There is a curious rebellion against higher education. I get the sense that it’s an overreaction, a correction to the unquestioned emphasis placed onto college over the past few decades. The millennial generation is no longer seeing the gains enjoyed by previous generations1, and education itself has moved away from teaching critical thinking and evaluation, and increasingly towards supplying a certification in work competency.
So when someone says college is “a poor choice for a lot of people”, that’s a misguided – if somewhat understandable – sentiment.
First, a pet peeve: the piece is referring attending school in preparation for a career in software development, but speaks as if the norms in the software industry are universally applicable across all jobs. For many occupations, schooling is formal and necessary accreditation, and sometimes acts as a stepping stone to other professions that may require additional years of study. Even if engineering managers accept self-taught prodigies onto their teams, the vast majority of employers do not and should not ignore college degrees. Let’s stick within the computing-related majors.
There are a few reasons against college:
- Student debt. Students have had to take out bigger loans as the cost of tuition is increasing, but software engineering has consistently been one of the top-paying jobs out of school. This is less about the inability to pay loans back, but really about whether the monetary cost is worth the investment.
- Irrelevant coursework. At worst, classes are a nuisance, but of course this is true of real work where not everything is interesting or engaging. I also firmly believe that classes outside of the computing curriculum are beneficial, though their impact may not be immediately apparent2. It’s a bit naive for a teenager to somehow unequivocally determine the value of a diverse education.
- Lengthy commitment. Four years is not a short time – particularly when the prospective student feels like they’re already qualified to join the workforce – but going beyond the prescribed curriculum is encouraged if the student is up for the challenge. I have never seen someone “run out” of coursework in pursuit of a degree: either they graduate early, or enroll in graduate-level classes and partake in side projects with other students.
- Missing out on work experience. Internships and co-ops alleviate much of this anxiety already. That said, there are plenty of opportunities post-college, and the odds are against that first startup3 being the only opportunity that “makes it.”
On the other hand, the simple advantage in going to college is that it opens doors, particularly early on in a career. Employers are biased towards the schools in recruiting, and most technical interviews – regardless of experience level – are centered around testing concepts taught in school. These aspects aren’t insurmountable without formal instruction, but our industry has catered its positions towards college graduates, and it’s a substantial opportunity cost to pay for a few years’ head start.
During my tenure in school, I took two classes in rhetoric. I was both humbled at the level of my own writing, and impressed at the power and importance of clear communication.↩
I’ve never heard of anyone skipping out on school to join a major corporation.↩