12 Women Who Left College Without A Degree Share How They Feel About The Decision Now

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 

When it comes to college, women are killing the game. The Atlantic reported in 2017 that women made up 56% of students in American universities, and data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that in 2019, 35.5% of women in the U.S. have a college degree. However, college and higher degrees aren't for everybody, and statistics tell us that for every person who completes their degree, there's at least one who left college behind. Of all the people who started college in 2012, only 58% had a degree by 2018, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While leaving college before getting a degree may be stigmatized, 12 women tell Bustle that there's not one reason for leaving — and that it's wrong to paint all people who leave college without a degree with the same brush.

College is widely seen as a trampoline into the middle class, but it leaves people across the U.S. in huge debt. The class of 2017 left college with an average in $28,650 of debt, according to The Guardian, and with staggering interest rates, many young people may spend their entire working lives paying off their degrees.

Sometimes the decision to leave college without a degree can cause pain, but other times it can feel like a relief — and pave the way for better things. If you're considering leaving college without a degree, whether it's for financial reasons, out of stress, because you haven't yet found your calling or something else, you're definitely not alone. Women who've been through it share their decision, and how they feel about it years after the fact.


Kristina, 38

"While I was an 18-year-old student interning at a radio station in Portland, Oregon, my program director told me, 'I never went to college and look where I am.' Well, I followed his advice, and think about it time to time 20 years later. What happens if I lose my job? How will I compete with these hungry and educated kids? But at least your girl doesn't owe a cent in student loans and I'm 100% debt free. That I can co-sign."


Nina, 32

"I first dropped out of college in Norway in 2010. I was halfway through a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, getting top grades, and really enjoying the course work. But I needed a change and some excitement, and so I dropped out and moved to Colorado for a gap year. Halfway through my gap year, I applied to the University of Colorado at Boulder, because I loved Colorado too much to move back home just yet. I started completely from scratch, because none of my credits from Norway would transfer.

"Throughout college, I started building a photography business on the side. After three semesters, as my business was taking off, I decided to drop out and go all in on photography. It’s now been six years since I dropped out of college the second time, and I truly could not be happier with my decision. I run a six-figure wedding photography business here in Colorado, easily paid off my student loans, and I can’t imagine what my life would look like now if I had stayed in school.

"I think many assume that people drop out of college because of bad grades, but I left CU with a 3.94 GPA. At the time I was dropping out, I kept hearing that I would regret it later, and that I’d never get a 'real' job or make 'real money' without a college degree. But there are so many creative careers out there that don’t require formal education — only high motivation for self-learning."


Kashlee, 34

"I’m a high school dropout. And a college dropout. And to be honest, I would do it again. I gave up the things that most people work so hard to achieve, but it’s that exact path that has gotten me where I am today.

"Being diagnosed with ADD, I felt totally out of place in the traditional school system. I dropped out of high school with only two credits to go. Later in my career as an entrepreneur, I started to feel the pressures about not having a formal education under my belt, so I enrolled in university. After my first semester everything started to feel like déjà vu. I felt the same disconnect that I had felt in high school.

"This isn’t a stab at people who have worked hard for their education. Many important careers rightfully require a considerable level of university. If that’s your path, I applaud your dedication. My transparency is to let others know that formal education isn’t for everyone, and you can still thrive without it! My dreams have never been tied to a diploma."


Raylene, 50

"I'm a 50 year old female with 105 college credits and no degree. But without one, I paid for my daughter to get her degree in Finance from the University of Connecticut. Some days I'm fine with it. I don't need it in my line of work as a stand-up comedian. Sometimes I just feel like I'd like to have it just to have it.

"At this point, the only reason I'd go back to college is to play cymbals in the marching band. It just seems like the band has so much fun at the football games, but I promised my daughter, who is on the dance team, that I'd wait until she graduates."


Sandy, 68

"This goes way back to 1969 when I went to California State Northridge straight out of high school with a 4.0 grade point average.

"I had a rough time with my roommates, and in 1971 I received a postcard from Western Airlines offering me a chance to interview for a stewardess job. If I got the job I would do it for one year, get rid of the roommates without a confrontation, and then go back to school and get my degree. I got the job and 35 years later I quit, but not before starting my own business with a product that I invented. Not only did I learn more from my experiences on my flights than I would from a college class, but I got insight into how to run a business.

"I had the best time of life being a flight attendant, and now I have been in business for 14 years and don’t regret one single minute that I quit college."


Krysta, 30

"I'm a 30 year old female who dropped out of college second year because I felt it was a waste of money and that was literally the best decision I've ever made in my adult life looking back. I am a lot further along in my career than may of my friends due to not being tied down by a piece of paper that tells me what I should be doing and a mountain of student loan debt. I was able to invest every dime into growing a business without worrying about those Sally Mae monthly payments. There was literally nothing holding me back."


