- Going to college is worth it for some, but not all students.
- On average, most college graduates can’t find work in their field of study.
- Due to global talent shortages and a move towards skills-based hiring, fewer jobs list college degrees as a requirement.
With college degrees skyrocketing in price over the last decade and employers increasingly valuing skills over credentials, more and more young people are forgoing college altogether. The poster children for this movement are billionaire entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of college to create some of the world’s largest companies.
But, let’s be real: not everyone who skips college will become a billionaire. On the contrary, people with college degrees still earn, on average, almost twice as much as people with only a high school diploma. So, besides anecdotal success stories, is there any real evidence that not attending college can lead to success?
As it turns out, yes, there is. Many of these benefits, however, are circumstantial, meaning they will only apply to certain people in specific situations. Similar to how a college degree will benefit some people more than others, not going to college also has a different effect on different types of people.
These are the 10 biggest benefits of not going to college:
- No need to take out student loans
- More time to gain work experience
- Increased investment time horizon
- Ability to focus on employability skills
- Self-paced learning opportunities
- Reduced reliance on others
- Easier to switch career trajectories
- Fewer causes of stress and anxiety
- No college roommate horror stories
- No need to deal with frat and partying culture
No need to take out student loans
Not being forced to take out massive student loans is the most obvious benefit of not attending college. However, it’s a benefit that’s so remarkable it has to be mentioned.
Here are some quick stats on student debt in the United States:
- The average student debt, as of 2022, is $28,950.
- For graduate school, the average student debt is $71,000.
- It takes, on average, 20 years to pay off student loan debt.
- 10-20% of student loans are in default right now.
- Student loan debt is nondischargeable in chapter 13 bankruptcy.
These statistics paint a rather bleak picture, but the reality is that, on average, a college degree does increase your earnings power. The average person with a high school diploma earns $712 per week, while the average person with a bachelor’s degree earns $1,173.
Therefore, there is some value in taking on this debt, as long as you earn a college degree that will increase your earnings power and chances of landing a job in that field.
Medical school, dental school, and law school are great examples of student debt that tends to pay off in the end. But, with the average debt being $201,490 for medical school, $292,169 for dental school, and $145,500 for law school, it’s not exactly an investment that everyone can afford to make. There are plenty of careers that don’t require a degree and don’t come with such a high price tag, and some pay better salaries than lawyers or doctors once you enter the senior and managerial roles.
More time to gain work experience
By not going to college, you are effectively entering the workforce four years earlier than the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree. And, if you consider that work experience contributes 40% of your lifetime earnings, it becomes evident that the sooner you enter the job market, the more money you will make.
However, this argument is only valid if:
- You don’t switch between vastly different jobs where work experience in one won’t apply to the next.
- You choose a field with a relatively linear progression where you can move up the career ladder in terms of responsibility and salary.
If, for example, you skip college and spend those four years working as a line cook before switching careers to software development, those four years of work experience will be irrelevant, and this benefit of not going to college will be annulled.
Using that same example, however, if you spend those four years working your way up the career ladder from entry-level positions in a tech company, you’ll reap the benefits of not going to college. Plus, even if you don’t know what job you want for the future, any work experience is usually better than none.
Increased investment time horizon
If you don’t attend college and maintain a job throughout those four years, you’ll have more money to invest if you budget your earnings wisely. And, the earlier you start investing, the more time your money has to grow. In investing, time in the market is the single most important factor for success.
To illustrate, let’s use the S&P 500 historic annualized average return of 11.88% as our benchmark.
- If you were to start investing $6,000 per year ($500 per month) in the S&P 500 at age 25, you’d end up with $3,164,456 by the time you’re 61, the average retirement age.
- If, however, you started investing the same amount at age 30, you’d only have $1,783,554 by the time you reach retirement age.
The power of compounding interest is multiplied by the time you give your investment to grow, and investing as early on as possible is the key to taking advantage of compounding returns. By not going to college and investing those four years’ worth of earnings, you’re effectively giving yourself a massive head start on building wealth.
If you want to run the numbers, use this compound interest calculator from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. See how the numbers change when you use a long time horizon and then add or remove a few years.
Ability to focus on employability skills
One of the largest benefits of not going to college is that you can focus on developing employability skills: the skills employers are looking for in their employees. Often, these skills are never taught in college classes and, as a result, many college graduates are unprepared for the workforce.
In a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), most employers reported that formal education had done little or nothing to address the skills shortage issue. And, the skills shortage issue is big: U.S. talent shortages are already at a 10-year high, and by 2030, the skills gap shortage is expected to have an $8.5 trillion impact on the economy.
If you don’t go to college and focus instead on developing employability skills, you can give yourself a better chance of being prepared for the workforce. The most important employability skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication. And, in more technical fields, data science and data analysis are also commonly sought-after by employers.
