How to Achieve Success Without a College Degree

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Achieving a goal you have set for yourself is success. Examples might be earning a good living, having a really enjoyable job, having no debt, living where you want to, getting married, having a family, adding value to people’s lives, being in a position to help others and to change the world. For several decades we have been told that to achieve these successes and to make something of ourselves in this world required a college degree. It’s simply not true. For most people, you can achieve your goals and succeed without a college degree.

For high school students

We need to start teaching kids real job skills that they can use to earn a living. We do a lot of talking about kids having the freedom to make their own choices, but then we put them into a sort of educational maze that only has one exit. They become trapped with no skills, no job and everyone telling them to head off to college. There’s no excuse for a high school graduate in 2017 to have zero job ready skills. It’s also unacceptable for these graduates to have never worked a day in their life by the time they leave high school. Are we attempting to prepare kids for a life of work by not having them work? Are we attempting to prepare kids for skilled jobs by not encouraging them to explore and learn any of these skills? The traditional educational system is going to have to change or it’s going to collapse. 

It’s never too late to change careers or learn a trade or new skills

If you don’t have a job, or you’re unhappy with your job, dropped out of college with an incomplete skill set or you got a degree in a field you have no interest in working in, don’t stress it. You are living in one of the greatest moments in the history of the world. You can literally learn anything you would like quickly, for very little money or even for free. And you don’t need anyone’s permission. You are free to learn skills and add value to businesses or other people’s lives however you want. So be encouraged and read on!

Students need exposure to as many career options as early as possible

One of my favorite movies is October Sky. It’s the story of Homer Hickam who was raised in a coal town in West Virginia. He was being pressured into becoming a coal miner from his dad, classmates, school administrators and people in his town. But the movie shows what happens when Homer was exposed to the space program which kindled a fire in him to build rockets. Everyone thought he was crazy except his math and science teacher, Freida Joy Riley. Against even the school principal’s advice, she helped expose Homer to resources where he could learn how to build rockets.  I won’t ruin the rest of it, but it’s a powerful true story and I encourage you to check it out. Even though Homer ended up going to college and got a BS in industrial engineering, (a great reason to go college) my point was that it all came about because of the exposure to the field and encouragement he received to pursue it.

I remember in grade school being told that I could do anything. I really believed it. But then I was told to get in line and join the slow 12-year march to college. There was no more dreaming, there was no exposure to the hundreds, even thousands of career choices that are available to pursue. Just prepare yourself for college I was told!

Kids are far more capable of finding their interests early in life than we give them credit for. This notion that they shouldn’t be exploring specific career paths or trades until late in high school or into college is foolishness. We say that every kid is different. We encourage them to explore different books, authors, colors, who they become friends with, what sports to play, music to listen to but not what type of work they would like to do.

People need encouragement

Where a person is at in their learning journey makes no difference. Everyone need encouragement as they navigate down the road of learning. This is especially the case when someone set’s out to learn a field of study or trade where they have no connections. When I was learning the appliance repair trade and business, I longed more than anything to be able to talk to someone else in the business and ask simple questions. But there was this weird protective vibe, almost like many of those in the business didn’t want to let me in on the secret of how lucrative the trade could be. So I learned on YouTube, various online forums and by trial and error, and it was such a lonely road without a mentor, teacher or community.

So what do you think it’s like for the millions of students out there when they are considering what field to go into or where they should learn? Nobody wants to be alone during such an important time. If you are a teacher, parent or mentor, be the one that encourages students that they can succeed outside of institutional paths.

I’m not against teachers

I’m not against teachers. My mother was an elementary school teacher, my sister and brotherinlaw are teachers and I have relatives and many friends that are teachers. I love teachers, I just don’t love what is being taught. It grieves me that kids aren’t encouraged to find their unique passions and interests in real life jobs and occupations until their 20’s.  Students are unique, and will all end up in different occupations. Yet they are being told there is only one path that to leads to all occupations. It’s not true, and real lives are undergoing real consequences that can last for decades because of this herding of all students towards college.

Elementary, middle and high school teachers don’t get paid a lot of money, especially for the work they do and things they have to put up with. To top it off, schools are getting their funding cut all over the place, I believe because the education that is being given isn’t translating into real world results. So people pull their kids into private schools, charter schools or home school environments.