Conni, 63

Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock

"I was so sure of my choice at the time many years ago, but now I wish I had stayed. I promised my parents that I would go back but of course, I never did. I have felt bad about it forever.

"I have a thriving Pilates practice in Los Angeles and I have written a book but I do feel the shame of not completing college. I have forgiven myself for leaving as it seemed the only option at the time. I was so deeply unhappy in school. I felt bad telling my two children that I didn't finish and because I dropped out I have helped my students stay in school."


Melonee, 24

"I graduated with a 3.79 GPA in 2012 and started a journalism degree at Temple University in Philadelphia in hopes of becoming a fashion writer for magazines in New York. I took out about $22,000 total in loans for housing and tuition, had about $1,500 in scholarships and another $1,000 in grants.

"During the end of the second semester of my second year, I was told that I’d need to pay out of pocket to continue school. My anxiety bothered me a lot and I would frequently have panic attacks. Eventually, my mom and my dad each paid half. When the next semester came, I got the same message, and at this point I knew it was unrealistic; my parents spread themselves thin to pay the first time.

"In 2014, I dropped out of college and quickly became depressed. I never considered what I would do if I wasn’t going to school. Eventually I realized going to school wasn’t the only option to being successful. In late 2015, I decided to start modeling. Four years later I am signed with an agency, just moved to New York, and am working as a plus-size model. My anxiety and depression doesn’t cripple me anymore and I am happier than I’ve ever been.

"I do still want to get my degree, but I don’t feel the immense pressure to do it as soon as possible. I will enroll in classes for something fashion or art-related once I finish paying off the loans I owe. I am grateful that I had the experience of college. I see now that it is not for everyone, and that is OK."


Terri, In Her 60s

"I didn't finish college and I feel great about the decision. I am still working full-time at my own business and loving it. Ironically, there is no college education for either of the fields that I have spent my life pursuing.

"I am a life-long horsewoman. In my 20s, while giving private riding instructions, I was approached by the parents of a disabled child to see if I could help her with riding lessons. That one child led me to set up a non-profit organization and fund it so the kids could receive the lessons for free. I operated a non-profit therapeutic riding program off and on for over 35 years. I loved every bit of it.

"College wouldn't have served me at all and if I had gone, I wouldn't have had the opportunities that I currently am pursing."


Melissa, 50


"I graduated high school in 1987, and then attended our local community college for two years. From there, I transferred to Eastern Michigan University, where I dropped out after being there for a year and a half. I always just blamed it on my mom's failing health, and not wanting to be away from her. But the truth was, college wasn't for me.

"When I came home, I worked full time, and still continued on with my college education back at the community college. After changing majors a million and a half times, I ended up with seven years of college and not one degree to show for it.

"Fast forward to present day me. In 2006, I started blogging when four of my five kids were in elementary school, and my youngest was still at home. From blogging, a career evolved and I'm working full time in a senior level position within the digital marketing field. I spent many years regretting not having a degree. But now I feel like I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be. And I know I'm going to only grow from here. No college degree required."


Rachel, 26

"I started college at DePaul University in Chicago, studying Biology with a minor in Public Policy. I stopped taking my antidepressants cold turkey, hated waking up at 7:30am, and was (understandably) not equipped to handle the responsibilities of getting to classes.

"The meds played a part but I also quickly realized that I wasn't ready for college, and I didn't want to go into debt. I moved back to my hometown, saved up money to move back to Chicago, and someone offered to publish a book of my poems. I spent four years making a living off my writing. I published five books!

"I considered going back to college about three years after I left. I applied on a whim and wasn't accepted. I'm really glad I didn't finish college now. I moved to New York just over two years ago and now I'm head of a department. I feel encouraged to use my creativity, valued, and challenged every day, which is what I need to stay interested, and something that college didn't offer me.

"My dad still wants me to go back someday, which I understand, because he's from a generation where it was more crucial to have a degree. If I ever go back to college, it will be to learn something I'm really excited about, or to get better at the career I'm already doing pretty well in. I've come really far for someone who dropped out because she wasn't ready and wasn't able to take her antidepressants. I'm proud."


Melissa, 34

"I only finished three years of college. Originally I had planned to go back, but I kept getting well-paying jobs so my motivation decreased. Not having a college degree ended up being a catalyst to me creating my own business on my own terms. I believe we’re living in a time where we have more access to create something for ourselves than ever before. The ones who realize that will have an edge on those who don’t.

"I ended up creating a following of hundreds of thousands of people through my podcast. Now I feel that if something doesn’t change in the higher education industry, people will see less of a need for it. I don’t feel like I need a degree anymore and I credit my resourcefulness and drive to not having it."


College isn't for everybody. If you do decide to leave early, be reassured that it doesn't mean the end of the world — and that you're just as capable of success without a college degree.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

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