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.
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 it2. 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:
- 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.
- Because of their rapidity, they are frequently updated to keep pace with a developer’s world of constantly changing languages, libraries, and standards.
- 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.
- These programs are generally way cheaper than a typical 4-year degree.
Of course, universities have their own distinct advantages:
- The slower pace of a 4-year degree means that students can dive deeper into subjects.
- Being a part of university life opens students up to new people and experiences3.
- 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:
- Spend a bunch of money4 and/or take out a bunch of loans to go to university.
- Learn a bunch of skills, many of which from your freshman year will be out of date by your senior year.
- Earn a degree.
- Get a job by showing off everything you learned in university.
- Spend many years or even decades paying off the aforementioned loans5, while still…
- Continually learn new skills outside of college to keep up with your ever-changing industry.
Alternatively, a person can:
- Spend far less money to go to a bootcamp or no money to learn via self-taught tutorials.
- 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.
- Develop a portfolio that shows off your skills.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ask your parents.
- I said it and I work in higher ed. Not sorry. You can stop clutching your pearls now.
- 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?
- An amount of money that most people don’t have.
- This probably leaves you with not a ton of money left.