In May of this year, I proudly sat in an auditorium in San Jose State University, listening to the commencement speech at my niece’s graduation ceremony. Notified a month earlier of her acceptance into the San Jose State Graduate Program, we all understood that this ceremony was just the beginning of her journey. Looking at the proud families in the audience, I thought about their sacrifices to give their children this competitive edge in life.

In these tough economic times, so many families are weighing the cost/benefit ratio of higher education. With the rising cost of tuition and a less than robust job market, it isn’t surprising that the value of higher education is coming into question. The real question becomes, can a high school graduate realize similar professional success as a college graduate? I believe the answer is yes, success is attainable without a degree, but the probability in corporate America is unlikely.

There are several celebrated success stories of entrepreneurs who did not complete, or even begin college, who have literally changed the world: Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc.; Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft; Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, just to name a few. But I think we need to agree that these are extraordinary individuals with uncommon talents.

The majority of us find ourselves in corporate work environments where a college degree is the price of entry to advancement opportunities. I found myself at this crossroad in my company. I had risen through the ranks through dedication, hard work, and a reputation for delivering strong financial results. What I didn’t have was a college degree. I took the non-traditional route to higher education and got my degree while working full-time. Not the easiest course, but upon completion, I was on equal educational footing with my peers. My dedication, global experience, and results-driven performance set me apart from the pack.

Unless you are going to go the entrepreneur route, a college degree still gives you a competitive edge and is worth the financial outlay. The only caveat I offer is don’t fall prey to the belief that a degree guarantees success. Become a lifelong student—seek out and celebrate diverse opinions, practice situational awareness, and continually learn from your customers and competition. In the end there is no substitute for hard work.