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James Madison University offers a quality education and a wealth of experiences, but there are plenty of alternatives to college that don't involve taking on student loans.

This is the first entry in a three-part series from the Madison Business Review. Read Part 2 on overworking employees and Part 3 on American work culture.


College is one of the most exciting times in a person’s life where students meet new people, explore their interests in academics, get involved in campus organizations and so much more.

Most importantly, college students discover who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Once they graduate with amazing experiences and relationships, they head off into the real-world and begin their careers in the field of their interest.

While college is a memorable and amazing experience for many, there are associated downsides that often leave people on the brink of attending a university or pursuing other interests. 

One of the biggest problems society faces today is the student debt crisis, which according to Forbes is $1.56 trillion in 2020. To put color on that staggering number, more than 3 million senior citizens are still paying off student loans that equate to $86 billion. 

In addition, because the cost of tuition has doubled since the 1980s, people — especially millennials — are having to delay life events such as buying a house and marriage to pay off their debt.

Before the pandemic crumbled the U.S. economy and caused unemployment to skyrocket, the rate of people who weren’t working hovered just below 4%. With favorable economic conditions and low unemployment such as those in previous years, many will opt to skip college to head straight into the workforce. 

While having a college experience and degree may indicate an individual is motivated, intelligent and hard working to display academic excellence, firms around the world are realizing having a degree isn’t the only place to obtain these skills and experiences. 

Companies such as Tesla don’t require undergraduate degrees for some positions. They often look for candidates with hands-on experiences, such as a coding boot camp, an apprenticeship or relevant programs.

Founder and CEO Elon Musk caught on to the notion that excellence, passion and many other values and characteristics that Tesla looks for in applicants can be found outside of people who are fed information through lectures and instead found in those who have hands-on experiences. 

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“There is no need even to have a college degree at all, or even high school,” Musk, the world’s fourth-wealthiest man, said in a 2014 YouTube interview. 

Instead, Musk looks for applicants with “evidence of exceptional ability.” Musk has told Business Insider he’ll ask job candidates their career summary, problems they’ve encountered and their responses to various situations. 

Other companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, EY and several others realize the opportunity of finding unique individuals with their own experiences and backgrounds can be found outside the university landscape. The no-degree requirement allows those who aren’t comfortable taking on a large amount of debt to apply for positions in a field that interest them and can apply their skills. 

Google offers those interested in building skills Professional Certificates for courses created by the company. Those interested are exposed to skills that will help them secure a job as a Data Analyst, Project Manager, UX Designer and others. The certificates and classes are offered by Google, don’t require any previous experience, take about six months to complete and offer grants and scholarships. 

Similarly, Microsoft offers free, online certifications for many roles within technological engineering, data science, artificial intelligence and many others. Other websites such as Udemy and Wall Street Prep offer online courses on anything between data science, fintech and software.

In today’s world of staying at home and working from home, students should realize that if they have a burning passion for a field such as data science, they can take boot camps or earn certifications to help land a job in that field a lot sooner than graduation. 

Many students have been at home for the most part of the year taking a few classes online related to their major, but they also need to complete general education and prerequisite requirements. 

This time devoted for material they might not even use in the future is being thrown out the window when students can find certifications online, learn and be recognized for their hard work and passion.

Andrew Withers is a junior finance major. Contact Andrew at witheran@dukes.jmu.edu.