Is a Social Media Presence More Powerful Than a Degree?

It started with an Instagram post. "I remember the old days when you needed a degree and a resume to get a job. Now you need 10k followers and a mediocre blog." 

It's a little painful to read because there is some truth to it. 

Let's look at the numbers first, because based on these alone, it appears much more lucrative to focus on growing a following. (Don't despair yet.)

The graduating class of 2015 was the most indebted in history. Prior to 2015, the graduating class of 2014 was the most indebted in history. Sense a pattern? As of March 2015, according to the Federal Reserve, the outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. stood at $1.27 trillion, and that number is only expected to grow.

That's right. Not millions. Not billions. This is literally a trillion dollar issue. 

Complicating this problem is that according to government data published by, the average graduate in 2015 had about $35,000 in student loan debt, double what it was in the late nineties. The number of students taking out student loans has also increased sizably. In the nineties less than half of college graduates had taken out student loans. Today, over 70% of students leave school in the hole. 

Adding insult to costly injury, guess what the average starting salary was for the class of 2015? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers the average starting salary for those with liberal arts degrees (think most creatives) is under $38k. See the prob?

If your loan is 35k and your starting salary is approximately the same, how long do you think it's going to take to pay off that debt? Outstanding debt of this magnitude prevents the new working class from saving for retirement. It delays marriage and first home purchases. 

It also has many asking, WTF? Should I have grown a following instead? And: 

Is a social media presence more powerful than a degree?

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While studies show that college graduates consistently earn more than students with only a high school degree, this matter is complicated by research that suggests that while the Millennial generation is the best-educated in history, they are not earning more than earlier generations of young adults. According to the Pew Research Center the overall median earnings of today's Millenials are not that much different than the earnings of the Early Boomers ($34,833), Gen Xers ($32,173) or the Silents ($30,982). 

And while the numbers still suggest that overall, college is a smart investment, we can't deny that there is extreme economic disparity between what a degree will get you and what a huge following can offer. Or even what a medium-sized following can produce. An Instagram user with 100k followers and decent engagement can earn 5k for a post-- and that is on the low end of the scale. Some bloggers are making 100k a month.  

Though most bloggers zealously guard their income, Reward Style, the affiliate marketing network that helps bloggers monetize their content, keeps data on their top performers. They report these bloggers can make $80k per month on affiliate sales alone. Add in paid IG posts, brand deals, and book deals that come from strategic content, and you're looking at a revenue stream previously reserved for top business-people-- those with college degrees or masters. 

But while these blogs have turned musings into a business, it will always be the bloggers who understand the who, what, why, and how of their brand that will be the most successful. They are the ones that understand the numbers beyond the following. 

It's yet to be seen how this will play out, but there is a system of checks and balances seemingly in place. Sure graduates with student debt are starting careers from a disadvantageous position-- saddled by debt that effects nearly everything. But what they should be banking on, and working toward, is career longevity. Their salary, while initially low, will grow. 

A blogger's career -- or rather, an Instagrammer with a large following-- might be making big dollar deposits in their life bank now, but there are a few inherent sustainability issues. One-- technology is always changing, and the ability to retain followers across multiple platforms so that you're giving a brand proven ROI is growing increasingly difficult. It's why we often hear successful bloggers at Create & Cultivate tell the audience that a high follower count should not be your end goal. Two-- in a more standard job market, you cannot put a junior employee in a senior position. Same cannot be said for bloggers.

A lot of followers is not a business plan.

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A blogger's career is in many ways much more precarious, in the same way a models' has always been; there is always someone younger, more connected, more tapped in, and ready to pull that Boucherouite rug right out from under your #shoefie. 

While majoring in #selfies might feel like the career move to make (at least if King Kylie has a say), the best idea is to get a degree, simultaneously grow your following, and then use those blog dollars to pay off your student debt. 


Arianna Schioldager is Create & Cultivate's editorial director. You can find her on IG @ariannawrotethis and more about her at this site she never updates