All Eli Munc wanted was a job doing something he was passionate about and make a decent living at the same time. Was it too much to ask for? Wondering how to avoid student debt, he set out to become employable without taking the conventional path to a dream career.

What he discovered was off the beaten track, all right. It’s a digital marketing career path that veers away from tradition.

The traditional path is to go to school, get a college or university degree, and then find a job. But this path is increasingly expensive and risky without a guaranteed ROI.

In the United States, student debt reached $1.7 trillion in 2021—the second largest category of debt, second only to mortgage. The student loan burden is even higher than credit card debt and car loans.

The situation isn’t much better in Canada. Statistics Canada found that half of postsecondary graduates in 2015 graduated with student loans and 64% took longer than three years to pay it off. The median student debt among professional graduates was $60,300.

It was a situation Eli didn’t want to get into.

How did Eli go from an underpaid grocery store worker to a full-time Digital Marketing Analyst—without spending four years in college or university and without incurring student debt?

Here’s Eli’s story, in his own words:

It All Began with a Dream

I was 21 and living in Santa Rosa, California, working at a grocery store full-time. My quality of life was not ideal. Working in a grocery store is a tough job. I used to have to wake up at 2:30 in the morning to do super early shifts at the grocery store. It just wasn’t ideal for how hard I was working and how little money I was making.

It was the spark in me to find a better career option. Not just one that makes more money but one I enjoyed doing. I wanted to find the intersection between something I’m passionate about and something I can make a good living off of.

That’s when I discovered digital marketing.

2 Reasons Why College or University Wasn’t an Option

I didn’t go to college or university because after doing some research about digital marketing, I learned that this field is constantly changing. It’s constantly evolving and updating.

So it’s tough for a college curriculum to keep up with all the updates and everything. If you spend four years trying to get a digital marketing degree, by the time you get out, most of the information is going to be outdated. And you’re going to find out that college didn’t prepare you adequately for digital marketing in real life.

The best preparation is learning from up-to-date information and learning from people who are in the field, not from professors who only know about the 4Ps of marketing—I’ve never even used that in any of my marketing jobs ever.

Most of the stuff they teach you in college or university is just not relevant. I only wanted to learn things that are relevant to what I’m going to be doing in the job and ideas that will help me do better and create more value in digital marketing.

The second reason I didn’t go to college is the cost. It’s just gotten way too expensive for the value it brings. It’s totally not worth it. You don’t need to go to college for digital marketing. You can do apprenticeship programs like Acadium or find other ways to gain experience in this field, without having to go to college and going into massive debt.

The only thing I may regret in not going to college is the social aspect of it. I know you can meet a lot of people in college, your peers, and go to parties and all that. I felt like I was missing out a little bit on the college social life.

But COVID hit, and the social element doesn’t even matter anymore. All that is gone now, so the real value of college is being tested beyond just the social aspect.

I wanted to learn from people actually doing digital marketing in the trenches. I wanted to learn from people who could give me the insights that will help me succeed and get to where I want to go, not just some abstract theory.

Eli’s Digital Marketing Career Path

I took an online course and got into starting my own social media agency. I went down the whole agency path. I learned Facebook ads, and I learned a lot about cold calling and sales.

After doing that for a while, I learned that the whole agency thing and doing sales just wasn’t for me.

What I did like was the digital marketing side—running Facebook ads, optimizing campaigns, and creating reports.

So I decided that’s where I wanted to focus on. Instead of going from grocery store worker to entrepreneur, I wanted to work for a company that allows me to do what I’m good at and make a decent amount of money, too.

I went through another course, which focuses on how to start a career in digital marketing. That got me doing my own projects to gain more experience. I built my own websites on WordPress, ran some Google ads with my own money to test it out, and created SEO content.

I was looking for some way to gain experience because that’s the hardest thing when you’re just starting out. How do you learn about this field? To do that, you have to have experience. In order to gain experience, you have to have a job in the field to do it.

I tried offering my services for free to local businesses around. I did that for a while and got some good experience. But it wasn’t ideal because local business owners don’t really know a lot about digital marketing, or even about marketing in general. So it’s awfully hard to learn from them.

