The $100k question: do you need a college degree to succeed in IT?

The average cost of attending a four year public college in the US is $100,000. Is it worth it?

Is Jill dabbing out of joy for finally graduating? Or is she crying as she thinks of her six figure student loans? Find out below! Photo by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash

This answer gets asked a lot online, so let’s tackle it head on today.

I won’t keep you in suspense: the short answer is no, you do not in fact “need” a college degree to work in IT. (Note for the overseas folks: “college” here refers to “university.”) However, like many things in life, a more nuanced approach will yield us a better answer. Let’s take a deeper look.

First, consider these three hypothetical people. Joe elects to skip any higher education classes completely and immediately searches for work the second he graduates high school. Jill goes to a public college and gets a degree unrelated to IT. Sam gets a Computer Science degree from a prestigious private university. How do they all stack up?

Joe

By skipping college entirely, Joe has a four year head start on earnings over Sam and Jill assuming he finds work right away. Additionally, Joe starts his working career with no student loans, whereas Sam and Jill will have to work for years to reach the point where they break even. This is a huge upside!

Unfortunately for Joe, he finds that he doesn’t qualify for a majority of the jobs he would normally apply for simply because he doesn’t have a degree. This makes it hard for Joe to find work throughout his life, and he constantly has to settle for jobs on the lower end of the pay scale.

Joe gets a ton of certificates to compensate and becomes very technically competent. He does very well in interviews with technical folks, but he’s often passed up in favor of less competent applicants because HR folks prefer applicants with degrees. Additionally, Joe seems to hit an invisible ceiling and never quite manages to get promoted past mid-level roles due to his lack of degree.

Jill

Jill opts to go to college and switches her major a few times. She’s just not quite sure what she wants to do in life, so finally she opts for a Liberal Arts degree from a state university. Towards graduation date, she decides that she’d like to get into IT. With a semester left of school and a lot of debt under her belt, she’s not about to start on another major, so she goes ahead and finishes her degree.

Upon graduation, she’s in a similar situation than Joe other than being the proud owner of a framed diploma, four years older, and $100k poorer. (More, actually, as she’ll have to pay interest on those loans.)

Jill starts looking for work and it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, she is able to apply to many more positions than Joe just by virtue of having a degree. From Human Resources’ point of view, it doesn’t matter what the degree is in, just that there is a degree. On the other hand, several interviewers ask her why she got an unrelated degree. Some seem suspicious that she’s not actually interested in IT and is merely looking for a paycheck.

Jill decides to get her A+ certificate (that’s an affiliate link – thanks for supporting this blog!) to show that she’s serious about going into IT. She also creates a cover letter in which she explains why she elected to pursue a degree in an unrelated field.

Jill’s efforts pay off and she gets that crucial first job. Once she has a few years in the field, prospective employers no longer question her commitment to IT and no one cares that her degree is unrelated.

Like Joe, she too pursues additional certificates and becomes technically proficient. Jill is promoted several times and hits the six figure salary mark in just five short years after starting her career. Despite her high pay, it takes seven years for Jill to pay off her student loans. Add to that the four years that she spent in school without earning a paycheck and that adds up to eleven years before she catches up to Joe. After that, however, she surpasses him quite quickly.

Sam

Sam knows exactly what she wants right from the start and goes after it. She gets awesome grades in high school and is accepted to an Ivy League college where she learns to code. In her junior (3rd) year, she’s solicited for an internship from large and well-known companies like Google and Facebook. Companies like this frequently look for interns from prestigious universities and invest a lot of time and effort into wooing the best and the brightest before they even graduate from college. Sam doesn’t even have to send in applications; this is all arranged by her university. She just needs to show up to the interviews that are held on campus and do well. During these campus drives, each of these large companies comes away with thirty or so applicants that they’ll offer paid internships to.

Sam does well during her internship at Google. A few months before she graduates, they reach out and invite her to interview for their spring hiring initiative. This interview is a cake walk for her – she’s already interviewed and worked with them, after all.

One week after she graduates, Sam’s started her first real job at Google. Starting salary: $130k.

At this point, Sam’s four years older than Joe. She’s significantly more in debt than both Joe and Jill with $200k of student loans. However, she’s starting off her career from a much more advantageous spot. Joe may never reach $130k per year and Jill might hit that point eight or nine years in. Even then, Jill won’t catch up to Sam because people who can code and have worked in prestigious places like Google are in high demand and can command a high salary. In eight years, Sam will have surpassed the $200k mark.

With such a high salary, Sam is able to repay her student loans in four years. After that, she’s light years ahead of Joe and far ahead of Jill as well.

The moral of the story here is that you do not technically need a degree in order to work in IT. However, you’ll struggle more and may never hit the jobs that pay very well without one. At the very least, try to get a degree, any degree! And if you’re currently in high school and reading this, get those straight A’s in school, get a Computer Science degree from that fancy college, and get yourself on that silicon path to wealth and success early!

With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. And make sure to check out these top interview questions before you start interviewing!