What do Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell have in common?
They’re all incredibly successful, and all three dropped out of college.
In an era where the cost of higher education at a four-year university is higher than ever, some are questioning whether a college degree really gets you anywhere at all — especially if it means graduating with significant debt.
These examples prove it is possible to succeed without a college degree. However, dropouts do range from multibillionaires like these to the unemployed.
Reasons for dropping out include financial obligations, the inability to handle the academic workload and the competing demands of social life, according to the 2011 “Pathways to Prosperity” study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Some who make an early exit find success in areas such as technology – like Zuckerberg or Gates. Others constantly hunt for a job – any job.
Whitney, an Austin resident, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has struggled to find employment since leaving Howard Payne University in 2011. She had not yet determined her major when she left college due to difficulty with the academic workload.
“I thought college would lead me to something I would have liked to do as a career, and it didn’t,” Whitney said. “I think a degree helps a lot, but plenty of people without degrees make a great living and have great lives and jobs.”
Whitney has held six different jobs since 2011 and said she struggles to find jobs that pay more than minimum wage.
“Sometimes it’s really hard, and I just want to give up,” Whitney said.
She is now employed at Jimmy Johns and said she hopes to stay there for a longer term than her previous jobs. Whitney said she isn’t sure where life will take her in the future without a degree to fall back on.
“Make sure you have a backup plan and are able to find a job to support yourself while you are deciding what to do with your life,” Whitney said.
Rising tuition rates play a role. According to data analysis done by Education Sector, of the college students surveyed who took out loans, about 30 percent dropped out of school. The yearly increasing cost of tuition is making it harder for people to afford a four-year college degree.
Other people have a hard time justifying the cost of college and waiting four years until they start a career, versus skipping college to start earning money immediately in a career field. But money is not the only consideration for dropping out. A degree alone no longer guarantees a job.
A 2011 Pew Research Center report, “Is College Worth it?” was conducted to collect the opinions of the general public on the cost, value and monetary payoff of attending college. They concluded that “for many young adults, the ultimate bottom line is whether a degree or credential they earn will help them secure a job.”
There are other alternatives to gaining skills needed in the workforce: receiving technical training or gaining skills from trade schools are two options.
According to the 2011 report, non-college graduates are more focused on preparing for a career, while those who graduate from college are more focused on gaining knowledge.
For example, Florida resident Gary Power is currently working to develop a program that can help people for whom college may not be an option, gain skills in information technology (IT) in order to increase their chances of getting a job.
“I think that I can teach non-degree people to learn the skills that I received with a degree,” Power said.
Power received a bachelor’s of Science and Administration degree at Stonehill College in 1987 and a master’s degree in business from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1992. Power said he thinks his own degree has hardly any value.
“I had to learn everything on the job,” Power said. In addition to on-the-job training, Power also gained useful skills while attending technical school after serving in the military.
“That’s where I got all the information I needed for IT,” Power said.
Power wants to provide a real-world experience for young people interested in IT by training them on the same systems they will actually use at their place of employment.
Despite his feelings about the value of earning a degree, Power still believes going to college is important. He said by attending college, one would learn to become disciplined and think critically.
Others have found their true passion after dropping out of four-year colleges and plan to pursue their dreams by attending alternate schools.
Another Austin resident, who didn’t want his name mentioned due to the sensitivity of this issue, left the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 2009 in order to join the Marine Corps. He said he didn’t enjoy his major at UMKC and thought joining the Marine Corps would be a “great lifestyle change” for him.
Although satisfied with his decision to leave college before completing his degree, he believes that “earning a degree is a key point to being successful in the working world and living a well- lived life.” He is currently pursuing his passion for cooking at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary trade school.
Arkansas resident Hilary Cranford, who left the University of Arkansas in 2011, took time off to teach at a preschool and found her passion for professional photography.
“I want to go back for art with a concentration in photography because I love it, and I am passionate about it,” Cranford said.
When asked if she had any advice for students thinking about leaving school, Cranford offered these words: “Don’t drop out just because you don’t like working hard and going to class. Find what you are passionate about and pursue that,” Cranford said. “Have a plan, and stick to it. But do what you love.”