Was my degree a mistake?

26 August 2022

With the latest news about exponentially-rising tuition costs and student debt forgiveness, I keep asking myself whether college was truly necessary. Truth be told, I have been asking that quite a bit over the years.

I went to college in the late 1990s, starting off as a dual major in computer science and physics. I wanted to work for NASA. I knew I would never cut it as an astronaut, though I had been dreaming about it since I was 8 years old. So, college-freshman me decided working as a scientist was the next best thing.

About a year into the program, I made a life-changing discovery. I cannot stand calculus. As in, I would have rather watched a video upload via a 28k modem1 than solved a differential equation. This was a bit of a problem, being a physics major.

I was not a huge fan of the computer science program either. At that point, I had discovered the internet and immediately fell in love. I taught myself HTML, CSS, and a little bit of JavaScript outside of my classes. Creating a website was far more rewarding than writing C++ and STL code that took forever to compile and often crashed my computer. These computer science course programs seemed to neither work nor bring me joy. I switched my major, keeping computer science, but adding on electronic media as a second major. I thought the combination of the two could come close to a “web design and development” degree. I know this degree exists now, but there was no such thing back in the 90s, so this was close enough.

Fast forward to today.

Now, more than 20 years later, there are web development university programs. There are also bootcamps, certificate courses, and self-driven tutorials. All of these options are as good, if not better, than a university program.

Yes, I said it.2 A web development bootcamp, for example, is as good or better than going to college. These programs have several advantages over a traditional university degree:

  1. These programs are designed so that it is possible to learn development skills in a very short amount of time, often months rather than years.
  2. Because of their rapidity, they are frequently updated to keep pace with a developer’s world of constantly changing languages, libraries, and standards.
  3. Bootcamps, especially, have a singular goal of giving students exactly the skills they need to get an entry-level job. Many also include career support services.
  4. These programs are generally way cheaper than a typical 4-year degree.

Of course, universities have their own distinct advantages:

  1. The slower pace of a 4-year degree means that students can dive deeper into subjects.
  2. Being a part of university life opens students up to new people and experiences3.
  3. In the end, a student has a college degree, which, maddeningly, is still a requirement for many employers.

But, is it worth it?

I have noticed that more and more job postings are less focused on a degree requirement and more focused on demonstrable skills. Can you prove you know language X or library Y? That is a much more reachable bar for people to grab. Instead of:

  1. Spend a bunch of money4 and/or take out a bunch of loans to go to university.
  2. Learn a bunch of skills, many of which from your freshman year will be out of date by your senior year.
  3. Earn a degree.
  4. Get a job by showing off everything you learned in university.
  5. Spend many years or even decades paying off the aforementioned loans5, while still…
  6. Continually learn new skills outside of college to keep up with your ever-changing industry.

Alternatively, a person can:

  1. Spend far less money to go to a bootcamp or no money to learn via self-taught tutorials.
  2. Learn a bunch of skills at your own pace. You can spend as much or as little time on a skill but, this is usually far less than 4 years.
  3. Develop a portfolio that shows off your skills.
  4. Get a job by showing off your portfolio and bragging that you can take the initiative to learn new skills, because you already did that to get this far.
  5. Continually learn more new skills to keep up with your ever-changing industry.

I find it very promising that many more employers now realize the latter path is just as valid a career path as a college degree.

So, did I make a mistake getting a degree?

The short answer is, no. I don’t think so at least. A degree is 100% not a requirement to get a web development job now, but the career landscape was much, much different 25 years ago. A college degree was my only choice at the time. There were no bootcamps. There was not much in the way of self-driven tutorials. Being “self-taught” at that time involved going to a website and hitting “view source” in the browser. Tutorials are much fancier (and useful!) now.

Is getting a degree right for you, future web developer? Well, I don’t know you, so I can’t answer that. You need to decide that for yourself. However, I will say that getting a degree is, by far, not your only option. You can get a good web development job, with or without a degree. As long as you learn the skills and can prove you can code, you’ll do just fine.

  1. Ask your parents. 

  2. I said it and I work in higher ed. Not sorry. You can stop clutching your pearls now. 

  3. I really do believe that college life changes a person. For many, it is a completely new environment filled with new people from anywhere and everywhere. That is worth something. Is it worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, though? 

  4. An amount of money that most people don’t have. 

  5. This probably leaves you with not a ton of money left.