From Bill Gates and Rachael Ray to Mark Zuckerberg and Coco Chanel, there’s no shortage of inspiring stories of innovators and entrepreneurs who changed the world and got fabulously wealthy without ever having earned a college degree. Most people, however, won’t come up with the next world-changing billion-dollar idea — and, on average, there is no question that higher education leads to higher earnings. But there’s also no question that for many grads, student debt will nibble at that higher income for years or decades after they graduate, and college is simply not for everyone.
“It is a grim reality that avoiding college, and therefore avoiding student loans, can be the most financially sound option for many Americans,” said Leonard Ang, a realtor and CEO of iPropertyManagement.
With smart choices and financial discipline, a healthy, wealthy life can be yours — even if you never set foot on campus.
Pursue Work in a High-Paying Non-College Field
According to the National Police Foundation, only about 1 in 3 police officers in the United States have four-year degrees. Around half have two-year degrees.
Both U.S. News and World Report and Intuit list law enforcement among the highest-paying non-college jobs, with the median patrol officer earning $63,150 a year and the median police and detective supervisor earning more than $91,000. Whether or not you’re a match for a career in law enforcement isn’t the point.
The point is that you don’t have to invent Facebook or Microsoft to pull in more than the $43,367 that ZipRecruiter says the average college graduate earns per year.
“There are many career opportunities for those seeking work without a formal experience in higher education,” Ang said. “Positions in construction, the hospitality industry, and some positions in healthcare do not require a degree, but training. Most positions will provide training to anyone willing to do the work.”
Some of the other high-paying fields that don’t — or at least don’t always — require a college education include:
- Transportation, storage and distribution managers
- Commercial pilots
- Elevator and escalator installers and repairers
- Firefighting supervisors
- Transportation supervisors
- Theatrical performance makeup artists
Also, the current state of the labor market is making good employees hard to find and keep. Just as employers are raising wages to attract talent, some are also lowering education standards.
“The labor shortage sweeping across the nation may see some other industries lower their expectations for employees and their college experiences,” Ang said.
Or, DIY Your Education and Your Career
College tuition has never been costlier — likewise for college debt — but on the bright side, it’s also never been easier to craft your own career.
“With the exception of technical, specialized fields, I think the necessity of a 4-year degree is losing its appeal,” said Jake Hill, CEO of the personal finance site DebtHammer. “We live in an age where a discerning person can find information on par with anything they’d learn in a university setting. If you put in the work to learn, you’ll obtain comparable skills and will be similarly prepared for the job market.”
While podcasts, e-books, video tutorials and free courses can help you learn new professional skills, the same free and easily accessible resources can help you grow into a wiser saver, spender and investor — and those lessons will help you achieve financial independence no matter your line of work.
“You can apply this to learning financial skills, too,” Hill said. “Take some time to identify what you have trouble with and then seek out the knowledge to fix it. For example, if you come up short every month, you probably need a crash course in budgeting.”
Have Money Coming in From More Than One Place
The pandemic proved that establishing multiple income streams is one of the best insurance policies against financial disaster.
“Nobody needs a degree to do what they love, especially when you’re making money out of it,” said Jordan Bishop, founder and CEO of personal finance site Yore Oyster. “Having a side hustle that you eventually turn into your main job or your main source of income is one the most popular alternative ways to succeed financially without a degree. And even people with degrees have started to do so as well.”
Some of the most common side hustles are affiliate marketing, freelancing, making a hands-on skill pay with an Etsy store and ride-share or delivery driving — but your options are hardly limited to what everyone else is doing.
“It’s no secret that a significant portion of the planet’s wealthiest class does not have the highest academic qualifications,” said Brad Cummins, owner of Insurance Geek. “A key quality they all share is an open-mindedness that allows them to think outside of the box. Innovation on all levels has the potential to revolutionize any industry.”
No Matter Your Career or Your Education, Remember the Basics
From athletes to lottery winners, there’s no shortage of sad riches-to-rags tales of people whose unfortunate financial decisions caused them to lose it all. But the same thing happens to regular people with regular incomes all the time — only instead of mansions and Ferraris, they lose it to a slow, steady drip of overspending that robs them of their fortune over time.
“Capitalism — that’s what our economic system is called — requires us all to have capital,” said Dmytro Serheeiv, a tax consultant and co-owner of PDF Liner. “It’s physically impossible to build capital if you spend as much or more than you earn. This may require taming and changing your spending habits, which can be painful, but highly effective. Remember that you can stay poor or become wealthy regardless of the amount of money you make yearly. It’s the amount of money spent on your savings, investment, and retirement accounts that counts.”
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Last updated: Sept. 20, 2021