Additionally, could it be that because college is viewed as the place where students really learn how to make a living, they are the ones getting all the money?  Colleges and universities are getting 2-3x the amount of money per student as public, middle and high school students. I think that’s crazy. Middle and high school teachers are more than capable of helping their students learn job-ready skills, especially assisted by the online learning revolution that is taking place. Do this and you change the system, and possibly rescue it from collapse. Do this and you will make a life-changing impact to countless students. Just think of Freida Joy Riley and how she treated Homer as an individual and encouraged him to pursue his passion.

One more thing, please help crush the vocational snobbery that looks down on people that make and repair things, or have what is considered a dirty job. I grew up in the still non-politically correct years and had teachers making fun of plumbers and garbage truck drivers. It’s not a coincidence that we now have a massive shortage of workers for trade jobs like these. It’s also ironic that these trade jobs now make more money than many teachers with masters degrees. The shaming our culture took part in was very effective.

I’m not anti-college, but pro-student

Ryan Carson, Treehouse CEO says it very well. I’m not anti-college, I’m just pro-student.”

There is a need for college when it clearly serves the student for their particular career path, and when everything for that student is taken into account. My Dad was a dentist, and I have a lot of friends in highly specialized and regulated fields. I get it.  But giving up 4-8 years of a one’s life, moving across the country and starting over and taking on enormous amounts of non-dischargeable debt is not what’s best for every student. Also, hyper-focusing on college graduates earning more than non-college graduates is not helpful. It’s saying that if you don’t go to college, you are going to end up poor. That’s not true. If you aren’t willing to keep learning and work hard you will most likely end up poor. Education in a high demand field is the key to earning a lot of money, not the location of where the education was received.

Students, take your education into your own hands.

First, a message to those in difficult living situations. If you are in a situation where you need to help provide for your family because a parent left, or died, or a family member is sick, or your mother has to work too many hours or too many jobs, our educational system is not much help for you. It’s up to you to learn indemand skills or a trade, but you can do it! Spend some time thinking about what you are really interested in. Then, seek out someone in the field that you would like to get into to learn from and be encouraged by. Almost all online learning environments like Treehouse, Khan Academy, Tradeskills.io have built-in support structures where students can ask questions, share ideas and encourage one another. This will only increase. 

There are many people working tirelessly to change our educational system and the existing mindset that simply does not serve most students. But it’s going to take a while to turn the ship around, so I want to encourage you to take your education into your own hands. Educate yourself, set higher standards, higher goals for yourself years before others expect you to reach them!

Embrace online education

If you haven’t checked it out, go check out Khan Academy and get a glimpse of the resources available to elementary, middle and high school students. It’s really amazing. These people are working hard to create better, more accessible and more affordable resources available to everyone regardless of geographic location and career path. For example, for someone that is interested in learning web development or coding, Treehouse has 28 different tracks for students to choose from. I’ve started ApplianceSchool (now Tradeskills.io) and so far have trained over 600 students the basics of appliance repair and have helped several dozen people start their own business, all over the internet. Structured resources and online schools are only going to increase. In the meantime, there are training materials on websites and videos on YouTube for every job and career you could ever imagine.

Why am I so confident that success can be achieved without a college education?

