Can You Get Ahead Without A College Degree?

“So, where did you get your undergrad?” This was the question a colleague asked me upon starting my new role as an Enterprise Systems Engineer about a year ago. Feeling a bit self conscious, and embarrassed… I replied, “I actually don’t have degree.  I don’t have a degree in anything” 

I know that many people discuss the importance of college and continuing education. The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) state that those that hold college degrees earned approximately $48,500 a year, while High School diploma holders earned and average of $23,900

Another way to look at this, the weekly earnings of a High School graduate can earn about $751 per week. Those with a bachelor’s degree, this jumps to approximately $1,385 per week. Check this, those with an advanced degree this rises too $1,630 in weekly income. Dude! That’s 117% increase in what you could earn! 

US student debt was about $1.52 trillion and that 44.2 million people owed debt, with an average individual student debt at about $38,000

Forbes

While I am an advocate of going to college, getting an education, and being an active member contributing to society. I also don’t think anyone should finish school with $40k, $60k, $100k or more in student debt.  This Blows!  There is a wicked problem with the ever-growing student debt crisis. Yes, I did say “crisis”. Forbes reported that total US student debt was about $1.52 trillion and that 44.2 million people owed debt, with an average individual student debt at about $38,000! Ugh… makes me sick.  This will addressed in a separate post, for sure.

Back to my story… I had been an average student in school. I excelled at art and graphic communications classes, but if we are looking at any standard required classes, I was a solid B & C student. However, I didn’t really apply myself either. Let’s be real. At that time, all I wanted to do was play guitar and Nintendo. Probably a typical high school kid in 1989-90.   I new I wasn’t an academic type of student, and a 4-year college wasn’t for me.  I just didn’t want to go through another 4 years of school and “book learning” lol. 

I needed to be hands-on. I wanted to accelerate my skills (whatever that was), and NOT be in a job I hated.  My dad wasn’t happy with his gig, at the time. He busted his ass to provide for me as a single dad.  However, he always mentioned how he didn’t like his job. I witnessed the toll this took on him, and new I wanted to like what I did. 

Before attending a two year program at St. Paul Technical Collage, Now called St. Paul College. I did take all four Graphics Arts programs offered in High School, I also worked as a school service aide (while not receiving school credit) in the Graphic Arts Department. I did dig this gig, and really liked it. I would stay after school and work on projects just for fun. It was so fun to learn, and be creative. During my senior year of high school, I was enrolled in a Graphic Arts vocational program. While attending high school classes the first two periods, I’d then drive to 916 Vocational School, Now part of the Century College campus. 

While looking at Graphic Arts, and Communication vocational education options… I explored ones locally based in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis area, cuz I was absolutely terrified of moving away from home. Yeah, I’m one of those kids.  Dude…  I told you I was a late boomer. I visited and entertained going to U of W Stout, but chickened out.  They had an amazing program at the time.

1994 – First job after college

I did complete this Graphic Communications certificate program in about 18 months, and entered the workforce.  Yes, I have a Certificate of Completion, not a degree. My first employer hired me on a OJT (on the job training program) I was 20 years old, working for a Travel Agency/Tour Operator as a Graphic Coordinator.  I was making what, I believe, was 7.50/hour.  A huge bump from the 5.00/hour I was making working retail through high school and college. This is where things get interesting. 

I never stopped learning.  I dove in deep. I loved it.  I worked long, hard, and built systems and processes my employer had never seen before. I continued to read, and soak up any knowledge I could on design, art, and technology.  Keep in mind, the Internet was not really a thing yet. I was using every AOL free minute CD-ROMS I could get my hands on. This allowed me to go into chat rooms, and continue to learn all I could. This also led me to also becoming the office IT guy… Again, building workflows, the organization hadn’t seen.  One thing I had done, is leverage my PC at the time, to automatically send out faxes overnight, advertising cruise and travel offerings to hundreds of potential resellers. This single thing Increased bookings, and revenue within weeks. 

I was using every AOL free minute
CD-ROMS I could get my hands on.

The main message I was wanted to share in this post was if it interests you, and you dig it, never stop learning.  Look for training offered by organizations in the industry, vendors, hardware, and software publishers. I had continued in my professional career to take classes, courses, exams, obtain certifications, attend symposiums, seminars and any classes my employer would allow, and a few that they didn’t, I would attend anyway. Taking my own time and paid for out of my own pocket.  

Each time I completed a training, or seminar, I tried to apply what I’ve learned. Sometimes unsuccessfully, but we continue to learn and grow with every failure. 

While we always attempt to save what we earn, and invest what we save, and be as frugal as we can, there does come a point were we are unable to squeeze any more blood from the turnip.  Is that the saying?  We can, however, continue to earn more.  There really isn’t a limit to what you can earn.  I do believe that.

Let’s take a look some additional trainings I’ve completed. Some courses have not lead to a certification.  Sometimes, the exam was too expensive, or it wasn’t offered.  This isn’t to focus on personal accomplishments, but rather to inspire others that have felt overwhelmed in your current role, and wonder how to continue expand your earning potential. 

  • Layout & Design Trends and Techniques 
  • Adobe and Quark Certifications
  • Mac OS X, and macOS Support Certifications 
  • Photoshop Specific Training
  • Postal Partner – United States Postal Service Direct Mailing
  • Color Theory
  • Color Correction training
  • Color Correction in Process Printing
  • Lithographic Process Printing
  • Flexographic Process Printing 
  • Variable Data Printing (VDP) Concepts
  • XML Authoring, and Database Publishing Training
  • MacWorld IT Professional Track
  • Font Management Training
  • Wireless Network Administration Training

And others… 

Let’s now look at how this may have impacted my earning over the years. 

Year Position Held Increase in percentage over previous annual earnings
1992 Retail Sales Associate  Base Salary – Minimum Wage
1994 Graphic Coordinator 117%
1997 Prepress Tech / Designer 46%
1998 Mac Operator / Designer 59%
2000 Senior Mac Operator / Lead Designer 14%
2004 Prepress Manager 30%
2005 Technical Services Consultant 17%
2008 Senior Technical Services Professional 32%
2015 Senior Systems Engineer 28%
2018 Enterprise Systems Engineer 23%

If you think about it, I’ve had a 753% annual salary increase from when I graduating high school up until my current role. It does take hustle, grind, and the continuing desire to learn and grow professionally and as a person. I guess you could say, I’m proof that you can make a living, continue to grow, get married, raise a family, all without getting a college degree. 

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