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You Don't Need College To Discover What Makes You Come Alive. But You Do Need This.

How To Get A Head Start On Life Without College or Student Debt

You don’t need a college degree. I know. Blasphemous, right? It’s God’s honest truth. You don’t need a college degree. In fact, I’d argue you’ll be better off if you skip college altogether. If you read on, I’ll share with you exactly why I believe college is no longer a ticket to the good life – and what matters more than a college degree.


Quick confession. Yes, I *did* go to college. And yes, I *did* graduate. And so yes, I *do* have a college degree. But in the decade since I stumbled out of college bored, full of angst and terrible ideas, guess how many employers have asked about my degree. Zero. And (depending on who you ask) I’ve turned out just fine. :)

But this post is not about me. It’s about you. The proverbial college student. The high school or homeschool senior. Or the young adult who’s currently taking a gap year.

This post is for anyone who is on the cusp of making the decision to enroll in college AND is simultaneously questioning – do I really need college? Is this worth it?

That voice inside your head is onto something. Really. But if you’re not quite ready to listen to it yet, then sit back and buckle up, because I’m going to spend the next 2,000+ words sharing exactly why you don’t need college to succeed in today’s world – and it’s going to get rocky.

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

You’ve probably heard that question half-a-hundred times by now. But you know what – it’s a silly question. Seriously. Even if well-intentioned. 

Go walk through the grocery store. Or visit your local bank. Ask any “adult” you meet if they’re doing what they thought they’d be doing when they were 18.

It’s a silly question precisely because you and I don’t have a crystal ball. And you don’t know what you don’t know. Namely, you probably don’t know all the possible career paths out there today. Let alone the jobs that don’t exist yet.

And that’s perfectly okay. You don’t have to choose what to do for the rest of your life. Not now or ever.

Whether you go to college or not, cut yourself some slack. Your major does not define you. Nor does it determine how the rest of your life will turn out. (Unless you major in Woke Studies, in which case, well, your path seems pretty predictable. And I bid you good luck.)

But if you choose not to go to college, that’s okay too. That does not automatically mean you’re destined for a life of Sandwich Artistry at the local Subway and living in your grandma’s basement.

The fact is you have more options today than ever before. Options like finding meaningful work with good earning potential – regardless of your education background. Options like turning your interests or passions into a legitimate income. And options like trying out different paths before making a sizable long-term financial commitment to one particular career path.

In short – you don’t have to choose one particular route just because that’s what everybody told you growing up. Today, you have options. Options that didn’t exist when your parents or grandparents or high school counselors were your age. 

So first, take a deep breath. Then give yourself the freedom to explore those options before you commit to something that doesn’t blow your socks off with excitement. 

What Are My Options? If I Don’t Go To College I Have To Learn A Trade, Right?

Learning a trade would not kill you. In fact, there are probably infinite useful ways a trade could come in handy. 

But no – that’s not your only option if you don’t choose college. Learning a trade is a great option. (Have you seen average incomes of trade jobs lately? Nothing to shake your fist at there.) 

Still, you have plenty of other options. I’ve written at length about a number of alternatives to college in a different post. To name a few:

  • Take a gap year
  • Do an apprenticeship
  • Enroll in a bootcamp
  • Take an online course
  • Start a business
  • Join an accelerator
  • Get a job
  • Monetize a hobby
  • Apply to Praxis
  • And the list goes on

Personally, I think all of these are viable alternatives to jumping directly into college. Plus, I think you’ll learn more and earn a better return on your investment than college (I’ll save that another post). Instead of going into detail on each of those again here, I want to focus on several specific things I would do if I were in your shoes today.

What I Would Do Instead of College Today

If I graduated high school today, knowing what I know now, here’s exactly what I would do.

Number 1: Get A Job 

Any job will do just fine. Really. Don’t sweat too much over it. But bonus points if there’s an entry-level hourly wage job that actually excites you. (Personally, I love grocery stores so that’s where I’d go.) 

Here’s why I’d get a job: Whether you’ve had a job before or not, work experience is like currency. Earn up enough of it and you can use it to buy other, different job opportunities. Because as you’re gaining experience, you’re also building a track record. And that’s a useful thing to point to when you’re exploring future opportunities. 

Getting real on-the-job experience will give you more context about the world. Plus, unless you’re a TikTok millionaire or Teenage Entrepreneur Prodigy, you’re probably not swimming in cash. And holding down a job will provide an income. 

Number 2: Get Smart About Money

You’ve probably heard plenty of advice about saving money, spending less than you make, and so on. While those are sound pieces of advice, they don’t include an explanation why.

Quick story to illustrate:

One summer when I was a teenager, I had a job doing manual labor for a contractor. Stuff like digging ditches, clearing stumps and what not. The summers were hot. The work was hard. But at that age, minimum wage still seemed like a lot. After my first couple paychecks, feeling newly rich, I went to the mall and I spent every single dollar on new clothes. Later that weekend, when a friend phoned about going to the movies I realized I had no money. When I asked my mom, she told me to use the money I earned. But it was gone. I’d already spent it. So I had to miss out on the movies.

What a bummer, right? I love going to the movies. Almost as much as I hate being able not to afford things. And that’s why getting smart about money now – while you’re still younger – is so important. 

Saving money isn’t about cheating yourself out of the good life now. It’s about proactively preparing for opportunities you don’t know about yet. About saving now so that later when somebody calls you up about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you have the option to say yes.

Plus, getting good at managing your money when you don’t have a lot of it helps build the discipline that’ll really come in handy later when you have a lot more. 

