32 accomplishments that will give you the influence of a college degree

“Does being smarter make you happier?”

This was the question I posed to the audience at a recent DaVinci Institute event, hoping to gauge their reaction.

I found it fascinating to watch this very conflicted group of amazingly bright people as they struggled to put their thoughts into words. In the end, the answers, which varied tremendously, seemed to fall mostly into the category of “No, but…..”

A natural follow-on question would be, “Okay, so what constitutes being smart?”

Ignoring College

Last week it was announced that Han Han, a Chinese professional rally driver, best-selling author and China’s most popular blogger, has been nominated as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. He is also a person who never graduated from college.

Han Han has taken his place among the likes of Bill Gates, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, Paul Allen, Ben Stiller, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Sean Combs as some of the smartest and most influential people in the world, none of whom have ever graduated from college.

Over the years, college degrees have evolved into a significant status symbol, one of the world’s most recognizable symbols for being smart. A college degree is a definable accomplishment requiring years of study, so there is some validity to the notion that people who graduate from college, on average, are indeed smarter than the average non-degree holder.

However, it is also clear that some of the world’s most successful people took a different path and never bothered with finishing college. In fact, few people know, or care, that the sheepskin is missing from their walls. They have achieved status in other ways.

Logically then, if you are a talented person and haven’t had the time, money, or opportunity to go to college, are there some legitimate substitutes for status that the rest of the world will consider to be of equal or greater value?

College leaders have done a tremendous job of cementing the value of a college education into the minds of virtually everyone.

If you asked a cross-section of business leaders, “What other accomplishments would you consider to be as important as a college degree?” chances are they will struggle to give you an answer that doesn’t have a college education somewhere in the background.

But many options do exist.

A Status Symbol under Attack

In one of my recent papers, The Future of Colleges & Universities:  Blueprint for a Revolution, I talked about how colleges were on the verge of being attacked, and one of the areas they will be attacked on is the areas of “status.” College degrees are important but new status symbols are beginning to emerge that compete directly with the inherent status of a degree.

Until recently, colleges have primarily faced competition from other colleges. Even though they will debate the value of one college degree over another, they remain unified in their support of higher education.

Today, there are many status symbols that compete with college degrees, and in the future there will be many more.

Royalty, such as the King and Queen of a country, is a great status symbol that comes with tremendous privilege, but it is not an accomplishment. People are born into it.

A Nobel Prize is also a remarkable status symbol, but it generally requires one or many college degrees somewhere in the person’s background.

So what kind of accomplishments are accessible to most people that could be construed by a potential employer, business colleague, or acquaintance as being the equivalent to a college degree, or for that matter, even better?

To answer this, I’ve decided to break this discussion into four categories:

  1. Components of Equivalency (equal to a course or multiple courses)
  2. Equivalent to a College Degree
  3. Better than a College Degree
  4. Future Status Symbols

Even though we are discussing alternatives to going to college it doesn’t mean that there is no learning involved. Quite the contrary. Learning becomes an essential ingredient in virtually every path to success, but in some cases, far less formalized.

The following examples are simply intended to expand your awareness of literally thousands of options that currently exist.

Components of Equivalency

Much like taking a series of courses that stack up and form the basis for a college degree, a series of smaller achievements can easily be used to form an equivalent status.

  1. Certificate Programs – Most certificate programs are intended to either replace or supplement existing degree programs. The weight of this accomplishment varies tremendously with the institution that is granting it.
  2. Certification – Certifications, such as Microsoft, Cisco, or Oracle Certification, have become a very popular way to bestow credentials.
  3. Apprenticeship – The age old process of working for years under the tutelage of a master craftsman is still alive and well in some industries.
  4. Foreign Travel – With foreign travel becoming increasingly common, it tends to hold less value today than in the past, but is still recognized as a significant achievement.
  5. Own a Patent – Becoming a patent holder is also less rare in today’s world than in the past, but is still regarded as a noteworthy accomplishment.
  6. Produce an Event – Events range from small to huge. But a successful event, no matter the size, has the ability to position you in a way that will cause others to take notice.
  7. Memberships – Status by association. The credibility of an association adds to the credibility of you as an individual.
  8. Start a Business – Launching a business is a significant learning experience regardless of how successful it becomes. It also adds a new dimension to the identity of the founder.

