Web Designers Don’t Need College Degrees

College is a considerable investment of both time and money. If you want to be a web designer, is college worth it?

Let’s unravel this multifaceted and complex issue by examining a 4-year bachelors degree in the applied arts and sciences. I’m a perfect example: I have a Digital Media B.A. degree from the University of Central Florida. There are numerous other fields like politics and medicine where the rules of the game are different (which I’ll mention throughout), but this will help anchor the discussion.

The Theory

College is a well respected social institution. The reigning public opinion is that it’s the best path to an honorable and prosperous career. For many parents, their child’s degree is a tremendous source of pride, especially if there’s a family tradition of a common alma mater. College is also an opportunity to join clubs, play sports, and find lifelong friends. If you want to be a web designer, surely this is an excellent value proposition. Right?

The Reality

Wrong. There’s a lot of wrong-ness to dig into here, but let’s start with the most obvious offenders first: time and money.

The cost of tuition is already absurd, but the costs continue with required textbooks and other fees. At a recent Treehouse meetup in Orlando, I met a woman that’s paying $600 for a one-semester college class to learn Photoshop. $600 is more than a year of Gold on Treehouse, and Photoshop is just one of the huge range of topics! Online resources are much cheaper and oftentimes better, because you can learn at your own pace.

The time is probably what’s most shocking. A four-year degree takes exactly that: four years! Assuming you live until you’re 80 years old, you only have 20 of these four-year periods in your life. Those four years could be spent working a full-time job where you earn money and gain real experience, but this opportunity cost is rarely considered.

There are plenty of things on a university campus to distract from this hollow void. The sports, fitness centers, swimming pools, activities, dorm life, clubs, Greek life… the list goes on. It’s like taking a vacation at an expensive resort hotel, when instead you could be building savings and a career.

Degrees Don’t Provide Job Ready Skills

College degrees rarely focus on critical thinking skills that apply directly to a job. If the purpose of your education is to start a career, this is a critical point to understand.

For example, lots of students pursue a B.S. in computer science because they want to create software products, like websites or iPhone apps. While the science of computation is certainly foundational to ideas in software design, these two fields sit at different tiers of abstraction. There’s a need for both; higher level fields like web design would not be possible without low level compilers and logic switches. However, by the time most college students grasp the difference, they’re already too far into their four years to make a change. Software is the application of computer science. Both are awesome, and while they are related, they are not interchangeable.

Many people will disagree with me here. Indeed, college is great at building a broad foundation for higher understanding, but at some point, the knowledge has to connect with the task at hand. I don’t have to understand binary math in order to write HTML in a text editor.

What’s lacking is some sort of required “apprenticeship” program where students learn the craft from other professionals. Medical degrees are valuable because of the “residency” mechanic. Even if it’s a doctor’s first day on the job, they have some prior experience to lean on. While internship programs exist in other fields, students aren’t required to practice enough.

Many Employers Don’t Care About Degrees

Employers in the software and media industries don’t put much weight on degrees because many technological concepts are outdated by the time you graduate. Technology changes too rapidly for traditional institutions to keep up, which is a big reason why we created Treehouse. I’ve hired many of our teachers, and the biggest thing I care about is whether or not they’re capable of doing the job. For new teaching positions, I ask applicants to submit a short video of them teaching a technical topic, because that’s exactly what the position requires. We typically don’t even ask about their education because it doesn’t change anything. The best employees never stop learning. A willingness to learn, a focus on “job-ready” skills, and a positive attitude are all that’s really necessary to get started.

Degrees Don’t Give You Industry Connections

College is an awesome social experience, but those same connections made in college could just as easily be made in an internship. I had an internship while I was in college, and its value is not even comparable to my coursework. Not only was I being paid, I was also getting experience and meeting peers in my industry. People that are already connected can help lead you to new opportunities, rather than student peers that have no experience. If you need help in this area, check out this blog post about how to meet people in the web industry.