Number 3: Find A Mentor

Who’s one adult you admire? Don’t pick your parents. Who is somebody that’s got a career that interests you? Or a skill that you’d like to learn. Or just somebody you really think highly of.

Seek that person out. With money from your job, offer to buy them lunch in exchange for their time and wisdom. This doesn’t have to be just one person. It could be any number of people. But try to arrange it so you can regularly meet with somebody. At least monthly. To ask for advice. Talk about your goals. To learn from. To use as a sounding board for your ideas.

Just because somebody is older than you does not mean they’ll have all the answers. But it does mean they’ve been around the block a time or two more than you. And that age and experience comes seasoned with the salt of wisdom that can be really useful for you (even if you just absorb it for later).

Number 4: Explore New Ideas & Beliefs

The world does not care what your parents believe. It will put you in all sorts of sticky situations that force you to make choices. Choices where you don’t have the time to call up Mom or Dad and ask them how they’d handle it. And in the real world, *you* will be held responsible for your choices.

So it’s imperative you get comfortable with your own ideas. Your own beliefs. And where you stand on different things. But more importantly, it’s crucial to your own personal development to give yourself the freedom to explore your own unique, individual point of view on the world. 

Your own personal point of view is what will enable you to become the best version of yourself. Whether you validate that you believe the same things your parents do, or discover an entirely new set of beliefs and ideas about the world – the important thing is that you do the work to build confidence in your own skin. 

Number 5: Move Away From Home

It’s very difficult to undergo a personal transformation while you’re surrounded by people who knew who you used to be. That’s not to say you have to leave everything you ever knew behind and become an entirely new person.

But if you want to discover the stuff that really makes you come alive, if you ever want to really do your best work, then it’s imperative you give yourself the freedom to explore the world on your own. Independent of the influences and social pressures of the town where you grew up and the people who raised you.

Plus, moving away from home will (hopefully) force you to become financially independent – in addition to intellectually and emotionally independent. This is important stuff. Really. Building confidence in your own ability to make choices and navigate the world is maybe the best thing you can do to set yourself up for future success.

If you do those five things, I’m confident you’ll come out ahead. Regardless of what you decide about college. But, given the spirit of this post, let’s bring everything back home with a few final words on college (and why you don’t need it).

You Don’t Need College. You Need Courage.

At some point, you have to grow up, right? I mean, you can’t work in the lumber yard at Lowe’s forever. (Or can you?)

It’s great and all to maybe take a year or two to “find yourself” after high school. But when it comes down to brass tacks, you really *need* that college degree to get to the next level of life. Right?

No. A thousand times no. You do not need college. What you need is courage.

Everywhere you turn in life, no matter what age or stage, there are going to be people offering up free opinions about how you should live your life. But the fact of the matter is, most of that advice will probably be piss poor applied to your life.

You want to know why?

Because *you* are a different person than everybody else. And you are on your own journey. With an entirely unique and different set of destinations and milestones that matter to you. Which means you’ll need your own set of directions.

And I don’t say that to be fluffy. This is hardcore stuff. Really. Finding the courage to trust your own guts, instincts, and that big ol’ brain on your shoulders will not only save you from a world of trouble – it is also the key to discovering the life, work, purpose, meaning, and happiness you’re after.

You will not find the secrets to your happiness in freshman orientation. You have to put in the hard work of discovering these things on your own. What makes you happy now will likely change as you get older, get more experience, and learn more about yourself and the world.

Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of assuming college will help them discover those answers. That it will take the place of doing the hard work of figuring things out. But in reality, it robs you of four years (if not more) that you could’ve been out running experiments in the real world. And worse yet, for the average college graduate, it means they’ll spend the next 20 years or so paying off that mistake because of the student debt they racked up.

But that does not have to be your fate. If you have the courage to try something different.

Your Life Is An Ongoing Experiment

I said this post was not about me. And it’s not. But there are so many lessons contained here that I learned the hard way. Lessons that, had I known years ago, would’ve drastically reduced the amount of time it took to discover the kind of life and work that makes me come alive. 

In the time I’ve lived on this big old rock circling the sun, my answer to the “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?” question has changed dozens of times. 

(At age 2, I wanted to be a dinosaur. No joke. And sometimes I still wonder what my life might be like had I continued down that path…)

It will continue to change as I change. As the world around me changes. As I learn more about myself. As I continue to explore my interests. As I continue to test my ideas out in the real world.

Just like it will change for you, too. If only you have the courage to follow that voice inside your head. 

Your life is meant to be fun. And full of adventure. Not spent wasting away in a job you hate, paying down debt you regret, daydreaming about what could have been if only you’d done something different.

You don’t need college to discover the life you want. You need courage.


PS – If you think you’ve got the courage to do something different, but you’re not sure how to actually put it into practice, then don’t sweat. I’ve got you covered. 

Read the below posts next for concrete ideas how you can start building the life and career you want without college:

How Degree Inflation Destroyed the Value of A College Credential

What To Do if College Isn't For You: The Ultimate Guide

A Degree Won’t Make You Rich(er).

Five Years Ago I Graduated College Without a Job or a Clue — Here’s How I Turned It Around

The Great Career Renaissance: Transformations to The Way We Live and Work in 2020

Mitchell Earl
Post by Mitchell Earl
February 21, 2024
COO @DiscoverPraxis: I mentor young adults to take agency over their lives, careers, and money. | Career Bound Podcast | Author of Don't Do Stuff You Hate