I Don’t Regret Not Getting a College Degree

My best friend’s dad stood on the porch smiling. The words he spoke, I will never forget. “It’s a lot harder to get over the wall than you thought, huh?”

Being best friends gave me some insight into the college experience (his) versus the non-college experience (mine). At the time, my friend was trying to escape the small college town, move back to the big city, and I was there to help. Since he was in school, his finances were iffy. Since I was not, mine were great. Party? I’ll bring the beer. Need pizza? I’ll get that too. Need a rental truck since you couldn’t get over the wall? Glad to help out.

My friend had more pride than that, though. He was determined to drive his ancient pickup, full of his stuff, all the way back to the big city some 150 miles away. Problem was, the truck had never seen highway duty, only college town duty. I think we made 20 miles that day before he turned around and we headed back towards his knowing father.

Going on thirty years later, I still think about that day and whether I should have gone to college too. Would the experience have fortified me in some way? How many regrets and/or how much debt would I have had? Would the knowledge gained have made me more successful? Or would I be here today thinking the opposite: why did I waste my time in college, when I could have been out in the real world sooner? To quote the John Butler Trio (who are in turn paraphrasing Little Richard): The grass is greener, but just as hard to mow.

While at a party recently, a neighbor said to me: “I was in technology too, and I’ve always felt bad that I did not have a college degree.” My first reaction was straight from the gut: “I would never feel that way and neither should you.” What this neighbor has accomplished, standing here today, is nothing to be ashamed of. The effort it took. The challenges faced. The sacrifices made. There is absolutely no guarantee that college would have made them a better employee, manager, or person. This particular neighbor is well-spoken, capable of great insight, and possesses a superb intellect. Why look back with regret?

However, when I turn that around and get a little introspective: should I also feel bad about my lack of degree?

I possess some insight, a little intellect, and can be quite critical, especially when it comes to my own yard, my own mowing, etc. Do I have enough data though? Not everyone is willing or even interested in sharing their income, retirement and investment balances. So I must rely on what I can learn from anecdotes, personal finance websites/blogs (shout out to The Billfold!) and government data.

First, some anecdotes about my background. Worked crap jobs as a teen, got a factory job, worked my way up to Quality Engineer (in title only). Figured out that I didn’t belong in the Midwest and wanted a better climate. The quality department exposed me to some statistics and custom software, so I decided to focus on software. Started to go to community college at night to give me two job options for where ever I landed. Did this for a year-and-a-half before deciding to move to Arizona. Luckily, I found a job in software development and my new career path was set, but I have to tell you that I started at the absolute bottom in terms of pay and respectability. Other employees with college degrees, hired after me, were making $15K more than I was. I had to earn it, which was fine. Given my Midwest background, this is how I felt that things worked.

I should also mention that I’ve been a saver all along. When mutual funds became the hot, or best, investment vehicle for regular folks without an existing and sizable portfolio, I jumped in… at a measly $25 or $50 per month. Finding an additional $25 per month expense that I could cut out of my lifestyle, and therefore invest, was one of my curious passions.

I worked that first software job until they could not promote me any further. In truth, they couldn’t get past where I started with them, i.e. a junior employee with no college degree, and would always view me through that lens. This view of theirs had no correlation to the amount of repeat business I generated, nor the number of successful projects led. So I left for a big government agency with better pay and benefits. Then, one by one, I said yes to an old client from my first job, then a new client I had found myself. Before I knew it, I had to strike out on my own.

Today, I’m self-employed and quite happy. I do not make a fortune, nor I do make a great living — but I do make a good living. During these “regular job” years, no one ever got promoted over or ahead of me due to their college education, and no one ever outworked me, but I do know of some that got paid more.

Having always been a voracious reader and consumer of the news of the day, I still pay close attention to anything mentioning personal finance. If a headline mentions how much you should be saving, or have saved, I’m likely to have been drawn to it. A while back I read something about how prepared each age group is for retirement, at least with regards to their personal balance sheet (assets – debt = how much you really have). I wish I had kept it because it affirmed that I was doing okay. I was in the top 30 percent of my generation for readiness or amount saved. I may have been at or around the 29.99 percent mark, but still — it was reassuring. That is, until you let doubt creep in. Is it enough? What if I suffer some catastrophe? What if my parents need help later on? Could I make more? Who am I behind? Did they go to college?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has some good data on income levels for each education level and said data is reported each quarter. In January 2019, for full-time workers without a high school diploma, the median weekly earnings were $543. High school graduates were earning $746 while those holding bachelor’s degrees were $1,340. I would say that my income compares pretty favorably to those holding bachelor’s degrees and above, but I’ll admit that I’m in one of the hottest job fields out there today. I’ll also admit that I’m lucky to have entered this field when I did. Demand has far outstripped supply and probably given me some opportunities that I might not have gotten otherwise. That being said, artificial intelligence will come for knowledge workers at some point, and perhaps during my career, at least what’s left of it.

I think I did the right thing, but I also think I’m lucky. My timing was definitely lucky. Moving away from factory work (or factory office work) in the Midwest was well-timed. My choice of new career was a byproduct of age and accumulated experiences. My upbringing, a healthy respect for others opinions, and a desire to help others also were fortuitous. The doubt may always be there, much like my neighbors’, but I have to remember to trust my past self. Most of us should be more pragmatic, and remember that we, given the information and experience available at the time, made the best decision we could. Perhaps, the proverbial “wall” is just as tall, no matter the side you’re trying to climb.

Scott Kersey is a software developer residing in Phoenix, Arizona. In the past, he has been called null certified, nerd qualified and coffee tested.

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0.

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