A sign that reads BarCamp Orlando, April 2, 2011.

BarCamp style events are just one way to connect with industry professionals without attending college.

If you’re after a career in something like politics or the film industry, again, the rules are a bit different. Connections made in film school, student government, and special clubs can be pretty useful, because it’s otherwise difficult to get your foot in the door.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Tradition by itself is rarely a good reason for anything. I’m not talking about fun traditions like celebrating holidays or family game night. I’m talking about doing something simply because everyone else before you did it. Following someone else’s dogma is easy because everything has already been thought out for you, but inventing the future requires you to learn how to learn.

One could compile mountains of statistical evidence that link higher paying jobs to college degrees, but I truly believe we’re at a major inflection point in history where the game has changed. Don’t become a passive observer of life. Mix outside forces with your own inner voice and be your own decision maker. Poke reality.

Nick Pettit

Nick is a designer, public speaker, and teacher at Treehouse. He is also a co-host of The Treehouse Show. Twitter: @nickrp

Comments

21 comments on “Web Designers Don’t Need College Degrees

  1. “Employers in the software and media industries don’t put much weight on degrees because many technological concepts are outdated by the time you graduate.”

    In germany it is exactly the opposite – especially if you are searching for an apprenticeship. If you don’t have a masters degree you often don’t get the chance for a job interview.
    I strongly disagree with this behaviour of our industry.

    • @tobi
      I totally agree with you but imho even here in Germany your skills are starting (very slowly) to be more important than your degree :-)
      I think there’s nearly no “Dipl. Ing. Fachrichtung Informatik” who’s capable of writing good and native iOS Apps without learning Objective C and the Cocoa Framework for at least 6-9 or even more months…

      @Treehouse
      As much as I really enjoy learning with Treehouse I’d be very grateful if you’d consider implementing some kind of certificate of completion in the future.

  2. I’ve been working/studying for the last 2 years, i’m starting my own business, I pay for my college, I pay bills, I learn online, I learn on classrooms and i’m 21.
    What annoys me so much is the slow pace of college and how much money and time i have to put in it.

    I just have to say how absolutely right you are, BUT i keep studying for two reasons.
    _ my parents ask me to because they feel unconfortable with the idea of doing otherwise
    _ pride (although i know is the stupidest thing i could put as excuse)

    The pride comes obviously from a social point of view, because even if i’m working all week at a regular job, and starting my own business for the sake of paying college and even paying some of my parents bills, leaving college “when i’m supposed to be there” would be seen as lazyness or as in “He couldn’t take the challenge”
    I don’t know, i can’t find it as easy as you put it to make the move of leaving college there are just too many factors.

  3. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve been learning web development for the past couple of months from Treehouse, and my wife and I have both been pursuing B.A’s in theology.

    My education from Treehouse has already earned me over $4K. College, on the other hand, is leaving us with huge bills, lots of theoretical knowledge we could have gotten from simply reading the books, and a major gap between theory and practice.

  4. I am going to disagree.

    Sure, learning to build websites doesn’t need a degree, as you stated “technological concepts are outdated by the time you graduate”.

    Learning to be a designer, that is a whole different story. Being surrounded by seasoned design tutors is a big part of the four year degree. Also having access to all the different tools needed to spark the creative process: Letterpress, printmaking etc… This is something special. If the university doesn’t offer compulsory theory papers as part of the degree, don’t join that university.

    Rant over : p

  5. I have to agree with Michael here. Yes you can go on Treehouse and learn a lot of skills and you can be exceptionally skilled when you are done. Unfortunately, your friends nephew did the same thing and has the same skills so you are competing with him and everyone else for clients. What is happening is that the world is being flooded with people who wield the knowledge of how to use technology but not the why… Thus you have a million zany start-ups crashing and burning each year.
    I’m not saying traditional college is the only answer, god knows the students can bomb out anywhere, but at least they are exposed to more than just technology. So when it comes time to build their first startup they know a little about other things and can build solutions that have some positive societal impact.

