It was not long ago when I thought that spending four years in college and getting a degree was the only “real” way to make a living in this country, and that anyone who found work another way somehow isn’t doing it right, or at the very least, was not as qualified.
But, that was before I realized that my own degree is complete bullshit.
I have a degree in Information Technology and work (worked!) in software development. But honestly, almost anyone could write software without a formal degree. I mean, a trained monkey can write a bunch of code that compiles nicely into a neat little executable program.
One could make an argument that trained monkeys may not be able to write GOOD software, but even that, in my humble opinion as a pretty experienced software developer, is debatable. Software developers are a dime-a-dozen, and you certainly don’t need an Information Technology degree, Computer Science degree or, quite frankly, any degree, to do this job.
Even so, it is tough for many to entertain the idea of pushing aside the degree and instead opting for immediate work options. Virtually every desk or highly scientific job that pays a “decent” salary requires a degree. And then there are reports like this one that claim non-college graduates might miss out on nearly $800,000 in salary over the course of their lifetime.
Are degrees necessary for desk jobs?
Software development is just one example of the jobs that can be done, by the right person, without setting foot in a college classroom. Project managers, system administrators, payroll admins, human resources specialists…hell, give some dude off the street a weekend training course and he or she could quickly turn into a basic accountant.
My intent is not to diminish the skill or intelligence necessary to do those jobs, nor do I intend to criticize those who do them. Rather, this is an indictment of how useful a degree is in performing these jobs, and performing them well.
The prevailing wisdom when organizations require degrees is to find people who are simply willing and able to pursue higher education, sit through classes and score well enough on tests and possess the critical thinking skills necessary to do some of the more complicated or stressful parts of jobs in today’s organizations.
And to some “degree” (convenient pun very much intended), this is legitimate.
Think of what you do for a living. How much do you use the things that you learned in pursuit of your degree in your daily work? How much of your job could be learned simply by DOING and through on-the-job training, something that a lot of us automatically go through each time we take a new job anyway?
Of course, I do realize that education in some specialized cases is important. Anyone who’s working on the next space shuttle should probably have a pretty damn good understanding of chemistry and physics from school. Or the lawyer who is defending you in a court of law, or that doctor who’s supposed to remove that cancerous spot in your lungs. Yes, this is where book smarts, coupled with many, many years of academic and practical training, actually comes in handy.
But let’s be honest – the majority of us, me included, spend 10s of thousands of dollars to get a degree simply because we are supposed to have one. Jobs require them. One of the most basic requirements of almost any semi-mental job is, unfortunately, a college degree.
Much of the time, it doesn’t matter what degree you have…as long as you have one that sorta semi relates to the job. But even this isn’t necessarily a hard and fast requirement.
According to a 2013 CNN report, the average student loan debt was over $29,000, and it is rising. Essentially, student loans are bets on future earnings, and if earnings do not pan out as expected, serious consequences are soon to follow. If student loans are not paid back, instead of repossessing your car or home, wages could be garnished, tax refunds taken or, in some cases, social security checks withheld (source).
If you ask me, the half-assed way our society looks at college degrees only de-values the whole concept of higher education, and it is saddling so many Americans with debt from a very early age as students graduate from academia and enter the working world with thousands of dollars in student loans to pay back.
And why? Because that degree in business or systems administration supposedly makes you “smarter” or a better fit for a particular job? Most of the time, it’s just to satisfy a job requirement.
At one point in my life I believed that sitting in front of a desk and doing a job that requires a college degree was the way to make a living.
But honestly, who is to say that the job that I do is any more important or “worthy” than someone who fixes people’s toilets for a living? The truth of the matter is HOW you earn your living is much less important than how much of those earnings that you save. If you’re able to retire by 40 after spending 15 years fixing toilets (which is certainly possible), I say more power to you.
In fact, you’re a badass if you manage to break through the ignorant and nonsensical stereotype that you need to spend thousands on a degree and get a desk job before you can claim to be “living right”, or putting forth your full potential, or whatever other nonsense that college counselors and recruiters feed young people these days.
The college vs. no college debate puts so many young people between a rock and a hard place. Do you give in to the system and chug forward by dropping thousands of dollars on a college degree just to get your foot in the door at your next employer, or do you refuse to participate in the whole “education charade” and risk lower wages and delayed retirement?
I chose the former, but there are many lines of work that can make the latter choice a more attractive option.
For example, did you know that a dental hygienist earns an average of $68,000 per year? With a reasonable savings plan, early retirement on $68,000 is very achievable.
Web developers can pull down $60 to $70k easily due to the very low barrier to entry and the sheer number of organizations and companies who are looking for help on their web-based projects.
Typically, real estate agents do not need a college degree and, depending on the area and market, can earn an incredible income with the right people and networking skills.
Sticking with real estate, how about a home inspector or appraiser? Most of the time, these jobs require the completion of a simple training course and nothing else. And if you are good at dealing with people’s bullshit, becoming a building manager might be right up your alley.
Further, virtually any manual labor type job will typically not require college degrees. Luckily, “manual labor” doesn’t mean spending sweltering summer days smoothing rock piles in backyards. There are any number of opportunities with better working conditions that can pay at least $50k a year, like carpenters or plumbers, welders or electricians.
The bottom line?
Do not feel obligated to simply go through the motions of getting a college degree to do a desk job for the rest of your life if that’s not where your heart is at. There is no right way to retire early, and nearly anyone with a solid savings plan, regardless of what they do, can achieve financial independence and retire at an early age.
What say you? How important are college degrees in your line of work?
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.