Equivalent to a College Degree

College degrees are viewed as a significant personal accomplishment sustained over a longer period of time. Similarly any accomplishment competing for that kind of status needs to convey a similar sustained effort. Here are a few examples:

  1. Published a Book – If a major publisher gives the green light to publish your book, their endorsement brings with it considerable esteem.
  2. Produce a Documentary – There is something noble and noteworthy about producing a documentary that puts documentarians into a class of their own.
  3. Foreign Travel with a Cause – Whether you’re working with Engineers Without Borders creating bridges or water systems for desolate villages or working with Teachers without Borders and teaching young people a much needed craft, foreign travel that is tied to a cause carries far more weight than travel alone.
  4. Serve on a City Council – Local elections have a way of validating your status in the community and serves as a wonderful learning experience.
  5. Commissioned Artwork – Artwork is only as important as the artist who tells the story. Commissioned art brings with it a rare position of honor.
  6. Become an Expert – Brendon Burchard, Founder of the Experts Academy, has defined 10 key elements that qualify someone as being an expert. Most people can achieve the ranks of “expert” once they understand the process.
  7. Creating a High-Traffic Website – The size of your digital footprint is directly proportional to your online status.
  8. Dog Breeder – This is an example of a well-recognized industry specific title that virtually everyone recognizes as important. Dog breeders hold prominence in social circles far removed from that of the pet-owner community.

Better than College

It is a fine line between status symbols that are the equivalent to college and those that are considered better than college. Here are a few that fall into the better-than-college territory:

  1. Become Famous – Whether you become famous as an actor or actress, writer, cartoonist, artist, columnist, movie director, or fashion designer, fame is a rare privilege bestowed on the limited few.
  2. Prestigious Awards – Granting awards is a time-honored tradition, but over the years, only a few awards have risen to the top. These awards bestow tremendous privilege on the recipients.
  3. Elected to a Higher Office – When people vote someone into office, it’s a unique and powerful way of telling the world they are important.
  4. Build a Financial Empire – There are many ways to build a personal fortune, but only a limited few who actually figure it out. People who have amassed a financial empire command tremendous respect.
  5. Building a Business Empire – Building a business empire is like playing the game of chess without the rules. It is a game of skill, timing, determination, and chance that only the exceptional few have mastered.
  6. Game Designer – Much like movie producers, game designers are relegated to the lofty ranks of royalty in the emerging kingdom of the pixel elite.
  7. Successful Inventor – Becoming successful as an inventor is far different than what Hollywood would have you believe. It requires mastering many complicated skills. Successful inventors are part business people, part visionaries, part opportunists, and a big part lucky.
  8. Create/Manage a Fund – Those who are placed in a position of “trust” and granted the role of gatekeeper to the money, tend to command special respect among the general public.

Future Status Symbols

When systems and technologies evolve, so do the opportunities. Each change in these areas comes with a need for next-generation rockstars. Here are a few possibilities.

  1. The Outlier Label – As Malcom Gladwell so aptly described in his book The Outliers, any person who dedicates over 10,000 hours of their life to a particular skill or profession moves into the elite ranks of revered master or expert. The dedication and proficiency exuded by an “outlier” is far beyond that of the vast majority of degree holders.
  2. Owner of a Unique Data Feed – Information is still powerful and having access to a novel and unique data feed will grant you unusual clout and status in the future.
  3. Global System Architect – We are transitioning from national systems to global systems and one of the coolest monikers in the future will be that of a Global System Architect.
  4. “Disturbance-in-the-Force” Web Presence – Having a significant online presence is one thing, but causing the center of gravity to shift among the digital natives, with the introduction of a new organic business model, will grant you unusual preeminence in the online world.
  5. Clone Designer – “I need a clone.” As time constraints begin to overwhelm much of the world’s population, the pent-up demand for clones can be felt almost everywhere. Uniquely positioned at the apex of this soon-to-be emerging industry will be the clone designers.
  6. Launch a Network – Networks have far reaching influence and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Whether it’s a communications network, a professional network, or a social network, the founder of a network is also the heart and soul of its significance.
  7. Launch the “You Inc.” Brand – You are your own brand. When you, as a brand, become a household name, many new doors will open for you.
  8. Founder of a Movement – With every movement comes a certain nobility and distinction that helps circumvent the traditional path to success.

The Seeds of Competition

After listing all of these ways to gain status without going to college it occurred to me that I’ve only tangentially discussed the competing forms of status that will be putting colleges on the defensive.

Status ends up being a culmination of who you are, not how much you know. While the experience of going to college can be quite valuable, so can other experiences. Competition will come in the form of competing experiences, and going beyond the experience itself, and translating it into significant accomplishments.

Successful people don’t have jobs, they have a calling. Each accomplishment stems from a passion and drive that is uniquely their own, not from a requirement that someone else dictates. Competing experiences will be designed to nurture the budding talents in people and give them ownership of the path they choose to take.

We are entering the age of hyper-individuality, and the path to each person’s most significant accomplishments will demand a hyper-individualized approach. Competition will be framed to fit around the wants, needs, and desires of that specific individual at that specific moment in time.

