Traditional four-year colleges were once a must for anyone desiring career success, but the digital information age has given way to exciting new career paths that don’t require a college degree; such as media content creators, YouTube stars and web developers.
Entrepreneurship seems to be a word best known by those who quit. Not in life, but in school — specifically college. Some of the most well-known and successful college dropouts include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But even non-technological industries have been dominated by college dropouts at one point or another, including pro-golfer Tiger Woods, professional singer Lady Gaga and professional actor and filmmaker Tom Hanks.
Traditionally, four-year colleges are seen as the route to success with many willingly dishing away $30,000 plus a year on tuition. According to a 2016 report by USA Today, a college education is now the second-largest expense an individual is anticipated to make in his or her lifetime. But it’s also an expense that takes a lifetime to pay off.
“The value of a degree is eroding — while the premium has remained stable, the cost to attain a degree has risen and earnings for college graduates and non-graduates alike have fallen,” wrote Jennifer Barrett, former personal finance editor for CNBC. “While students can up their odds of success, college remains a risky and expensive investment for families — and one whose value diminishes if costs increase faster than wages.”
But with the digital information age steadily on the rise, doors to exciting new careers are opening that don’t require a college degree. And though many still choose to follow the path of education — as many as an expected 20.5 million students attending American colleges and universities in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — it is proving to be simply an option in modern times.
Popular social-sharing platforms such as Instagram and YouTube have aided in the development of one of the most common free-lancing jobs for young people: social influencers.
By definition, the job title includes anyone with a large enough social media following that has established credibility within an industry and can effectively promote and market a brand’s products. Social influencers typically get sent products for free and get paid large amounts of money for their promotional posts.
Essentially, it’s the job everyone wants to have.
“I don’t think that anyone on the Internet who has attained significant success ever anticipated that they would,” senior Katy Bellotte said. “Quite frankly, if you have the attitude that you’re going to make it online, you most likely won’t.”
When Bellotte started her YouTube channel in 2010, she had no idea of the fame or success she would reach in under a decade. She had only been 14-years-old, and “very, very shy.” In just seven years, she has accumulated more than 450,000 subscribers on the video-sharing platform and more than 213,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined.
Bellotte has gotten the opportunity to work with huge brands such as Keds and L’Oréal, travel out of the country several times, and has even participated in international events such as the 2016 Golden Globes. Now reigning in an estimated $113,000 to $1.8 thousand a month from her YouTube channel alone, the young internet star views her multiple platforms as a small business.
Instead of choosing to pursue her success completely independent of college, Bellotte remains a committed student at Elon University, but admits that balancing her fast-paced life with college has become a challenge.
“It has gotten increasingly difficult for me to focus on my courses here at Elon that don’t have a thing to do with my career path,” she said. “As a small business owner with interest in graphic design and PR, I do not see why I have to sit through endless grueling hours of Biology. When I’m forced to endure classes and activities that I find pointless, I get incredibly frustrated simply because I’ve received a lot of success from doing things organically and my own way.”
Bloomberg Technology in a 2016 article reported that major brands — on Instagram alone — are already spending more than an estimated $255 million on “influencer marketing” per month. With the rise of ad-block technology as well as a shift in trust toward influencers over traditional ads, the market — though heavily saturated — has proven to pay off on both ends.
But for the individual, the market itself remains a shaky one to enter. Though it has proven successful for hundreds of brands, ultimately it’s the consumer who holds the power in the relationship. Once a consumer decides he or she no longer trusts or cares for a particular influencer, an “unfollow” button is all the difference between a successful and struggling social influencing career.
Two words that command both the current and future job-market are “digital literacy.” That means that skills that fall under the tech savvy umbrella can determine whether a person will continue to be employable, with or without a college degree.
Just last year, LinkedIn released a top 10 list of skills that can get someone hired in 2017. In it, they listed “Statistical Analysis and Data Mining” and “User Interface Design” among the top five. Essentially, employers need employees who can help them stay competitive as technology continues to lead the job market. Therefore, employees who can make sense of large amounts of data as well as create user-friendly interface will be in high demand.
But those that follow the traditional route of attending a four-year college also have valuable skills to offer — specifically ones that can’t be replaced by artificial intelligence such as creative-based careers. While trades such as engineering and science majors continue to top the earnings charts, careers that rely on human thought processes such as art and design will also remain relevant.
When businessman Peter Thiel established his fellowship in 2011 offering current college students $100,000 to drop out and begin a start-up company in Silicon Valley, he saw a discrepancy in the connection between college and real-world businesses.
“Whenever something is overvalued and intensely believed — that’s a sign of a bubble,” Thiel said.
The fellowship was a success with only eight of the 84 students who originally started in the program returning back to school, according to Business Insider. Aside from the successful start-up companies it forged, Thiel’s fellowship showed that ambition and access were two major keys in forming business success. And a person doesn’t necessarily have to accumulate thousands in debt in the midst of pursuing that.
Drive will continue to be an employable skill because it’s often unteachable. And with that, flexibility. A traditional four-year college education can aid in developing marketable skills, but with modern career routes, it is only one option among many.