Do You Need a College Degree to Be Successful?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover how you can have a successful career without a college degree.

[Featured image] A female trainee pilot listens to her instructor during flight training inside an airplane.

If you thought earning a college degree was the only way to have a prosperous and satisfying career, read this guide. Get tips for achieving career success without a college degree and discover some degree alternatives. Then, explore seven exciting career options that don't require a college degree.

Do you need a college degree to be successful?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you don't need a college degree to get a good-paying job. The BLS predicts that approximately 60 percent of new jobs between 2020 and 2030 will not require any college degree [1]. 

Tips for achieving career success without a college degree

Consider these tips if you want to succeed in your career but want to avoid getting a college degree. Try one or all of them to boost your chances of achieving career success without college.

Consider career aptitude testing.

Aptitude tests evaluate your abilities and help you determine what careers suit your skills. These tests also assess your interests and personality style to further determine if a certain career makes a good fit for you. When you enjoy your job, you're more likely to succeed, including feeling more motivated, learning faster, and making better business decisions.

Create a professional network.

When you're hoping to break into a particular career, it can help to create a professional network of individuals who work in the same or similar jobs. Creating this network could help you build professional friendships, provide you with job leads, or open you up to new career ideas.

Find a career mentor.

Networking can also help you find a career mentor. Professionals who are or have been where you want to be in a career can help you learn a lot. The benefits of having a mentor include:

  • Access to insider industry information

  • Access to additional professional contacts

  • Career support and advice

  • Possibility of learning new skills

Pursue a career you're passionate about.

Acclaimed British journalist Katharine Whitehorn said, "Find out what you like doing best, and get someone to pay you for it." Being passionate about your work can motivate you to do a good job, and performing well at work helps ensure a successful career.

To discover your passion in life, take advantage of these tips:

  • Ask yourself what topics you like to hear, talk, and read about.

  • Give some thought to your natural and developed skills.

  • Consider what you enjoy doing in your free time.

  • Embrace new experiences.

Learn on your own.

Learning all you can about your potential or chosen career might help you achieve greater success. Consider learning on your own in these ways:

  • Read books.

  • Take courses in person or online.

  • Interact with a professional mentor.

  • Attend professional workshops or lectures.

Set goals and hold yourself accountable.

Setting and achieving goals can keep you motivated on the job and help you achieve a sense of accomplishment. When setting goals, try these tips:

  • Make goals easier to achieve by breaking them up into smaller steps.

  • Stay accountable by creating a schedule for each step. 

  • Celebrate small wins.

  • Ask a friend, family member, or colleague to help you stay on task.

Alternatives to a college degree

Instead of a college degree, you can gain the knowledge and experience you need to start a career in other ways. Explore these alternatives to an associate’s, bachelor's, or master's degree.

Apprenticeship or internship

You can get an apprenticeship through an employer or a sponsor like a labor union. You'll earn wages as an apprentice while learning how to do a particular job. Industries where you might find an apprenticeship include:

  • Agriculture

  • Construction

  • Cybersecurity

  • Financial services

  • Health care 

  • Hospitality

  • IT

  • Transportation

Internships refer to temporary positions offered by companies. In exchange for completing entry-level tasks, interns gain career knowledge and skills; some interns even receive permanent positions. While some companies provide interns with monetary stipends or college credits, others don't.

Certificate programs

If you're interested in a particular career, consider a certificate program. Compared to degree programs, certificate programs have a much narrower focus and help you gain specific career skills. Available through colleges, universities, community colleges, trade schools, or private companies, these programs can last from three months to two years. They may or may not offer college credit, so while a certificate costs less than a degree, the program might not qualify for financial aid.

Trade school

Trade school programs provide skills and knowledge for specific trades, making them an excellent option for people who know what career they want to get into. Trade schools offer graduates a certificate of completion, and programs typically last 18 to 24 months. Therefore, you'll spend less money on your education than you would getting a college degree.  

Work experience/volunteering

If you're not interested in getting a college degree, you might gain the knowledge and skills you need for a successful career through work experience. Working or volunteering in your community can help you improve communication, organization, and time management skills and build character traits like punctuality and work ethic. Volunteering outside your community can also expose you to other cities, countries, and cultures with little or no cost involved.

7 exciting careers that don't require a degree

When deciding whether or not to go to college, it can help to know what kinds of careers don't require a degree. Explore seven non-degree jobs that pay well in various career sectors. When considering the job outlook for each career, note that the BLS considers 0.3 percent the average growth rate for all jobs in the US between 2022 and 2032 [2]. A job outlook above this amount, therefore, means the particular field is likely to grow faster, offering more job openings.

1. Airline pilot

Median annual US salary (BLS): $148,900 [3] 

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 4 percent [3]

Requirements: Private pilot certificate, instrument rating, commercial pilot certificate, multi-engine rating, airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate

As an airline pilot, you can work for an airline carrier. This job entails transporting passengers and cargo according to company schedules. 

2. Chef

Median annual US salary (BLS): $56,520 [4]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 5 percent [4]  

Requirements: Apprenticeship, community college certificate, or culinary arts degree

As a chef, you'll be responsible for food preparation and may oversee cooking staff in a restaurant or other food service establishment. 

3. Firefighter

Median annual US salary (BLS): $51,680 [5]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 4 percent [5]

Requirements: High school diploma and may need emergency medical technician (EMT) training depending on city or state

As a firefighter, you'll put out fires affecting structures or land and may act as a first responder in an emergency.

4. Hairstylist

Median annual US salary (BLS): $33,400 [6]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 8 percent [6]

Requirements: License after graduating from a state-approved cosmetology or barber program and passing an exam

As a hairstylist, you will provide clients with haircuts, hairstyles, and other hair services.

5. Pharmacy technician

Median annual US salary (BLS): $37,790 [7]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 6 percent [7]

Requirements: High school diploma. Many states require licensing for pharmacy technicians, which may require completing an educational program and passing one or more exams.

As a pharmacy technician, you will assist one or more pharmacists in taking and preparing pharmacy orders. 

6. Photographer

Median annual US salary (BLS): $40,170 [8

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 4 percent [8]

Requirements: High school diploma and photography classes, unless employed as a photojournalist or industrial or science photographer, which require a bachelor's degree

As a photographer, you'll take and develop photographs for an employer or yourself as a business owner. You may work in a studio, laboratory, or various indoor and outdoor locations.

7. Surgical technologist

Median annual US salary (BLS): $56,350 [9]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 5 percent [9

Requirements: Completion of a community college program, and some states may require licensing

As a surgical technologist, you'll work in a hospital assisting surgeons with various types of surgery.

Getting started on Coursera

For more help choosing the right career, consider taking Career Decisions: From Insight to Impact on Coursera. This course from Wesleyan University is intended to help you learn what personal success means to you and give you insight into your unique motivations and why you might choose a particular career. It’s possible to complete this course in three weeks at just three hours per week, and you'll receive a shareable certificate when you're finished.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Fast-growing occupations that pay well and don’t require a college degree," Accessed March 4, 2024.

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