127,000, reported Vocational Training HQ. Students who choose the college route, on average, accumulate over $30,000 in student loan debt, according to U.S. News data.
“Standard programs may vary from one to two years, depending on the certification or degree being accredited,” according to Schwartz. “So, in half the time it takes to finish a four-year degree program, those pursuing the skilled trades can already be working in their industry and start becoming financially dependent.”
Following your high school graduation, you may wonder whether it would be more beneficial to get a college degree or pursue a trade. Many college students choose the former in the hopes they will secure a job. However, a trade school can offer just the same or more job security. As of June 2022, about 41 percent of college graduates were underemployed, meaning they either did not have enough work or were engaged in jobs that did not use their skill sets, reported Statista. Further, 4 percent of recent graduates were unemployed.
Many trades offer more job security than those associated with degrees, Schwartz added. Career stability is something all workers want, and a major reason why many attend college and earn degrees in the first place.
“While no job is 100 percent secure, people still need their roofs repaired and their cars worked on,” Schwartz said. “For the foreseeable future, those jobs will be handled by local skilled trade workers.” [Read more about deciding whether to hire experienced workers or recent college graduates.]
Apprenticeships are similar to trade schools but offer more hands-on opportunities, giving you a feel for labor demands so you know exactly what to expect. While you must pay for a trade school, you will usually be financially compensated for your work in apprenticeships. In essence, you are getting paid to learn skills that will not only benefit you but others as well.
In 2021, the top occupations with apprentices included electricians, carpenters, plumbers, sprinkler fitters and construction craft laborers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Becoming an apprentice also grants access to a network of those already in the industry as well as a glimpse into the working environment.
“Having the opportunity to learn through doing also allows one to become skilled in their job more quickly,” Schwartz said. “If you’re looking for a career that will provide you immediate satisfaction and develop you into an expert more quickly, the skilled trades might be for you.”
There were over 593,000 apprentices in the nation working on their skills and establishing financial security throughout 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The appeal of apprenticeship continues to grow and proves beneficial in the lives of those who choose this path.
“The experience you gain can also be used in your personal life,” Schwartz added. “Imagine you’ve bought your first home and need to make some renovations. If you’re a master carpenter or a skilled electrician, these projects will cost you a fraction of what the unskilled public will pay.”
If you find you like the day-to-day and can strengthen your skills as an apprentice, you could increase your chances of future employment with the same company or a similar one within the trade.
If you choose not to pursue any of the options listed, you must have enough self-motivation to start your own brand or network with those in your preferred industry.
“I had a financial advisor who was a retired PGA club pro,” said Membrillo. “While he did not have a college degree, he had over 25 years of business experience running a large golf club and pro shop. When he transitioned to financial advising, he obtained all the needed certifications and training from the national investment company he worked for.”
“If you start out by working for small businesses through personal connections and build up a strong reputation and a long resume of experience, you’ll reach a point where no one will question your education,” said Streif.
Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.