How Necessary Is That College Degree?

Today’s guest post is from board member John Hollon, Editor at, author of the blog The Skeptical Guy, and adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton.

It’s a question that more and more Millennials (and now some Gen Z-ers) are asking with greater urgency: Do I really need to get a college degree?

Well, the figures are pretty clear: a person with an undergraduate degree earns about $1 million more than a person who simply finished high school over the course of a 40-year career ($2.4 million average earnings vs. $1.4 million average).

It’s been the main reason — and a really good reason — why so many parents have pushed their children to continue their education and get a Bachelor’s degree.

Usually, the numbers don’t lie.

While I wouldn’t dispute the numbers, there may be more evidence building that there are some good, in-demand jobs with decent pay available without having to invest 4-6 years and untold dollars in trudging through college.

For example, a new CareerBuilder survey outlines the best jobs for workers without a college degree. Here are the Top 5 that they listed (ranked on the average number of unique job postings):

  1. Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers — 1,662,847 average monthly unique job postings (and 107,845 average monthly hires with median hourly earnings of $19.26);
  2. First-Line Supervisors of Retail Sales Workers — 276,477 average monthly postings (and 85,445 average monthly hires with median hourly earnings of $17.10);
  3. Food Service Managers — 60,718 average monthly postings (and 20,007 average monthly hires with median hourly earnings of $19.82);
  4. Computer User Support Specialists — 58,569 average monthly postings (and 34,283 average monthly hires with median hourly earnings of $23.81); and,
  5. Insurance Sales Agents — 57,103 average monthly postings (and 17,183 average monthly hires with median hourly earnings of $23.17).

Other jobs/non-college careers listed included Tax Preparers ($19.60 median hourly earnings); Real Estate Sales Agents ($17.92 median hourly earnings); and Social and Human Service Assistants ($15.33 median hourly earnings).

So, what have we learned from this? A few things to keep in mind:

  • These jobs offer a decent rate of pay and standard of living — Unless you live in one of the expensive metro areas on the Coasts (think the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, or LA-Silicon Valley/San Francisco-Seattle).
  • Many of these jobs are not only in high demand but are also hiring a good number of people each month — Working as a truck driver, retail sales supervisor, or food service manager, isn’t necessarily sexy and cool, but these positions are hiring, on average, some 107,845, 85,445, and 20,007 people respectively each month.
  • You don’t need a college degree for any of these jobs — and they all lead to solid careers!

So, yes, if you just go by the statistics, a college degree DOES increase your odds of getting a job and making money. However, a college can also come with some not insignificant baggage: the risk of incurring debt, getting bogged down for years trying to enroll in hard-to-get classes, and the growing issue of encountering bad (and highly partisan) college instructors.

In my own experience teaching college part-time for the last decade, I’ve watched students as they juggle more things — family, work, and long commutes — and then struggle to find decent paying jobs when they graduate here in Southern California.

It kills me to say this, especially since I have both a Bachelors and an MBA, but maybe this CareerBuilder survey is on to something. Yes, perhaps an in-demand job that doesn’t require a college education is the right way to go here in the first quarter of the 21st Century.

I don’t know if I would have written that 10 years ago, but every time I have to pay my plumber, or painter, or electrician, I’m struck by how much they seem to be earning without the benefit of a college degree. And, they all seem to be getting along just fine.

2 thoughts on “How Necessary Is That College Degree?

  1. John, this topic deserves a lot of debate. The big change I can imagine (not the same as a prediction) is that analytics will demonstrate a smart high school grad performs just as well as a smart university grad — and at a much lower cost.

    The main reason university degrees are valuable is that it acts as a filter, not because it makes people more capable. If companies don’t need that filter, then young people don’t need university. (Especially in a world with so much free online learning).

    Finally, as you suggest, there are now a significant number of programs that train people to be social activists. This may be fine if they want to work in an NGO, but it makes them less suitable for corporate work than someone with no education. This is something no one wants to talk about, but I’ve known even managers in Canada’s public service who quietly bury resumes from applicants who have social activist degrees.

    (And of course, being a plumber is great…and if you find one send them to my house)

  2. John,

    Well stated. We often assume that a college degree is the only way to prepare for a well paying job, and yet concrete examples of a different story do exist. And, if a great paying job is the objective of earning the degree (as it nearly always is at the outset of the journey) the subject matter of the degree generally makes a material difference, and many college entrants simply do not fully understand that fact. While it may be statistically accurate to state “most” will earn more over their lifetime with a degree compared to those without a degree, the examples you offer show that it is not always the case, and also let us not forget the story of Bill Gates…Bill Gates is highly unique and a clear exception to the statistics, but still no college degree…

Please share your comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.