We are constantly reminded of how essential a college degree is to succeeding in today’s economy. The unspoken belief among most people is that you either get a degree and land a respectable job, or avoid college and spend your life toiling at undesirable minimum-wage positions. Yet this is actually a false alternative. In reality, there are many lucrative blue and white collar career paths that don’t require degrees at all.
Starting your own business is the quintessential example of a career that can flourish without you stepping foot onto a college campus. The reason? Business success is about results (in the form of revenue, profits, etc.) not predictive indicators like books read or tests passed. It is a purely performance-based profession where you don’t need permission to succeed – you can just do it and get paid. Indeed, some of the most famous entrepreneurs in history are noteworthy for being high school or college dropouts. While college courses can certainly be helpful to an entrepreneur, they are not strictly essential for success.
Sales is a lucrative option for non-college grads for much the same reason. As a totally results-based career, sales has nothing to do with the letters after your name and everything to do with how many orders you generate. The reason so few people consider sales a legitimate non-grad career is that we associate “salesmen” with sleazy hucksters trying to sell us worthless merchandise door-to-door. Yet this is only one type of salesperson and certainly not the only sales-based career open to skilled persuaders. With a charismatic personality and mastery of persuasion techniques, you can excel at anything from ad copy writing to high-end corporate sales.
While people often use the terms “sales” and “marketing” interchangeably, they are actually not the same thing. Sales is the literal act of selling – the “moment of truth” where a person is convinced (or not convinced) to buy the product or service in question. Marketing is about picking WHICH products to sell, identifying the target market, and devising strategies for reaching it. In short, marketing is about building systems that convert prospects into shoppers over and over again. Like entrepreneurship and sales, you don’t need a degree for this. Although corporations typically prefer degreed applicants for marketing positions, nothing stops you from marketing for yourself or a smaller business.
The reason so many careers require degrees is that it is difficult to pre-judge their skill level. After all: how can you be sure that an administrative assistant or HR manager really knows their stuff without investing months of time in finding out? You really can’t. Contrast that with the work of a graphic designer, who can assemble a stunning portfolio of all their best work. The portfolio rarely lies – if a designer has produced stellar work in the past, the work right there in front of your eyes is a strong indicator that he/she will do so again. Consequently, designers who are both talented and diligent tend to have more work than they can handle (with or without a college degree.)
Companies like Google are famous for insisting on Ivy League graduates and 4.0 GPA achievers for their software development positions. Outside of these top-shelf companies, however, programming expertise tends to speak for itself in the form of portfolios or even in-person assignments where you show the interviewer your skills. In fact, computer science degrees are often looked upon skeptically by startups because the curriculums tend to emphasize ancient programming languages like COBOL and FORTRAN (rather than modern-day languages/frameworks.) As a result, skilled coders with impressive portfolios and proven capability can dazzle interviewers without ever earning a degree in the field (or any other.)
When we think of “writers”, we tend to think of idealistic dreamers who go on and on about “that novel they’re working on” without ever leaving their parents’ basement. Luckily, staking your entire future on writing the next Harry Potter isn’t the only way to earn a living from writing. Untold numbers of writers earn strong paychecks from article writing, blog publishing, and even ghost-writing for business owners who need content but cannot or will not write it themselves. The key to succeeding as a freelance writer is to avoid devaluing yourself. Websites like eLance and oDesk are full of clients offering $2 per article, but who can pay their rent with that? Instead, seek out serious clients that want amazing writers, ensure you can deliver the goods, and charge what you’re worth.
Real Estate Investment
Real estate investment is yet another lucrative field that does not require a degree. While there are certainly other barriers (namely access to loan financing and knowledge of real estate transactions) the field is open to anyone willing to develop the skills and work their way up. Whether you end up flipping properties (buying houses at one price and selling them for a higher one), rehabbing, or “buying and holding” until your properties appreciate, real estate provides an income-generating vehicle for thousands of investors across America. Note however that even though you do not need a degree, real estate is a complex field and should not be entered with out some form of training (such as home-study courses or mentorship.)
Do you have a sharp memory? Are you a detail-oriented person with an organized mind and a knack for scheduling? If so, business owners and executives will happily pay you to be their virtual assistant! As a VA, your job duties range from scheduling meetings and flights, booking hotels, planning events, or any other task the person you are assisting throws your way. In time, good VAs become an integral part of their client’s lives, counted upon for matters big and small and compensated appropriately for the help and organizational assistance they provide. Best of all, serving as a VA for someone prestigious or well-connected may well open up future opportunities for career advancement.
Surprising as it may be to hear, you can actually become a trained police detective without earning a college degree! Unlike police officers (who actually patrol towns and cities and respond immediately to reported crimes) detectives are called in after the fact to assess what happened and establish a trail of clues. More important to this job than college coursework are quick instincts, an investigative mindset and the ability to put yourself in the shoes of a perpetrator. Master these aptitudes and you can land a police detective job without ever stepping foot on campus.
Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic controllers are responsible for directing the flow of traffic at airports and in the skies to ensure fast arrivals and safe flights. Despite being an extremely well-compensated (and often unionized) professor, it is actually not necessary to be a college graduate in order to get hired. What IS necessary is passing background/safety checks and scoring above a certain threshold on the Federal Aviation Administration’s pre-employment test. Provided that your background checks out, you score high enough, and can speak clearly enough to be understood over communications equipment, nothing stands between you and a career in aviation control!