Do I Need a College Degree?

self-reflection Feb 19, 2021

“Where do you want to go to college?”

If you’re hearing this question a lot these days, you’re not alone. It’s common to assume students will graduate high school and move right on to a four-year college or university. But the rising cost of higher education and demand for “hard-skill” jobs is prompting today’s students to ask a different type of question:

“Do I need to go to college?”

To any high school students wondering whether four more years of school is the right choice…we say good for you! Too often students operate on autopilot, plodding through high school and advancing to college without reflecting upon what they hope to get out of the experience. When it comes to college, the “everyone else is doing it” mentality can easily take over, preventing you from following a path that’s right for YOU.  

Keep in mind, whether you need to go to college is a different question to ask yourself than whether you should go. Some professions require that degree, while in others, the degree is just preferred—or not required at all. And college is about more than sitting in lecture halls and taking exams. Those four years spent on campus may not be a necessity, but you may decide that time is something you should take advantage of.

Here are some key questions to consider:

Will following your passion require training in a highly specialized field?

Some jobs require a college degree because they call for an intense amount of knowledge in highly specialized fields. If you’ve got a zeal for medicine or the law, for example, you’ll be heading to four years of college and then some. Examples of jobs in which you will need a minimum of a four-year undergraduate degree in a specific field of study include:

  • Architect
  • Physician
  • Lawyer
  • Engineer
  • Psychologist
  • Biologist
  • Accountant 
  • Teacher

How important is it for you to work for a certain type of company?

If you’ve always dreamt of working as a computer programmer for IBM, an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin, or a CPA at Ernst & Young, you will need a four-year degree. Large, “blue-chip” firms will nearly always require applicants to have a college degree before looking further at your resume. On the other hand, smaller high-tech firms, start-up businesses, and even companies like Google, Netflix, Apple, and Tesla are often willing to hire without college degrees—these companies are more likely to value your killer coding skills over a B.S. in Computer Science. 

If where you work is a top priority to you, do your research. Find out if the company requires specific job positions to be filled with college graduates. If they don’t, learn more about the roles available to those without a degree.   

What are some jobs that don’t require a college degree?

Plenty of students have passions and skills that translate into rewarding jobs that don’t require a college education. Jobs that call for certain “hard skills,” such as cloud computing, blockchain, artificial intelligence, product management, video production, database management, and JavaScript—but not necessarily a four-year degree—are most commonly in the information technology, service, healthcare, and manufacturing industries. 

Examples of “new-collar” jobs — those that require certain hard skills but not necessarily a four-year degree — in high demand include: 

  • Computer Security Analyst
  • Database Manager
  • Computer Programmer
  • Network and Computer Systems Administrator
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  • Radiologic Technician
  • Service Delivery Analyst
  • Computer Support Specialist

Non-tech-related jobs that don’t require a degree include virtual assistants, pharmacy technicians, online advertising positions, and social media roles. 

How important is the “college experience” to you?

Going to college is a time of intense personal development, a four-year “pass” to explore new pathways without the responsibilities you’ll face once entering the workforce. If you choose to live on a college campus, you’ll move away from home for the first time, experience dorm life, make friends from outside of your hometown, collaborate in dynamic group environments, gain independence, and build a network to leverage later in life. College also provides an opportunity to develop important “soft skills” — the interpersonal attributes and non-technical skills that help you succeed in the workplace. Examples include: leadership, teamwork, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, and communication. 

How concerned are you about student debt?

The cost of embarking on a four-year higher education is no joke. College costs continue to rise, with an average student loan debt in 2020 of $37,500. If you’ll need to take on student loans to attend college, you’re smart to scrutinize the potential return on your investment. A Pew Research study showed millennials with at least a bachelor’s degree and a full-time job had an average annual salary of $56,000 in 2018, while those with only some or no college education reported making $36,000 annually. Will the degree you eventually earn allow you to secure a job you love and can excel in while paying you the right amount of money?  

Will earning a college degree help me get hired?

Possibly. According to a recent Harvard Business School study, employers believe job candidates with a college degree possess more “hard” and “soft” skills than non-degreed candidates. But here’s a catch—employers also said the college degree didn’t guarantee the candidate would be any better at the job than someone without a degree. Possessing that piece of paper is often still just expected. 

Now what?

Before you take the next big leap, practice self-reflection by asking yourself these important questions about whether college is the right next step in your career path. Doing so can help lead you to a satisfying career and positively impact your day-to-day happiness, quality of life, and emotional well-being. 

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