Last week, we spoke with Zakiya Akerele PhD, an Atlanta-based educator and author of Dump Your Degree: How to Repurpose Your Education, Control Your Career, and Gain Financial Freedom. With her book, Dr. Akerele hopes to help people navigate the educational landscape and chart the best path to career success, even if that path doesn’t include a stop at a four-year college.
This time, we wanted to ask Dr. Akerele what students should be looking for in their college of choice and what they should do if they decide a four-year college isn’t right for them.
Dr. Akerele, a graduate of Florida A & M University, says she believes HBCUs are great environments for African American students to network and be nurtured. But she cautions that the experience should make financial sense in the long run. “My main goal is for students not to have debt and not feel like they’re stuck after they graduate,” she said. “If you have a full scholarship to a predominantly white university, please take it. Don’t go to an HBCU if it’s going to leave you in debt. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Besides making sure the price is right, Dr. Akerele recommends making sure the college you choose is ultimately a space where you feel comfortable. She suggests talking to alumni to learn from their experience, particularly when it comes to academic and career support. “Look for an environment that supports your career journey and doesn’t just teach you how to write a resume or interview,” she said. “You want to be somewhere that will connect you to the career you’re looking for, so make sure the customer service is on point.”
According to Dr. Akerele, too many students waste valuable time and money in college because they can’t decide what they want to study. Instead, Akerele suggests looking into certificate programs that can add to your skill set after graduation. “Don’t spend forever trying to explore. Just get out,” she said.
She also encourages networking as a great way to explore opportunities in other fields. Those relationships, she says, may connect you with an opportunity even if you don’t have the education. “People pivot their careers all the time. And they often do it through connections, not necessarily the degree itself,” she said.
Akerele says that as student loans have made college more accessible, it has created a credential inflation, where some find that their degrees aren’t delivering them the same type of success. “Over 40 percent of college graduates work in fields that don’t require degrees,” she said. Students, she says, shouldn’t feel like college is the only option.
If four-year college isn’t a part of your plan, Akerele encourages exploring opportunities in the trades, which she says can lead you to earn more than some of your peers with college degrees. “I know there is a stigma around blue-collar work, but there are many lucrative trades,” she said. “People want the prestige of a college degree, but you can still go get a trade and potentially make more money.”
“I’m big on alternative methods of gaining knowledge. So many people have made it without degrees. So many big companies were created by people who don’t have degrees. College doesn’t guarantee success or determine whether or not you will be successful,” she said.