Grinding at College

College for IT? Ask these 5 questions first.

This question must get asked every 10 seconds on the internet: Should I go to college for IT? The short answer is what it always is: it depends. But I still want to help you sort it out. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself, then 3 strategies to help you maximize your experience if you do decide to go.

I’m not against college in any way, by the way. I’ve been to both college and technical school. I’m also not naive. College is just not for every person and every profession.

Still, I’m blown away by how many people think that college is the answer when starting or beefing up your IT career.

Am I required to go?

It’s clear that in some professions, you must get a college degree (or degrees) in order to work in it. For instance, if you want to become a physician, you are required in most of the world to get an undergraduate degree, then 4 years of medical school, then 3-7 years of advanced training before you can become licensed. The same is true for lawyers- except in a few states.

College is pushed very hard on high school students. Some feel inadequate if they don’t go. But most people in the US do not have a college degree.

While some companies require degrees, they are not required in IT, even for executive-level work. Even mega-huge Ernst and Young, who has been a stickler for degrees in the past, has figured out that university performance does not equal success. As a rule, the degree requirement is just used by HR as a screen and is routinely bypassed in the hiring process. In this field, experience rules.

Is the curriculum current?

This is a tough one. Colleges often have to create their own curricula, which is  a very expensive and time consuming process. Couple that with the breakneck speed of change in the technology world, and you have a problem. Tech changes so rapidly that most schools just can’t keep up with everything.

The result for you is that often times you are studying concepts and technologies that are outdated by the time you get the material. For example, in 2010, I was learning Windows Server. 2003. I could access Server 2008 R2 (the latest at the time), but my class did not cover it. It’s was a ton of work for them to keep up. Problems like this can slow down your learning and waste valuable time.

Your skills will be far more up to date if you just get to work in your field.

Can I afford it?

College costs have skyrocketed over the last 40 years. The reasons vary, but one thing is clear: it’s far more expensive to go today that it once was.

How expensive? In the US, the average in-state tuition cost at a 4-year public university is $9,410 per year. A private school is almost 5 times that amount- over $47,000 (FYI, the median household income in the US was about $57,000). So a 4 year degree on the cheap side is about $40,000- all before you make your first dollar in IT.

You need to ask yourself: Do I have $10k per year to spend on school? If you don’t or have someone who wants to pay for it, you should rethink it. I also do not recommend borrowing it.

How much will it help my IT career?

Not only is college more expensive, it also doesn’t carry the weight it once did. In 1940, only about 3.5 million people on the US had a 4 year college degree- about 2.6% of the population. In 2014, it was over 66 million- nearly 26%. So college degree holders face 10 times the competition than they did in 1940. In other words, you won’t stand out nearly as much.

Well sure, Dave,  but I will still stand out against other IT workers without degrees. 

That may be true- but employers are getting wise to the fact that that degree is just paper without experience.

Do I have a clear reason to go?

This is probably the most important question. Why are you going? If it’s for any of these reasons, you should probably rethink it:

  1. I like the school’s $SportsTeam
  2. All my friends are going
  3. My parents said I should go
  4. My guidance counselor says go
  5. I want to party
  6. I’m not sure what I want to do, college will help me find out

If you don’t have a clear yes, then it’s really a clear no.

College is an expensive way to find out what you want to do. In addition, as you grow, you change. Your interests change. Close to 2/3 of grads don’t end up working in fields related to their degree.

All that said, here are a few ways you can maximize your college experience if you do decide to go or are already there.

Don’t borrow the money.

That’s right- I said it. Pay for it.

No one should have to borrow money for college. If you hustle, you can find free money for college in the form of scholarships from places like FastWeb, CollegeBoard and others. You shouldn’t have to pay to apply for them.

You may also be eligible to receive scholarships directly from the school, as well as federal student aid. Just remember- stay away from loans. If you have already borrowed, stop! Don’t borrow any more.

You can also just pay for the classes out of pocket, go to a community college, or get a part-time job at the school for free tuition.

I know this is a bad word, but reducing your standard of living is a great way to help pay for it. If you don’t have dependents, live with your parents or other family member instead of getting an apartment. Don’t eat out- eat at home or in the cafeteria.

Work, too.

If you follow the conventional logic, you would wait to finish school before looking for your IT gig. But I recommend that if you’re in college already, go to work now. 

Plenty of IT workers work full time and go to school. You’re going to get IT experience, which is more valuable than college anyway, and many employers will pay for or reimburse your college expenses, provided your courses are withing your job field.

Plus, it won’t hurt to be making money to pay for your classes. I realize that this is a lot, but it will only be for a short time. Your work experience will supercharge your degree.

Test out.

Being in IT, you may be able to test out of some of the classes. This is a time saving measure- you will likely still have to pay for the class to get the degree credits, but you can always get more money.

If you’re very experienced in IT, or have certifications, you can probably get out of quite a few of the technical classes. For instance, a Systems Engineer I work with is in school working on his BS in Technology Management. Of the the classes is Help Desk. Needless to say, he was able to get out of that one.

College is nice, but it may not be necessary for IT work. I hope the 5 questions above help you make the right choice about college, and if you decide to go, I hope the 3 strategies help you make the most of it.

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Photo Credit: CC BY Thomas Leuthard

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