    • +1

      When I think back on University, I don’t look back on the technology that I learnt, I think of the process of bringing theory into my design thinking. If there was no meaning behind the design, it meant nothing :)

      If your passionate about design, and fortunate to have access to the software, pretty sure you will start this at a young age these days. My friends and I were pretty much photoshop pros in Highschool in terms of Design software. University did teach us some new tricks though :)

      I didn’t bother with any Advanced web papers, and I am glad :) , as there was a lot of Flash based work & I hated it! I am happy I took the “Moving typography” paper though, as that taught me a lot about the 3D space, and can see how I can apply the things I learnt there in the browser.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. I refused to go to college. No reason for me to put a mortgage on my life at such a young age. Happily making more than what I’d be spending a year at a university. Just by being ambitious and a go getter. If you want to do it? Then do it. GO get it.

  7. Without knowing what exactly you can or cannot learn via treehouse, I can think of a few reasons that the college experience is a good one. Color Theory, Design Theory, Typography, Art History, English Comp, any Finance class, Journalism, Photography, etc. Yes, I had the know-how to turn on a Mac II and jump into designing on my own, but the point of college/university study is to give you a well-rounded education, not just trade skills (like you would get a tech school or JUCO). Yes, there are some wunderkind out there who probably just have a knack for color theory and design without even trying, but for the other 99%, it’s important to expand on what you know and to broaden your scope. English Comp makes your correspondence to your clients look more professional. The finance class gives you a base for pursuing a freelance career. A Psychology class helps you understand why people behave differently to certain colors, or design styles. I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. Beyond the 1% of freakishly-gifted designers, most people benefit from a college education, if they take it seriously (at least part of the time).

  8. College is so much more than just eduction. you can learn how to program, code, design or whatever. But you miss out on all the social things. Relationships with students and teachers alike for instance. There’s little you can always do on your own. So it’s good to know likeminded people.

  9. If you have any desire to be the best you can be and want to be ahead of the pack, college is still extremely important to succeed in a profressional career. I majored in Graphic Design and even though many classes required that I learn a certain program (InDesign, Flash, After Effects, etc.), the actual time spent learning these tools in class was secondary to learning the creative process and problem solving skills. I can safely say that my technical skills were learned almost entirely on my own over the course of the last 10+ years. What college gave me was an appreciation for art, design, and the creative process. Classes like Design Principles, Color Theory, Typography, Basic Drawing and others gave me invaluable skills on how to approach projects and solve problems. Anyone can learn how to use a program or write code. Books, certificate courses, and websites like Treehouse will do that for you. However, I can always tell when a designer has had formal training in design and when they haven’t.

    The same applies to web developers. Anyone can learn to code if they put effort into it. But a formal education in computer science will teach you how computers work, the fundamental principles of computer languages, and how you should approach writing code to be as efficient as possible. Since my degree was in Graphic Design, I had to learn HTML, JavsScript, PHP all on my own. And while I understand how to write them, I always feel like I don’t completely “get it” because I’m missing that foundation of skills that a top-notch developer needs.

    Having these fundamental skills, no matter what your profession, will always set you apart from those who don’t.

  10. As a postscript, I should have also conceded that it depends on your choice of college. I went to Northeastern which is a 5-year program because 1 year of your time is spent in “experiential learning”. You apply for and get a real job/internship and this is where I got the on-the-job skills that you said is lacking in college. This internship also landed me a full-time job with the same company after I was done with my program. Not all colleges have this and I agree with you that without this, you don’t get those job-ready skills from college courses alone. So choose your college wisely!

  11. I have to say that college was a requirement. Before the new version of Adobe cs came out you had to buy the software to learn on (or get it by other means). Which in my case was not affordable. Granted there are many great tools to use now. Those tools are needed to learn. You can’t just read a photoshop tutorial and say hey I get it and I don’t have to do anything!

