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

A photograph of students wearing graduation caps.
Image courtesy Flickr user Jason Bache.

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.

A photograph of a glass jar of money with the text "College Fund" written on the side.
Image courtesy Flickr user Tax Credits.

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.

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