I think this could be done. Obviously I am too old to prove it, but I have some ideas of what it would take.
First of all, prospects would have to be fiscally wise already. This is a fairly rare quality at that age level. I remember having no idea of what a mortgage or what bond duration was and retirement accounts where really far from my mind at the time. The main obstacle was and potentially still is that these topics were not even brought up at the time. Even if they were they would likely drown in a sea of well-intended advice about going to college, interning, writing resumes, and getting started on a 30 year long career in middle-class suburbia.
Second, and this is probably much more difficult to achieve in practice. You would have to be smart enough to go to college AND smart enough to not do it(!) Most people including myself only managed to get to the first step. If you have the brains for it, you can get all the education you need from the public library (I know some of you will disagree and say one can not get all the keggers, stimulating conversation with professors, and connections etc.). What you can not get is a degree, but you do not need a degree unless you want to work in a cubicle, that is, pushing papers for your employer/boss.
Now, having exited high school, the objective is to get paid as soon as possible. Highly skilled labor pays as much or more than college degree requiring office jobs. For instance, I know that the average starting salary of a watchmaker (a 2 year education) is 40k+. The average salary of a trucker is similar and the education is even shorter.
After two years of study and five years of hard work, you should have arrived at age 24-26. At this point, you would be a journeyman and able to either work on projects as you please, because you are financially independent, or ready to move on and start your own business.
Not only will this avoid student debt (which can also be largely avoided by going to school in your own state, paying rent to your own parents instead of someone else’s parents, and working a part time job), but it will also avoid a couple of years of opportunity costs of taking college classes. College graduates don’t get to earn money until they are 21-23 and then they would still have to work off their debt.
Beyond this, just follow the standard tenets of early retirement: Don’t get stuck with large house and transportation costs, cut down recurring costs, learn to do your own service jobs, etc.
However, to do this you need to have an immensely strong character. You need to be convinced you are right in the face of much more opposition than you would face even if you were 10 years older. My suggestion would be to “hide” your aspirations and simply pick a skilled trade rather than the college education because you are “strongly interested” in say automechanics and not so much in calculus and movie appreciation or whatever they teach in college these days 🙂 There should be plenty of ammunition, especially now, that often a college degree leads to being unemployed while being overqualified to flip burgers, while a trade might just be the ticket.
This does not mean that anyone with a skilled trade can just avoid education. You would need to learn to think, but if you got accepted for a good college, you should be able to teach yourself all this stuff anyway.
The general conclusion though is
- Learn a useful (employable) skill
- Don’t get saddled up with debt
There are a few college degrees that fit into this criteria. However, there is a tendency to a) rush headlong into stuff that is interesting, fun, and easy, due to the belief that a college degree per se is the magical key that opens doors. This was once the case, but today a college degree has been so watered out exactly so many paid and went to college that the level has dropped to what used to be HS level. You only need to find some 50 year old HS tests and see if you can answer the questions to see this. And b) college educations are usually packaged with student loans.
On a personal level I do not regret the choices I made of spending 10 years in the educational system and exiting with a moderately employable and a barely “employerable” (anyone want to purchase physics services?(*)) degree because it and the following work was fun at the time. I am happy that I was on a grant and stingy with my money (did not have a debt mentality). However, from a strictly financial point of view I could have done much better. In fact the only thing I did right was not to make any mistakes on the negative side of the balance sheet.
(*) Yeah, I could tutor other people in how to become a physicist, but that would be like writing a blog about how to write a blog… Hey I think we got ourselves a business model!! 😀
For completeness I must also mention that you could start your own company. However, most start-ups fail and thus I would not consider this method as robust as the above. For every entrepreneur that cashed out at a young age, there are 10 or 20 that did not because they were not in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.