    Do I believe I wasted my time and energy in college? YES! However I already knew what I was doing. College to me was just an expensive chance to hone my skills. While using the software I couldn’t afford. I have learned more from tutorials and real world issues then any text book in college could ever show me.

  12. College, in many cases, is little more than a chance to further develop your maturity. It forces you to think on concepts and face truths you were not confronted with in high school.

    But when it comes to learning a craft, I feel college only serves to teach you the basics. Sure, they will give you a textbook, and by the end of the semester, you’ll have to prove you read and understood it. Chances are, however, that by that time you’re entirely sick of the subject, and hope to steer clear of it for the rest of the year.

    Self-study means that you are willing to learn more. You’re not driven by peerpressure, or social stigma, or because “I don’t really know what else to study”. You’re learning because this topic really interests you. You are at liberty to drop it at any time and do something else, but you don’t.

    In Belgium, which is where I live, there is only one college offering new media and communication technology. And I have to say, there are really good things about it, when I look at the third and last year program, they intend to guide you to an internship with big companies, and quite often inspire students to compete in designing competitions.
    But they do not give you textbooks. You spend 1/3 of the time in class waiting for the teacher to arrive at your computer to explain where you went wrong in your code. Other times, since you do not have a textbook, you entirely rely on classes, where they just rush through their subject, giving you no time to make mistakes -and- make notes.
    The result? You come home after a long and quite frankly depressing day of study, with assignments yet to be completed, and you end up studying everything all by yourself anyway.

    It’s a personal choice. Personally, I love spending my time on Treehouse, learning, watching other developers and designers do their thing. When I start to get tired of writing code I watch some awesome webshows in the bonus content section, or take one of the easier sections in the learning adventures. Now, I really have the feeling I am part of the web development world.

  13. As someone with a computer science degree who built a career in software engineering based on that degree, and now someone who runs their own company, I have to disagree with several points of this article. First, any university that ISN’T teaching you critical thinking skills perhaps shouldn’t be calling themselves a university. Indeed, my computer science education was really ALL ABOUT thinking skills. In 4 years we programmed in seven different languages — because if you understand how computers work, and how programs work, and the fine points of logic, you can learn any language out there.

    And that is in large part what the company who first hired me told me: We know you don’t have C# experience. But we also know, based on your education and the things you’ve studied and projects you’ve done, that you have the abilities to be a successful employee for us: You work hard. You’ve mastered the concepts. You’ve demonstrated success learning multiple languages. And just as importantly, you’ve shown that you can stick things out and see them through to completion.

    All of those abilities are things that entry-level people will have an incredibly tough time demonstrating without a degree. Not impossible, mind you, but incredibly hard — I have in fact hired a developer who did not have a college degree, and I thought long and hard about it and they had to really demonstrate some extra-special qualities.

    Now, maybe my arguments are less poignant when you’re considering designers, as opposed to developers actually writing code. But I suspect that there are great benefits to having studied things like color theory, and typography, and design elements and things of that nature, and certainly the same demonstration of being someone who can see things through is apt.

    And that’s all I have to say about that.

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  15. I like this post. I do some college occasionally, some online classes occasionally, and lots of book-learnin’ on my own. I’ve had less than two semesters of college total, spread out over four years or so, and only one programming class. The online classes aren’t even for “real” credits. I absolutely don’t care about accredation, but it’s nice to be able to tell clients that do care that I’m “pursuing my degree.”

    I’m freelancing (web development) pretty successfully; I started around ten months ago and my earnings from coding have been starting to close in on and surpass my earnings from my “real job” in the past few months. It’s wonderful–I’m in my early twenties and earning two, three, four times more per hour than several of my college-graduate friends (who are often not even working in their field of study, even years after graduation), and, importantly, I don’t have any debt.

    People who like to code are just lucky, I guess. If you just happen to find enjoyment in an activity that people are willing to pay you so much per hour to do, you’re lucky. There’s hard work and struggle involved in honing your skills, staying current, and making yourself marketable, but, for me at least, it’s all fun and fulfilling deep down.

