Surely it is difficult to attain nibbana, and the path to it requires exceptional dedication and a readiness to renounce and abandon worldly affairs and ties to a degree of which few find themselves capable. But seeing this commitment as mainly a difference between “monastics” and “lay followers” doesn’t, it seems to me, get to the bottom of the matter. That way of viewing things can make it seem as though what is important is that one is first admitted formally into some kind of order. But that can’t be the case.
In MN 26, we have the Buddha’s account of his own search, and then the beginning of his teaching. His first students were the five ascetics, and he doesn’t say that their own achievement of the deathless depended on their first joining a monastic order that didn’t even exist yet. What was important was that they heard the teachings. But surely it is also relevant that they had already spent years as world renouncing forest ascetics - just as had the Buddha. The Buddha provided them the final key to cutting the last remaining fetters, after they had already prepared themselves for years. What he does say is that, just as he had, they strengthened themselves with some food by becoming beggars, instead of starving hermits.
"‘The Tathagata, monks, is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not backslid into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dhamma. Practicing as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’
"And so I was able to convince them. I would teach two monks while three went for alms, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round. Then I would teach three monks while two went for alms, and we six lived off what the two brought back from their alms round. Then the group of five monks — thus exhorted, thus instructed by me — being subject themselves to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, reached the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Being subject themselves to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, they reached the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Knowledge & vision arose in them: ‘Unprovoked is our release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’