  1. Because it’s been my whole life experience. I spent a total of 2 years in college and the main thing I came away with was my wife and achieving my dream of playing college soccer and basketball. It cost me about $20k though, and I ended up with zero skills to help me get a job or earn a living and no degree.  But I didn’t give up. I learned basic carpentry and provided for my family for several years. Then, with the encouragement and accountability of a couple of friends, I learned how to start and run a business on Craigslist, literally earning my living just buying and selling things on Craigslist. That eventually led to the used appliance trade, and I learned that by watching YouTube videos and reading online forums. Over the next few years, we paid off all our debt, bought a house, had more kids, started traveling to Hawaii to visit friends and eventually moved back out to Hawaii. We’ve reached many goals, and now we are free to work towards achieving m more.
  1. I’ve seen countless others achieve success without a college education. Easy examples would be my own ApplianceSchool students. Most make at least $30-40k their first year, with making more and one even reaching $78k for their first year. This same student just hit 180k profit for their second year. His education price? A few hundred bucks! This happens all the time with people that have learned high demand trades.
  • I have other friends that are self-taught in various tech-related fields that make very good livings, with some making over six figures. And we are just getting started. The era of the self and online taught coders is just beginning, but there are already tons of success stories. 
  • Then there are apprenticeships that have been around since the beginning of time. There are a lot of trades that you can learn on your own to a certain point, but to get certain certifications and licenses you need to go through an apprenticeship. And they very effective and provide people excellent training and very good jobs at their conclusion. There is a big push right now to create 5 million apprenticeships which Nicholas Wyman writes about in his most recent article. 
  1.  It’s been my experience with my own children. My oldest son took an interest to learning how to fix washers and dryers from watching me over these past years. So when he was 9 he partially took over the operation out here in Hawaii. He’s knowledgeable enough to work for almost any used appliance shop in the country, or run his own business, or get work as a repair tech. He’s going to continue just fixing them on the side to earn spending money and money for his other trade he’s learning, coding. He’s spent hundreds of hours learning to code starting with javascript and now PHP. He’s already made some impressive games in javascript when he was just 10. Now he’s cranking through the PHP track on Treehouse.  He’s just finishing up work on his first paid website project for a business out here in Hawaii. He’s only 11 years old and absolutely loves learning and doing the work. Where’s my son going to be at in a few years? At this point, he will graduate high school knowing at least two high demand trades. Update: now focusing mostly on programming 🙂 Check out this blog post. 
It’s time to stop looking down on those that want to learn a trade, work with their hands or repair things. We need to be open-minded about new teaching methods like online learning, and it’s time to stop looking down on those that do not go to college. That would be a great start, but it’s not enough. We need to go further and actively encourage every individual along their education journey, no matter what it looks like. We need to support and encourage teachers that are working tirelessly seeking what’s best for students, as well as those that are creating the next generation of educational resources. I’m super optimistic about the future of education, and I think you should be too. 
 
So what do you think? How did you learn your occupation or trade? Did you go down a unique learning path? Anyone starting over or learning a new trade or career? I’d love to hear your stories!

22 COMMENTS

  1. Totally true! I look around at the younger generations – getting degrees in what I call ‘feel good’ fields in which they will likely never find work – and wonder what they will do when no one in their age group knows how to fix a leaky pipe, repair a car, etc. I was stunned when a younger (20’s) family member was asked to go grab a hoe and came back with a rake – had no clue what a hoe was . . . Even if your calling is working in a field that needs/requires a college degree, everyone needs at least general knowledge of how to solve ordinary, everyday problems that crop up like leaky pipes . . .

    • Totally agree! It might not seem like much, but when you teach young people how to use tools, it empowers them and gives them confidence. I think this confidence is like the foundation of learning because once you have it, you rightly feel like you can take on any problem. It’s better to assume that we can play a big role in overcoming life’s problems rather than always needing someone else to solve them!

      Thanks for sharing Kelly!

  2. Ryan, I’m right there with you. I’m an older guy and now see that you need an education, just not necessarily a college education. Mike Rowe (Dirty jobs host) is a big proponent of this. Having people go to trade schools or other schools that teach a skill.

    • Mike Rowe has done our country such a service by opening people’s eyes up to the demand for skilled jobs everywhere. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  3. Trying to talk my nephews into spending time on Khan is similar to talking them into going to the dentist for fun. It’s hard to teach the love to learn.

    Your boy is going to be set!

    • Does your nephew attend public school? Another thing I didn’t mention about typical school structure is that the poor students are away from home, family etc for most of the day, and the last thing they want to do is more school work when they come home. I don’t blame them either. And I just wonder how much that affects them long term as far as their desire to learn on their own and where they associate that the learning process should take place? Just some thoughts.

      Thanks for sharing Tom!

  4. I used to be a teacher in a school where 60-70%% of the students were living in low-income households, and college was a pipe dream for most of them. Even in this scenario, there was only one path preached to the kids: college, college, college.

    One problem is that the people teaching our kids (teachers), nearly all went to college themselves. They simply aren’t aware of another path.

    That, and you hit the nail on the head with the culture shaming of trades and non-college degree required jobs.

    I make 5x more now running a business that I learned with free information from the internet, than when I was teaching. Anyone can learn how to do anything, but the school system still acts as if the internet doesn’t exist.

    • Thanks for sharing Aaron! It’s awesome to have a teachers perspective. Your last sentence is so, so true. They celebrate this new world of information, but it’s almost like they don’t want it to disrupt how people learn their jobs or trades.

  5. I live Konaside and am an apprentice house painter. I really like it, its hard and dirty, but I am an artist and its going to make me a better artist and teach me some common sense haha. Its an unusual job for a woman but its improving my fitness quickly!