    It’s funny how now that I’m a developer I can afford to go to school more full-time-ish, but that I totally don’t want to because I love my job so much, and that I became a developer (and thus became able to afford school) through self-education. When I was taking that one traditional college programming class, I resented it because it took time away from me that I could have spent learning way more valuable stuff instead of doing boring busywork for an outdated course on a programming language I already knew. The college path demands way too much mandatory basic stuff. I’m a relatively skilled web developer, I’ve got mobile apps on multiple app marketplaces, I stay up to date on useful libraries–but I’ve got to take Intro to Java before I can move on to anything interesting? The hilarious thing is that I had learned Java for free online.

    Some people just learn best in a traditional college environment, I guess. I don’t. I’m an entrepreneurial spirit, which really just means I’m really bad at following schedules and rules and moving at somebody else’s pace. Sometimes I want to study PHP for sixteen hours straight. Sometimes I want to take two weeks off and get away from computers altogether.

    College isn’t (forgive me) agile. It’s not adaptive and individual enough, at least not for me. Even before I started programming, I always said that if you’re relatively intelligent, you’re willing to work, and you have Internet access that you can at least make some kind of living.

  16. I am totally agree with you i am belongs to B.com [ Commerce ] background still i am working as a software developer cum designer in company.

  17. Read lots of things like this lately on reddit and elsewhere.

    College isn’t the only place to find like-minded people.

    One guy in a small Caribbean country with a University took computer science for 3 years but after all that time could not build a useful app in any language he was exposed to. Meanwhile a relative skipped college and taught herself dreamweaver and photoshop and had a full time job designing invitations by day and how own business building and managing websites she built over the previous 2 years. They guy could not finish his final year of college because the school raised their rates and his scholarship was only enough money for 3 years. Meanwhile the girl saved up enough money in those 3 years to take an extended trip to Savannah where she made friends with very good designers, got great suggestions for text books on design and color theory, and found meet up group focused on html and php.

    Going to her local university wasn’t an option because she knew enough to realize that their graphic design course was literally a 2 year long intro to photoshop and nothing more. And the traditional 4 years in a school at home or in the U.S. was impossible because she spent all her free time in highschool doodling and got bad grades, so she’d never get a scholarship, and her parents were poor as dirt. The social experience of college isn’t as important as many people claim. It might have been THE BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE, but it really wasn’t all that important in the long run. My friend would say she met the most important and influential people in her life, including her husband, while visiting colleges in Georgia and Florida, but at no time was she actually a College Student. Her husband has a high school diploma, and 4 things from college. I think 2 might be masters. His 4 are at the top left of the back office wall. The rest of the wall is hers, dozens of certificates from Adobe, Zend, Microsoft, and small community colleges and other small companies that offered training related to software or graphic design in Florida. She’s moved from designing atrocious wedding invitions and obituaries and table based websites in dreamweaver, on to proper logo and brand design. Then made a ton of money doing annual report books for local big business. Then websites for those same businesses(php+mysql then wordpress then expression engine and others ). Then mobile websites. Then iphone apps. Then android apps. Now she’s taking a class about responsive design and planning a 3 month break from taking on any new jobs so she can sharpen her now rusty logo design skills. Meanwhile her husband delivers water and coca cola because there are no industries in their country that make use of whatever he went to college in the U.S. for and he realized too late that he should have taken ANY job as soon as he got back instead of sitting around waiting for a job relevant to his schooling that was never going to come. Funny thing, his last 2 years in school were supposed to be on a scholarship, but his school raised their rates so much that he only got a scholarship for 1 year. His last year he had to borrow half from relatives and get a job cleaning carpets. He was the only guy who didn’t drink on the job so he spent the most time driving the truck! And now he’s a truck driver because apparently getting a commercial truck drivers license from Florida is like having a college degree while a local license is like a certificate of attendance from pre-school!