Is a College Degree Worth It?

Public discourse has turned (again) to the question of whether or not a college degree is “worth it”. I say again because in the tech industry, this question has been asked about computer science (CS) degrees over a decade ago. I was prompted to revisit this blog post from over 14(!) years ago by Scott Hanselman’s response to a TikTok video saying a computer science degree is never worth it:


Back in 2007, I was managing a team which consisted mostly of what Tarver calls “street programmers”.   In that particular experience, Tarver was wrong about street programmers being superior to formally-trained CS graduates.  The members of my staff who consistently turned out the highest-quality code (which not coincidentally was also the best-tested and the least likely to require re-work) all had CS degrees.  In my next role, one of my colleagues was an Air Force veteran who was self-taught in software engineering.  He was one of the most skilled engineers I’ve worked with in my entire career, and taught me a ton about the practice of continuous integration over a decade ago that I still use in my work today.  

In re-reading Tarver’s post, even he concedes that the combination of hands-on programming practice and a strong grasp of theory creates a superior programmer when compared to one trained only in university or only on-the-job.  The other thing which struck me as odd in retrospect was the lack of any mention of summer internships.  Back in the early-to-mid 90s when I was earning my own computer science degree, it was definitely the expectation that CS majors would complete at least one summer internship before they graduated so they had at least a little experience with programming outside of coursework requirements.  I found an on-campus job where I worked during the semester which at least had tasks that I could automate with scripts, as well as database work.  My summer internship with The Washington Post as a tech intern turned into a part-time job my last semester of undergrad and a full-time job offer at the end of the year.  So instead of a declarative statement such as “college is never worth it” or “college is always worth it”, a better answer to the question is more like “it depends”.

Quite a lot has changed since 2007 when it comes to the variety of ways available to learn about programming.  There are lots of programmer bootcamps now.  My current employer partners with one to train college graduates with degrees in fields other than computer science for entry-level software engineering roles with us.  Beyond instructor-led bootcamps, there are a wealth of online education options both free and paid.  Having worked with engineers who came into the field via the bootcamp route at two different companies now, I’ve seen enough inconsistency in the readiness of bootcamp graduates for professional work that most require more oversight and supervision at entry-level positions than graduates from computer science programs.

At least some of the discussion about the worth of college degrees (in CS or many other fields) is a function of tuition continuing to increase at rates triple that of inflation (and have been doing so for decades).  The total amount my parents spent on in-state tuition for my CS degree in the 90s might not even cover 2 years at the same school today.  A year of tuition at my 1st-choice school today, Carnegie-Mellon University costs at least triple the $24,000 they charged in 1992.  It might be possible to rationalize paying high tuition for a STEM degree with high long-term earning potential, but those high tuition rates apply regardless of major.

Another issue that discussions of whether or not college degrees are “worth it” consistently misses is how open different fields and companies within those fields are to hiring people without formal training.  Particularly in tech, that openness exists for white men in a way that it definitely does not for people of color.   Shawn Wildermuth’s documentary Hello World gets deep into why women and minorities tend not to pursue careers in software development and even with the credential of a college degree and experience, it can be very challenging to sustain a tech career–much less advance–if you don’t look like the people who make hiring and promotion decisions.

Count me in the camp of those who believe a CS degree is worth it.  I wouldn’t have the tech career I have today without it.

Thoughts on the Many Shades of Anti-Blackness

A friend shared the following tweet with me not long ago:

Whoever Jen Meredith is, she is hardly alone in sharing these sentiments.  Few routes to acceptance by the still-predominant culture in the United States are shorter and more reliable than implicit or explicit criticism of the black community in America whose heritage here stretches back even before the founding of the country as we know it.  There have always been people who buy into the model minority myth. The term “Asian” elides significant differences between its various subcultures (and erases the parts of that very large community which don’t support the immigrant success story in exactly the same way some white conservatives do).  People from the Philippines have meaningfully different backgrounds than those from South Korea, Pakistan, and Vietnam to take a few examples.

Meredith is (obviously) sub-tweeting American blacks with her entire comment, but the “no ethnic leader” part in particular betrays a very specific ignorance about the history of black people in the United States. Black people in this country have never just had one leader. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are just the ones that recent history (the vast majorities of which have not been written by black people) has acknowledged. Less often-noted are men like Marcus Garvey, who while Jamaican (not American) nevertheless found a receptive audience among some black Americans (including the parents of Malcolm X).  A. Philip Randolph was no less important than either of those men. The same can be said of Bayard Rustin, Fred Hampton, W.E.B Dubois, or Booker T. Washington.

Asians in the United States may not have had a singular figure that history chooses to recognize in this way (or a Cesar Chavez, like the Mexican-American community), but perhaps that’s in part because they haven’t really needed one. This doesn’t mean they haven’t even experienced racism in this country. The federal government passed laws against Chinese immigration and some were even lynched in California the way they did blacks in the South. Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps and had their property taken. But at least they had property to take, which could not be said of black Americans in many cases.  One Asian-American experience which may not be broadly known, but is emblematic of the subtleties of racism in this country, is that of the Mississippi Delta Chinese.  The entire project is well-worth reading and listening to in full, but here is one part which stood out to me:

After WWII, China was an ally to the United States and then the rules relaxed; I think it was in 1947 or 1948. After the war, Chinese kids were allowed to attend white public schools, so that was the year that I started first grade.”

Issac Woodard was just one of many black veterans of WWII who was attacked just for wearing his uniform around this time.  Some black veterans fared even worse than Woodard.  The US military didn’t desegregate until 1948.  Over two decades would pass before schools in Yalobusha County, Mississippi (and the rest of the state) would finally desegregate.  At the same time members of the Asian-American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community were attending better-quality schools and building wealth, many black military veterans were being denied the benefits of the GI Bill.  Black people resorted to overpaying for housing via contracts, due to racist real estate covenants and redlining by the Federal Housing Administration.  All of this happened before you even get to the ways in which federal civil rights, voting rights, and fair housing legislation have been actively undermined or passively neglected from the Nixon administration forward.

When your experience (and your parents’ experience) of the United States doesn’t include the combination of chattel slavery, pogroms, property theft, terrorism, segregation, and other aspects of the black American experience, you’re bound to see this country differently. That’s why you can (unfortunately) hear some of the same anti-black American sentiments from black immigrants to this country. Particularly as someone who writes software for a living and leads teams of software engineers, I have more common experiences with my fellow church members, classmates, and co-workers from India, China, and the Philippines than I do with some black people with hundreds of years of heritage in this country.

Finally, it is exceedingly unwise to underestimate the growing political power of the Asian-American & Pacific Islander community. This movement with “no ethnic leader” (as Meredith claims) got federal legislation passed against Asian hate crimes—in our current political environment—when we still don’t have a federal law against lynching after over a century of attempts to pass one.  It’s all well and good to talk about having agency in one’s life.  I am doing my best as a parent to teach my own children the same lessons about making good choices that my parents taught me.  But criticisms of the American black community that fail to acknowledge how an unjust society increases the difficulty of making wise choices are dishonest.