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.