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Do I need a college degree to achieve my dreams?

Do I need a college degree to achieve my dreams?

For decades, the pendulum has swung back and forth between “expert” advice that everyone needs a college degree to succeed and the notion that trade school and/or on-the-job training are the only way to go. It’s pretty easy to poke holes in both of these extremes. If everyone aspired to become a corporate CEO, who would fix your air conditioning? On the other hand, if everyone pursued a trade, who would perform open heart surgery? As for on-the-job training, it’s vital. But you certainly wouldn’t want your doctor to get his training by experimenting on you!

The truth is that the same educational path is not right for everyone. While parents might push their children to go to college because that is what they did to get ahead, those looking to find their career niche should consider a wide range of factors when deciding on the best method for achieving their career goals.

Is a College Degree Right for Me?

A 2021 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) revealed that adults with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million during their careers, which is $1.2 million more than the median for workers with only a high school diploma. However, the report also showed that career earnings depend on other factors, as well, such as age, field of study, occupation, gender, race/ethnicity, and location.

While everyone has heard of wildly successful people that didn’t get a college degree – people like Steve Jobs and Ellen DeGeneres - not everyone is wired the same or has the same opportunities for achieving that kind of success on their own. So, here are a few things to research and think about when deciding if college is the right path for you. Exploring these factors will help you determine if you need higher education or if the career you want can be achieved through other means.

  • Debt – College debt is much in the news these days because the debt incurred for a bachelor’s, master’s and/or doctorate degree can cause financial hardship for borrowers. So, it is important to consider up front if the personal and career benefits of the job you are thinking of pursuing will outweigh the cost; how quickly you can pay back any student loans you must take out; and how much more you will realistically make because of your degree.
  • Interests/Passions – A lucky few know from a young age exactly what they want to be when they grow up. For most, however, it’s a bit of trial and error. Before you commit to a path you’re considering, take the time to assess where your natural inclinations lie, what you are good at, and what lights you up when you talk about it. There are myriad personality, skills, values, and interest tests that you can take to help steer you in the right direction. You can also ask those who know you best to identify what traits they see in you and then research what types of jobs utilize those traits.
  • Job Exploration – If you are considering a career but want to get an idea of what it entails, you should first do as much research as you can to determine what the day-to-day job involves. Beyond that, you can get some personal exposure to the job by tapping someone in the industry and asking if you can shadow them for a day or two. Or simply conduct an interview – many are happy to talk about themselves and what they do. Another option is volunteering with a relevant organization or business in some capacity. Finally, if you don’t want to spend the money but want to gain some insight into what kind of training you will need, you can audit courses without enrolling.
  • Job Qualifications – It’s common to be interested in a particular career, only to find out that the preparation to enter that profession is more than you bargained for. A good place to explore job qualifications/requirements is through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which allows you to search for careers to learn general job duties, level/type of education required, and potential salaries.
  • Timing – What’s NOT true is that you have to go to college right out of high school. In fact, if you are unsure of what you want to do, waiting can be a good idea. You can gain some general experience, learn what type of work you do an do not like, and save some money. And if you know what industry you want to enter, getting some lower-level experience will give you a leg up when you add a degree to your toolbox. Working while you go to college and earning your degree in an accelerated online format like that at Ottawa University can spread out the work and the cost, making earning a bachelor’s degree much more doable – and applicable. Who says you can’t earn a college degree when you’re over a certain age? 

Don’t Forget the Middle Ground

As has been alluded to, the college decision doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There is a lot of middle ground that you can explore when navigating the career maze.  Some alternative paths can include:

  • Earning an Associate Degree – If four years of college seems overwhelming or isn’t financially doable, there are many jobs that can be pursued with a two-year associate degree. Credits completed through an associate degree can, in most cases, be applied toward a bachelor’s degree later.
  • Completing an Internship or Apprenticeship – Myriad job types offer internships that allow you to gain entry-level training and skills in a field. Some internships are paid, others are not; some are broad, others are specific. But they can be invaluable in gaining some experience and first-hand knowledge of an industry. Apprenticeships are similar, though they are almost always paid roles and are typically targeted towards specific positions in an industry, such as a masonry or plumbing, for which you may have to complete prior training. According to, however, 93% of apprentices in the U.S. retain their employment upon completion of their program.
  • Self-learning with MOOCs – Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are online courses that anyone can take at their convenience – usually free of charge. MOOCs are offered by universities and other educational institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institute, with unlimited participation via the Web. They are used to learn outside of a standard classroom setting and without enrolling in a full educational program. You can learn new skills on countless topics for career development or transition, supplemental learning, interests/hobbies, or required job training. Of course, there are also thousands of educational videos offered on such platforms as YouTube, as long as you ensure that the source of the information is credible.
  • Enrolling in a Bootcamp - Bootcamps can be described as learning marathons on specific topics, usually related to technology, but they can be offered for other skills, as well, such as sales. These bootcamps generally last anywhere from 4-8 weeks and allow participants to learn and practice targeted skills, as well as solve real-world problems and/or complete real-world projects. Bootcamp graduates usually earn a certificate demonstrating mastery of the skill and may receive assistance with job placement.
  • Earning Professional Certificates/Licenses - Professional organizations award certifications to verify that you have specific knowledge or skills needed to do a job. Typically, you earn a credential after you’ve completed a 4-6 month course of education and passed an exam. Many certification programs also require experience through an internship, residency or time on the job. Certifications can be added to expand your existing career knowledge or can be earned as stand-alone training. Another option is to pursue licensing for a job that doesn’t require a degree – such as a real-estate license – which requires taking a pre-licensing course and passing an exam. 
  • Getting On-the-Job Training – There are still companies out there that will take a chance on you if you show the aptitude for a job that you haven’t been trained for. In fact, some prefer to train you themselves because they want you to learn a certain way. If you’re interested in a specific industry, explore companies who might be willing to hire you and teach you a skill or pay for your training.
  • Completing a Trade School – This is an incredibly viable option in today’s job market, as there is a shortage of skilled tradesmen across the country. Most technical or vocational programs take anywhere from 12-24 months to complete and cost an average of $3,770 (2020-21). There are trade schools for carpentry, cosmetology, CDL truck drivers, electrical, HVAC, welding, aircraft maintenance, plumbing, auto mechanics, computer information systems, and more. 
  • The Military – Serving our country by enlisting in one of the military branches – Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard- is not only an honorable calling, but it is also a great way to gain marketable skills. Even becoming a Reservist will provide valuable training and earn payment for college, should you desire to pursue a degree.
  • Jobs That Pay for College – Want to go to college but don’t want the expense? Many companies will pay for your education, usually one course at a time. So, if you are playing the long game, you can achieve your career goals by taking advantage of this great perk.

Some Careers Will ALWAYS Require a Degree

While there are many options for jobs that don’t require a college degree, , there will always be jobs that you simply can’t get without the required college education – whether at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate level. Ottawa University offers a wide variety of degree programs at various levels, and our experienced admissions counselors can help determine the best path for you based on your career aspirations and background.  

Enhance Your Career Opportunities with a Degree

Truth be told, you may be in a role with an organization that you enjoy, and a college degree isn’t required to stay there. But are there opportunities for advancement and greater responsibility within the company that would be attainable with a college education? Are you itching for a change? Whether you are just starting your career or have been in the work force for a while, it may be time to finally pursue a degree that will open up new doors, better pay, and higher job satisfaction. Contact us today to explore the possibilities!


Posted: 08/08/2023
Updated: 08/08/2023 by OU Online
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