  6. Ryan-you have been so inspiring to me. I am trying to figure out how to make appliance school work for me being a 54 yr old 5′ women but you give me hope of breaking free of my 8pm -4 am grind.

  7. Many times I look back and wonder what would have happened if I had quit college like I wanted. I was 3 years in and had simply had enough. I felt like a degree wouldn’t really do anything for me; during school I was even buying/selling mountain bikes (and later motorcycles) via Craigslist. My parents convinced me I was almost done and it would be worth it in the future. 2 years later I was fortunate to graduate completely debt-free with a nice savings, and I have a job I’ve been in for a few years but I’ve never once used my degree (business management w/ marketing). The real experience I gained during that time was Craigslisting stuff and following ReCraigslist. Specific aspects of running a business, especially online, are things I never learned in any institution!

    An old coworker of mine comes to mind because he never went to college. He worked odd jobs out of high school, and then decided to found his own construction/roofing company with the knowledge he gained from those jobs. I keep up with him from time to time, and his company keeps growing… He makes more money now than most people I know!

  8. Ryan,

    Great article, I’m 24 and a college dropout for the reasons you talked about. I heard about your work on Side Hustle Nation and am currently in the process of trying to start my own side hustle, because a day job keeps my head above water and isn’t satisfying. I would love to start my own business but have never been exposed to technical skills, and money is tight. Do you believe that your appliance school skill set is attainable to someone who has rarely put a machine together? I’ve heard with this kind of maintenance work you either have it or you don’t, do you believe this is true? Thank you again for your work and this article specifically, If I had this information when I was 17 it would have changed my trajectory for sure.

    Charlie

    • Hey Charlie, thanks for reaching out! When I first started repairing appliances I was not technically skilled at all. I was learning everything for the first time and the reality is that it’s much more simple than it probably seems. That’s kind of the way it is with a lot of things, they seem very complicated until you spend some time learning and observing how everything works and you quickly gain confidence. I don’t believe technical jobs are something that someone is born able to do, anyone can learn the skills it just takes time, hard work and persistence.

      Don’t get discouraged, it’s never too late to change your trajectory! Let me know if you have any other questions!

      -Ryan

  9. I have been abhorred witnessing the last couple decades of public schools.. No shop classes, no home-ec, Physical Education programs dropped, After school sports dropped.. no dodgeball? no valentines cards/ no picking teams, no 1st prizes for girl scout cookie sales, etc.. cuz someones feelings may get hurt, participation trophy’s?? OMG.. ENOUGH…. kids imprisoned in their homes from insane laws due to Media Hype.. playing video games, eating junk food.. soda… Parents jailed if their kids are found unaccompanied in the park, or ANYWHERE….. Kids that havent done ANY JOB.. and feel entitled… ???? My best friend and I would take the bus downtown, or the zoo.. BY OURSELVES when we were in 3rd grade !!! Ride bikes across the city !!.. We didnt come home til the streetlights came on.. .. .. I mowed 5 lawns/wk at 9 yrs old.. had my first car paid for at 15, rebuilt the top end of the engine, ready for the day I turned 16.. I’ve worked 40 hrs/wk full time since I was 16.. through my jr/sr years of high school….. Our government has destroyed YOUTH !!! GOOD JOB with your Boys…. I know VERY FEW parents that follow your example….

    • So, so true Dennis. I don’t want my kids to be a part of some government experiment that seems to be failing miserably. Things need to change and I’ll do everything I can to help bring that about. Thanks for your comment!

  10. Wonderfully written article!! My husband & I own a plumbing business in our town. He has no college degree; I have an Associates(not business related). He built this company from the ground up 11 years ago. Our boys still at home are 16 & 17 and fixing to graduate from homeschool. The 16 year old wants to go to the military, and the 17 year old wants to go to college. We have a 20 year old currently in college majoring in Theatre.

  11. My husband was homeschooled and had the time and encouragement to follow his interests. He took a few college classes but never got a degree. He works as a RF Engineer and makes double what I would make as a RN. I have a bachelor’s degree but don’t use it because I stay home to homeschool our kids. We are still paying off my student loans. I wish I would have done things differently but I was told college was the only way. I’m glad my kids will feel that they have options.

    • So true! The most important thing we can do is admit the mistakes of the previous generation and do what is needed to correct them so our children don’t have to experience the same consequences! The educational process is not the same as a factory assembly line. Thanks for sharing Traci!

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