You can certainly test out things and learn from them by yourself, but it’s not ideal.

Acadium Plus Digital Marketing Apprenticeships

How to Avoid Student Debt When You Want A Good Job: Eli’s Breakthrough

I heard about Acadium, and I thought it sounded interesting. You’re matched with mentors who are knowledgeable about digital marketing and can teach you and give you personalized feedback that will help you improve your skills quickly.

So I signed up for the platform. It was free, which was pretty incredible. Few things out there can offer the level of value Acadium has and still be free.

My first apprenticeship was with an agency based in Chicago for three months. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I learned a lot about email marketing, social media, and SEO.

Working for free doing a three-month apprenticeship is one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my personal and professional development.

Aside from developing your skills, you also expand your network with mentors who are happy to help you and give you introductions to other people in their network. Another benefit is finding out what area of digital marketing you want to focus on.

That’s why when I received the offer to join Acadium Plus, I did not hesitate. It was a no-brainer for me.

In the past I’ve paid for courses upwards of $5,000 and have received little to no return on investment from them. So I had become hesitant about putting in a bunch of money. I’ve tried a bunch of things in the past and they haven’t worked, so I was skeptical about online programs.

But what makes Acadium Plus unique is that you don’t have to pay anything upfront. They do what’s called an ISA or Income Sharing Agreement. You start paying for the program only once you get hired and have a certain salary. You only pay if they achieve the results you’re looking for. It’s a win-win for both the program and for you.

Because their goal is to help you get hired and get the highest possible salary, it’s a win for both Acadium and you.

The biggest benefit from Acadium Plus was the mentorship from Erik Harbison, who’s the main instructor for Acadium Plus. He was super helpful in helping me hone my career focus and helping me push through the ups and downs, too. He was always understanding and friendly. He helped me create a detailed action plan, helped keep me accountable, and helped push me towards my goals.

He also helped me overcome my imposter syndrome and taught me things about marketing myself, like how to stand out in a job application, how to get the interview, and how to ace the job when I did get it.

It was also very helpful for me to get feedback during mock interviews. If not for those, I wouldn’t have gotten the job because developing my skills was all I wanted to focus on. I was all about getting good at my craft and digital marketing because I love this field so much. I want to be the best at it.

But I ignored the interviewing aspect of job hunting, which to be honest, can be a pain especially if you’re not used to it and you’re not extroverted.

But it’s necessary.

If you really want to get that nice full-time job with a good salary and benefits, then good interviewing skills are essential. Doing mock interviews in Acadium Plus was the main thing that helped me get this job I have today.

Is This the Future of Education?

I wish more colleges and universities were adopting this method. Because student debt is a major problem.

There needs to be more accountability between colleges and student outcomes. Acadium is 100% accountable to their students’ success, and they show that through their Income Sharing Agreement.

I hope that Acadium will be here for many, many years to come. Maybe one day, if I have kids, and they want to get into digital marketing, I’ll show them Acadium. I’ll tell them, “This is how I did it back then.”

Who knows what it’s going to be like 20 years in the future? But if any of my friends wanted to get into this field and asked me, “How did you avoid student debt and land your dream job?” I’ll tell them it was from self-directed learning and from Acadium.

Success Breeds Success

Now I have more confidence in my skills and my abilities in digital marketing and what value I can provide to a company.

Before, I didn’t have much of a network of people in this field, and Acadium was also the program that helped me jumpstart that network connection. Because there are over 200 students in this program from different backgrounds and going down different marketing majors, different paths. So it’s great to have a strong and reliable network to lean on for help and to ask questions and just to engage with and to hold each other accountable. That was one of the things that really helped me.

Now I feel that I can achieve my goals. Since 2017, I wanted to prove to my family that you can have a successful career without getting a college degree and going into hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans.

I’m living proof that you don’t need to have some fancy credentials or anything like that in order to have a successful career.

You just have to be willing to put in the hard work and to learn and to embrace your weaknesses and to work on yourself, too.

*Eli Munc graduated from the Acadium Plus program in 2020, one of the youngest to do so. In April 2021, he began work at Rocket Clicks as a Digital Advertising Analyst.*