Yes, I’m a college dropout. In fact, I’ve written about this twice: How Quitting College Opened Up My Future and Succeeding as a Programmer Without a College Degree.
I’m not “proud” of not getting a college degree. And it isn’t something I would recommend most people pursue (or not pursue).
But the critical side of my mind has wondered how things would have changed if I did get a college degree. I have the sneaking suspicion that my experience and path are pretty unique, and specific to web development. I think most people are at a disadvantage not going to college.
Let’s dissect what I missed by not going to college.
Making Friends and Connections in College
There is a part of me that regrets missing out on some of the awesome friendships people make during college. Some people even say their best life-long friends came from getting a higher education. They talk about how much fun they had, and they miss the good ol’ days.
Missing out on the social connections going to college does make me wonder if the whole experience would have been worth it for this reason alone.
Making friends as an adult is hard. And every person I connect with on a personal level is valuable.
Even outside of the friends you make at college, not getting a college degree could mean you miss out on making valuable connections that you tap into later in life. This could include job or business opportunities. Or maybe they have a relationship with someone who could help you get in the door at another company. Referrals can be incredibly valuable. Or maybe you end up moving to a new town where a former college acquaintance lives.
More High Level and General Knowledge
Coming from the programming world, there is a part of me that thinks the “learn by just doing” misses out on some core concepts that would be much easier to learn in the classroom.
An example of this is when object-oriented programming was introduced in PHP 5. At that point, I didn’t have much experience with this type of programming, so I had to learn the underlying concepts on my own. And it took several years to get into this code for things to start clicking.
Sure, there are going to be some things you learn in college that have little real-world application in your career. But being in an environment that focuses on learning, as opposed to making a profit, has some advantages.
For example, getting a lower grade on a test is much easier to work through than bombing on a client project. The consequences are less severe, and it probably is going to be less stressful.
There is also the idea that there are some concepts you can’t learn outside of someone directly teaching you. Unless someone points out a knowledge discrepancy or you notice an area that you need to learn, you won’t know what you don’t know.
I still think experience is ultimately more important than a college degree over the long-term, but there is no reason you can’t pursue both at the same time. If I went to college with the goal to be a web developer, I could have easily pursued getting real-world experience while going to college.
In my opinion, getting experience and going to college offers the best of both worlds.
You increase your chances of landing a full-time job that pays more right after college, and you give yourself some time to narrow down exactly what you want to do.
Higher Level Jobs + More Money with Higher Education
There is no doubt that some jobs need a college degree to do well. In the programming world, this often means enterprise level programming.
Sometimes this idea is warranted. There are just some things that a DIY approach isn’t going to allow you to master. Having a degree at least shows a level of competence in your field.
I would also guess that starting salaries with a college degree are much higher than where you would start without one. In some cases, they could even be a factor of many multiples. According to this article, the average salary for someone with only a high school diploma is about $35,000/year. But someone with a bachelors degree gets $59,000/year.
College graduates earn an average of about 40% more money right after school, compared to high school graduates.
Looking at my own experience, my first full-time job as a web developer I made $8/hour. As my experience grew, my income went up. I’m relatively confident that if I got a college degree, I would have been able to make more money right away. With that said, I wonder how incomes would compare after four years of experience (the time it takes to get a degree) vs. what someone would make right after college.
Possibility in Leadership Roles at Large Companies
Some companies only promote people who look good on paper. Not having a college degree does not look great on paper, especially in leadership roles.
In other words, I have a little hope in becoming the CEO of a major company. In fact, how high I could get promoted at a Fortune 500 company is probably limited. Stockholders need to feel good about the people in charge, and not having a college degree can make a person look lazy or uneducated.
My running to be the next CEO of Apple is out the window without a college degree.
If your goal is to get promoted as high as possible, getting a college degree is a must.
The flip side to this argument is that having a college degree might get you in the door, but few companies are going to keep you around just because you have a degree. You still need to work hard, prove your value, and master your skill if you want to be successful.
Now with all of this considered, does this mean you cannot get promoted at any company without a college degree? Probably not. If you become a master at your craft and can learn how to manage people effectively, you could end up getting promoted to upper management. This is what happened in my case, and I don’t think a degree would have helped my chances in getting promoted faster with where I worked.
But I still think I would have more opportunities at larger companies with a college degree.
Having a College Degree Improves Your Resume
We could argue that some professions might not hold as high of a value on having a college degree, but in any case, it most likely will not hurt your resume.
Some jobs will not even consider you a possible candidate without a college degree. Some will also mention that you need a college degree to apply for that position.
If/when we enter another recession, and the candidate pool increases, having a college degree might give you an edge over other candidates. Even if you have a degree that isn’t directly related to the field you are working, you still might have an easier time finding a new job.
I still think that depending solely on your resume to carry you through tough times, and not your valuable experience, work ethic, and skill is a mistake. But when you need to put food on the table, this edge could prevent difficult times.
Most People Don’t Regret Going to College
According to this article, nearly 9 out of 10 college graduates state that getting (or will get) their college degree was worth it.
From a general level, it seems that college graduates are usually happier with their jobs, have better benefits, and get paid more than people who only have a high school diploma. College graduates are also less likely to be unemployed.
What is interesting is the gap between how much non-graduates make vs. graduates appears to be increasing. Even though college is becoming more expensive, the cost and risk of not going are growing at a faster rate.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the majority of people don’t regret going to college. For all the flaws of our current higher education system, it still is meeting a purpose and adding value.
Do I regret not going to college?
Yes and no. My main regret not going to college was experiencing college life and making social connections. But I am not sure if I would be at a stronger financial spot if I did go to college.
If I were to do it over again, I would probably go to an out of state college (experience life out of Montana). I’m going to recommend my kids go to college, but make sure they try to figure out what they would enjoy doing and get a college degree that will benefit their careers.
In other words, I do not want my kids to go for the sole reason in getting a degree. I want them to think long and hard about what they want to get out of higher education and be as prepared as possible.
With that said, I don’t give much thought about what I missed not going to college. Overthinking about these things can lead to feeling inadequate and depressed. The best we can do is figuring out how we can work towards the future we want, and utilize where we are at right now.
Did I miss any benefits of going to college?
Chris is a financial blogger who loves to be transparent about money-related issues. He’s paid off massive amounts of credit card debt and is the blog author of Money Stir. His main focus on Money Stir is talking about how money relates to our relationships, personal development, and how to plan for the future we want. He’s been quoted on Market Watch, The Ladders, and other publications.