In the end, it will be far less about the path and far more about the results.

By Thomas Frey

13 Responses to “Competing for Status”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://www.mydigitalfootprint.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Tony Fish</a>

    Thomas love the post, really enjoyed it. As a person without a basic English qualification, O level in my day. I tried 5 times as I was told that without it; give up now. However, as the author of "My Digital Footprint" I would contend that reputation is directly proportional (as it relates to links) to your online status, not size. Quality matters. @tonyfish
    • admin

      Tony, Thanks for the comment. You bring up a good point in how best to quantify the dimensionality of an online footprint. Thanks for pointing that out. Tom
  2. <a href='http://goldenisa.org.uk' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Golden ISA</a>

    We study nonparametric estimation of the sub-distribution functions for current status data with competing risks. Our main interest is in the nonparametric maximum likelihood estimator (MLE), and for comparison we also consider a simpler “naive estimator.” Both types of estimators were studied by Jewell, van der Laan and Henneman [Biometrika (2003) 90 183–197], but little was known about their large sample properties. Golden ISA
  3. Michael Behrens

    Thomas, I really enjoyed your post, especially the pictures :D, and agree a lot with what you said. But I think status is mostly an attitude that some people have. And many of your listed ways to gain status are a result of having that attitude.
    • admin

      Michael. Good point. You are correct in assuming a level of confidence that people need to achieve something significant. Their attitude, which is bolstered by confidence, will evolve over time as smaller achievements lead to bigger achievements. In the same way that passing courses builds confidence in a student, other types of accomplishments build confidence in non-students. Tom
  4. <a href='http://www.Spherit.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Spherical Phil</a>

    Answers Part 1 4. Foreign travel - Yes 5. Own a patent - Yes 6. Produce Event - Yes 8. Start a business - Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes Part 2 1. Publish a book - Yes (another on the way) 2. Produce a documentary - Yes (short) 6. Become an expert - Yes 8. Dog breeder - I stud out my two champion Portuguese Water Dogs, does that qualify? Part 3 7. Successful invention - Yes Part 4 1. Outlier label - (my wife calculated a year ago that) I've invested more than 22,000 hours in the development of The Sphere (Does that mean I qualify for two outlier labels?) 2. Own unique data feed - I own unique data, but at this time it is not in a feed, does that count? 6. Launch a Network - doing that now (do you like the name: Center for The Sphere?) For extra credit - my work is definitely a calling. Dr Frey did I pass? Where do I pick up my Status Badge? -- Great piece Tom, really enjoyed it. Interestingly, my wife Pamela and I have been talking about this very subject a good bit lately, as we are addressing it in some detail in our current book (very soon to be finished). The elements you list add credibility to a person which may lead to status. But so far in our American culture, it seems "status" is still relegated to these: money; fame; PhD. To illustrate, people often introduce me as Dr. Lawson at speaking events because they automatically assume I have a PhD to have done the things I have done. Truth is, I'm just Spherical Phil, with no college degree. I agree with your post. I too believe we are in the midst of a shift in perception regarding how status is bestowed. And none too soon. We've dismissed a lot of very valuable people who had something to offer but they did not fit the old criteria. What a loss. Spherical, Phil
  5. <a href='http://www.denver-editor.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Raymond Hutchins</a>

    Well, Tom...you have changed my perspective on and understanding of status. Of course, since you brand yourself as a futurist, I was most interested in future status symbols and those that might be most achievable by those w/o status. My vote is owner of a unique data feed. Remarkably good piece. Thank you.
  6. Tommye Riff

    Thank you for sharing excellent information. Your site is so cool. I'm impressed by the info that you have on this site. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for extra articles.
  7. <a href='http://www.ReverseLayaway.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Peter J</a>

    Very interesting piece Tom--I think the "College Bubble" is about to burst because the value of that particular societal stamp of approval is going down while the price is continuing to rise at a much faster pace than inflation. And in the hyper-connected world we live in it's far more about your individual contribution in whatever form it may take (a business, art, an idea, a discovery, an invention, a new way to organize information, etc.) since distribution is no longer an insurmountable task. I think Mark Twain said it best: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
    • admin

      Peter, Very well stated. The difficult piece to gauge is the inertia and continued momentum of the college credentialing myth. So far no one has created a competing credentialing system that people trust. As soon as someone does, colleges will decline quickly. Tom
  8. James M

    I would add producing original research which gets a lot of citations. I hope that some respected organization starts offering exams and assignment assessment without requiring course enrolment. This would mean that paying for expensive coursework will no longer be necessary to prove your ability. A dream for the many self-motivated learners who have worked out that you can learn everything and anything for free in the digital age.

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