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Does That College Diploma Really Matter for Success? A few billionaire entrepreneurs famously didn't bother with college but the people they hired to help build their companies mostly did.

By Thomas Smale

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Prasit photo | Getty Images

The value of a college education is a hotly debated issue.

There are some entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Larry Ellison and Rachael Ray, who never graduated college yet found success in their respective fields. Many will point to these examples and conclude, "See, you don't need a college degree to be successful!"

But the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Jeff Bezos and Martha Stewart all achieved success with a college degree in hand. So, are notable entrepreneurs without a college education merely the exception and not the rule?

College education results in better employment.

The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that 73 percent of young adults with a bachelor's degree worked full time, year-round in 2014, compared to 65 percent of young adult high school graduates.

They also show that those with higher educational attainment earned 66 percent higher median earnings compared with those who only had a high school diploma or equivalent, a pattern that has been consistent for 14 years.

Employment and success aren't exactly synonymous, especially in the information age. But this goes back to one's personal feelings about success, and what that looks like to them. Not everyone wants a business. Many just want to support their family and we can see that college education tends to lead to better employment.

Related: Guess What: Going to College Still Pays

Few college dropouts hold leadership positions.

A Taylor & Francis Online study of 11,745 individuals in the U.S.shows found that 94 percent of CEOs, judges, politicians, millionaires, billionaires and business leaders attended college, with 50 percent graduating from elite school. Based on these findings, those who become highly successful without college education appear to be in the minority, roughly 6 percent.

It is important, however, to ask whether this is because getting an education is the default, accepted behavior, or if this education played a vital part in the success of those who finished school.

Related: How Much Does College Matter? For Small-Business Owners, Not Much (Infographic)

College graduates live longer.

This is a surprising finding. Per Diverse, the Center for Retirement Research in Boston College found that there's a significant difference in mortality based in educational attainment. They further noted that graduates are happier because they earn more, can afford better healthcare and leisure activities, have less stress and tend to work indoors where no heavy lifting is required.

Some of the stated factors are questionable at best. Many will leave college carrying huge debts. Additionally, only the motivated few -- roughly one-third -- will even launch their career immediately out of college. More on that in a moment.

What is sensible to conclude is that those who live longer may have a better chance at achieving success over the long haul. If you have access to better healthcare, this could be a factor. But it's mostly a question of money, and money can be earned in a variety of ways. Money provides options but not necessarily happiness.

Related: College is Good for Getting a Job but Not Necessarily for Getting Rich

College education is expensive.

Trader, investor, writer and entrepreneur James Altucher often argues that college is too expensive to be worthwhile. He doesn't even have the desire to send his kids to college for four or more years of experimentation, debauchery and theory knowledge.

Based on how college is often portrayed in movies and the media, it's easy see his point of view. In most cases, college education can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Even if you can earn a higher salary straight out of school, you also end up carrying the burden of debt with you.

Young adults may also be looking at the prospect of buying their first car or home, getting married and other major life changes shortly after leaving school. Taken together, these factors can easily wipe out whatever "extra earnings" you might generate from your high-paying job.

This is backed up by several interesting stats. Per Mic, two-thirds of all college students graduate with student loans, 70 percent of people with student loans are 30 years or older, and 52 percent of college graduates strongly or somewhat agree student loan debt is hindering their career choices.

Related: College Is Worth the Price. Just Not This Price.

Most graduates spend years launching their careers.

Jeffrey J. Selingo, author of There Is Life After College, interviewed 752 young adults between the ages of 24 to 27. He found that they all fall under one of three categories: Sprinters, Wanderers, or Stragglers.

Sprinters launch their careers immediately after college. But Wanderers end up spending roughly five years just to get started, and Stragglers spend most of their 20s wandering aimlessly.

Many people plan for their post-secondary education. The problem is that they don't plan how they're going to spend their time in school, and don't prepare for their transition into a career.

Success isn't merely about finding or getting into a good school – it's about spending that time productively and wisely, something two-thirds of students appear not to do. If you aren't sure about what your next steps will be after college, your education could end up costing you without anything to show for it until you're well into your 30s.

Related: Will Getting an MBA or Professional License Benefit Me As an Entrepreneur?

Those without a college education still get hired.

Do employers or HR people even look at resumes anymore?

Per Amex OPEN Forum, 62 percent of small business owners will hire a non-degree holding applicant, while 62 percent also said they don't see any difference in workplace performance based on education. Fully 50 percent indicated workers don't need a diploma to be considered for a job.

There are some mixed messages in this study, however, as 61 percent of small business owners said having a college education was important or necessary to success in the business world.

But we can also see that employment isn't always contingent on education. Those without a degree can still get hired.

Related: 10 Tips to Help Graduates Succeed in Their First Job

You can succeed without a college degree, and many have. But it seems we tend to single out and glorify those who've done it. The reality is that most successful individuals have graduated college, either by default or by design. Default is a safer assumption in many cases, due to societal norms. But those with drive knew what they were after, and didn't delay in taking steps to achieve in their career or business, regardless of education. They found their footing by design.

Business and education aren't necessarily tied at the hip. Business requires smarts, but generally a different kind of smarts. It isn't necessary to recite facts at a moment's notice, which is what most schools are teaching people to do. It's more important that business owners are resourceful and capable of determining what resources are at their disposal to build and grow their businesses.

Thomas Smale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder of FE International

Thomas Smale co-founded FE International in 2010. He has been interviewed on podcasts, blogs and also spoken at a number of industry events on online businesses, exit strategy and selling businesses.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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