Self-paced learning opportunities
If you go to college, your time is planned for you. The moment you enroll in a degree program, you get access to your course schedule, together with all the deadlines, requirements, and expectations. For some students, this can be a positive. But, for others, it can hinder their learning process.
The research around this is also mixed:
- Researchers such as Sykes and Tullis have suggested that study pacing should be student-led, rather than instructor-led for optimal performance.
- Researchers such as Dalby, Kinsbourne, and Swanson, on the other hand, found no benefit to using self-paced learning opportunities.
Whether skipping college and switching over to a self-guided learning system is beneficial to you also depends on your learning style, discipline, and motivation.
If you find that you work better when someone else is setting the pace, you might want to consider going to college. But, if you’re the type who can stay on track and manage time effectively, self-paced learning opportunities outside college might be a better fit.
Ultimately, though, if you don’t like self-paced learning and you prefer instructor-led learning, going to college is still not the only option. There are plenty of online certification programs and courses out there, and, in many cases, these are more affordable and offer more flexible pacing options than traditional colleges.
Reduced reliance on others
Another major benefit of not going to college involves reducing your reliance on others. Being a college student usually involves a lot of relying on others, and this phenomenon is only getting stronger, with college degrees inflating in price faster than ever before.
On one side, being a college student usually means relying on parents and family members. In 2021, about 54% of all college expenses were paid by the student’s parents (compared to just 36% in 2013). This not only puts heavy financial pressure on parents but also prevents students from becoming financially independent. Statistics show that even after students graduate college, half of college graduates still rely on their parents for money.
And, in addition to parents, college students often rely on their institutions and teachers. High school graduates going straight into college don’t magically become independent overnight, and
often, they will go straight from being parent-dependent to university faculty-dependent.
If you choose not to go to college, you’ll develop a sense of independence much earlier. You’ll learn how to handle budgeting, how to plan and manage your time, and how to make decisions without having to rely on others.
Easier to switch career trajectories
Another big advantage of not going to college is that you are not locked into one specific career trajectory. By not spending four years of your life, together with tens of thousands of dollars, on attending college, you leave yourself a lot more room to switch gears if you need or want to.
Even after devoting so much time, money, and effort to earning a college degree, many college graduates tend to move away from their field of study eventually. According to a 2022 survey by Intelligent, more than half of college graduates don’t work in their field of study.
This begs the question: why spend so much effort on getting a college degree if the statistics show that you will likely not even end up using it?
In today’s fast-paced economy, skill-based hiring is becoming increasingly common, and the inflexibility of college degrees is becoming more and more apparent. If you focus on improving your critical thinking and acquiring new skills rapidly when the need arises, you’ll be a much more appealing candidate to prospective employers than most students fresh out of university.
Fewer causes of stress and anxiety
College is stressful. Everybody knows that.
- Adjusting to life away from home;
- maintaining academic achievement;
- adjusting to new social norms;
- figuring out one’s identity.
Combined with the burden of student debt weighing on college students, it’s no wonder that mental health issues are so rampant among many college students.
If you don’t attend college, you can avoid many of these stressors. While working a full-time job has its own set of challenges and pressures, it’s a different kind of stress than what college students experience.
If you’re slowly focusing on your career, improving your job opportunities, and gaining valuable skills, you’re likely to feel a lot less stressed than someone who’s in college and unsure of their future. But, once again, the result here depends on your unique situation. For some people, the 9-5 grind may be more stressful than college life, while for others, it may be the opposite.
No college roommate horror stories
One huge drawback of college is that students who have never met each other are often forced to share a tiny dorm room. This can quickly lead to conflicts and, in some cases, dangerous situations. While some argue that getting along with strangers is one of the life skills that living with a roommate will teach you, I beg to differ.
The typical college graduate will not walk away from a dorm room feeling more sociable, sharing, caring, and empowered. More often than not, they’ll have more than enough stories of bodily fluids, fights, stolen food, and broken relationships. If you don’t go to college, you can avoid all that drama and save yourself a lot of headaches by finding a job in an area suitable for you and renting an apartment by yourself or with friends you know and trust.
No need to deal with frat and partying culture
Many (but not all) colleges in the United States are well-known for their frat cultures and party scenes. There are even university ranking lists that evaluate colleges based on their “party scene“. While some students enjoy the party culture (the existence of such lists proves this), it’s not for everyone.
And, I would argue that the negative aspects of the party culture far outweigh the positives. According to a 2019 report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 33% of college students aged 18-22 engaged in binge drinking, compared to 27.7% of non-students in the same age range. This means that going to college increases your likelihood of binge drinking by 5.3 percentage points.
Combine that statistic with the celebration of toxic masculinity, hazing rituals, and other dangerous behaviors often associated with frat culture, and it’s no wonder many students feel safer avoiding the college experience altogether.
Ultimately, though, the choice of whether college is right for you is a personal one to make. But, if you’re on the fence about whether to attend or not, I hope this article has given you some food for thought.