This is not a treatise on eschewing formal education. Not at all. Rather, how hard work, no matter what, can get you to where you want to be.
This is one woman's journey through her career, with only a high school degree (and some very blurry college years).
I greatly admire those with higher education degrees, I really do. The work, dedication, perseverence, the insurmountable debt. . . .
This next bit was my perspective at the time, however in retrospect, was a blessing in disguise.
I was a stunning underachiever in a very rural Western NY high school South of Buffalo, in "the maple syrup capital of the world", in the blizzard belt. At that time, suicide would have been redundant.
My graduating class was ~40, and the halls frequently wafted of manure, as many had morning chores to do before school. Socioeconomically the bar was very low, as were any expectations of making it out and becoming something other than a farmer, logger, or welfare recipient. "Successful" people worked at the Cutco knife factory in the neighboring town of Olean. On staff at the school was a veritable petri dish of characters, among some, the; drunk, divorcee, multi-lingual manic-depressive, temperamental artist, stern civics instructor, and pedophile, to name a few.
Winter was miserably cold, and frequently required shimmying out a window and shoveling out the house (heated by a wood stove) from 12' snow drifts. Summer was hot and humid, & there were always chores to be done, and animals to attend.
I grew up in a 'game farm' which was like a private zoo. While we did have some common farm animals, but we also had exotic animals and partnered with other game farms and zoos across the country. I developed healthy respect for teeth, beaks, claws, spurs, and horns, having found myself on the business end of all of them at one point or another.
But I digress.
Making it 'out'
My only impetus for having semi-decent grades in high school, was parental repercussion. I was able to score decently on SATs and was accepted to a few universities, choosing a NY state university near Woodstock (yes, THAT Woodstock).
I majored in graphic design, as art was in my genes, so I was decent at it, and minored in fine art and art history. I had an aversion to all mathematics as my Mother switched me from leftie to rightie in kindergarten, which affected my cognitive processing of numbers. 'Art' also required the least amount of mathematics, BINGO! Being right 'off the farm', I distinctly abused my newfound freedom. For 5 years. Since I was supporting myself with 2 part time jobs as well as going to school, I decided that this was unsustainable and made the choice to quit and start working as close to my fields of study as possible.
It was a gamble, and in retrospect, I do wish I had graduated with my BFA, purely for closure.
I had a number of different positions, ranging from paste-up artist, to chartist, to finally a bonafide Graphic Designer working in NYC.
Up to this point (late 80s), I have never touched a computer. My first encounter was to try to jam a floppy into the drive, backward. 8 Months later, I was wholly in charge of the entire electronic migration of the magazine from manual to digital, in charge of constructing all of the templates, style code, and output.
By the time I reached Boston in the late 80s, i had some decent experience. I had a few Creative Director positions for a few small companies in the greater Boston area, but was feeling restless. I started to work with a well-known design consulting firm and really learned a great deal about diverse organizations as well as furthering my skills and technical expertise. I learned everything I could as fast as I could.
I consulted in large publishing houses, financial institutions, and production houses. What I learned was key to who I am today, the success I have enjoyed, and how I approach situations. More here about that.
Up to now, being sans-degree was never an issue, my work, skills, and attitude spoke for themselves. Frequently I worked alongside RISD graduates, some being rather elitist, and realized that there really is no place for ego on a team. I kept my 'credentials', or lack thereof, to myself, and kept learning and doing the best work I was capable of.
The Tech leap.
At one point, when business was slow, I applied to IBM for a Designer position in Cambridge. I thought; "Here will be my stopgap." Such a tech company giant would certainly have a hard and fast degree requirement, AND, I had no software design experience whatsoever. They took a chance on me, a chance they never regretted.
That was 20 years ago, and I am still with IBM (knock on wood).
I worked hard and came up through the ranks from Designer, Software Engineer/ Visual Designer, Visual Design Lead, and now a hybrid UX/Visual/Research Design Lead. I learned everything i could, from everyone. I worked late hours, I had failures and successes. I was finally an overachiever. I became a go-to employee with a great reputation. I became agile and developed (and still develop) every skill needed, in order to fill expertise gaps needed. I read and researched. I hit my stride and have kept pace all this time.
I work shoulder to shoulder with PhDs from Ivy-league universities, former Professors, thought leaders, and industry professionals, seamlessly, because I have made myself an industry professional. I respect my colleagues, and in turn, they respect me.
The only time I was declined, based on parchment, was once at a large Web company here in the Bay area. At the time, a degree was a non-negotiable requirement. I made my choices, and I take my consequences. Since then, they no longer have a degree requirement.
All in all, I have made my career work, and work well. I would never advise someone to quit pursuit of a higher education. I am saying that if you are willing to work hard, learn everything you can, and allow failure to motivate you, you can become a success, inasmuch as you define it for yourself.
I have thought, over the years, about completing my degree, but the cost-to-value ratio is prohibitive with little roi, for me, at my age and experience level.
I am grateful for every Teacher, Professor, Colleague, and person I have ever encountered as they shape(d) the way I think and learn.
You may have greater success with a different path, but, above all, work hard, allow for failure, respect yourself and others, wonder at-and learn everything you can, and you will be successful. Never stop evolving, "there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy..."
Non sequitur: "I drank what?" ~Socrates