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For all of my high schools years I would spend my spare time programming; making Android applications, video games, and front/back ends to websites.

I recently got my first programming job right out of high school making 50k in Georgia. The title is full stack developer and I work with ReactJS and PHP. I get to work from home for 2 days every week as well, which is nice.

My family continues to push me towards college. It took me 3-4 months of searching to find my job, and I'm sure a degree would make that easier. However, I'm not sure as to whether the benefit of having a degree is worth the cost.

I am looking at this from a purely financial perspective, neglecting the social aspects.

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    @Helena could be 50k USD in state of Georgia, which is about what you’d expect for an entry level programmer. – nick012000 Mar 8 '20 at 21:35
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    For others it's more abstract/theoretical/architectural challenges - here college can help a lot to know the right concepts and approaches, be really good fast and find fitting jobs with more ease. Maybe clarify if that is something you want to have considered (and which direction you lean). Btw. it's not that you are totally restricted with/without college ed. but - depending on your existing experience - it can help a lot for some areas. Perhaps I'm also misinterpreting "social aspects", in that case, maybe clarify. – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 0:24
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    Many companies will pay for you to go to school while employed with them. – 17 of 26 Mar 9 '20 at 12:22
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    What constitutes "an answer" to this question depends very heavily on one's point of view about the purpose of college. If, for you, it's all about landing a job given the current market conditions... then perhaps you should skip or defer college. That's short-term thinking IMHO. If you can afford college and do well, it's probably worth it if you go to a selective institution (not just anywhere, and especially not for-profit unaccredited places). – teego1967 Mar 9 '20 at 16:04
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    @sntrenter I don't know if that's really correlated to company size. I've been a hiring manager at a company with 200,000 employees who didn't care about degrees, and a company with 7 employees that required them for everyone. – dwizum Mar 9 '20 at 16:27
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No, its not necessary to get a degree, however you might consider it in the future after you have gained some experience in the field

Reasons you don't need the degree

  • Programming can be a fairly easy skill to pick up and many employees would rather check a repository of well developed and completed projects over a degree
  • The knowledge for programming is out there on the internet. Almost anyone who can google search and click the stackoverflow link can find a potential solution to their problems
  • Experience over time spent studying. Real world experience in software development can be far more valuable than time spent studying the different courses a University tack onto a degree.

Reason you want a degree

  • Specialist fields. There is a lot of knowledge in computer science as a whole. And if you want to get an extremely high pay you want to specialize. A tertiary degree can offer access to these fields, especially for things with specialized knowledge (AI, Data manipulation, Robotics) or those which may not be 100% legal to try it out yourself (Security).
  • General Knowledge. Self taught programming is great, but you might not be using the best practices or conventions. You might also want to delve deeper into Why and How things ended up they way they are. They say that good programmers can code in any language, because every language will share similarities. University is a great way to learn the pure fundamentals (like do you really care that an Array and List are implemented and the memory implications of each? Some people do. Why do they even have an ArrayList type then)
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  • Someone here is really wants you to get a degree... anyone care to explain the downvote? – Shadowzee Mar 8 '20 at 22:34
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    I don't think they will - as per the other downvotes for the other answwers... I have this feeling that any answer will be downvoted because it does not come with 51 references saying "Degree is best"... Hmm, some of the world's best entrepreneurs don't have a degree... – Solar Mike Mar 8 '20 at 22:40
  • @Shadowzee I think some people might put a lot more value on your "reasons you want a degree". See also my comments to Kiril's answer, though you have covered most of them somewhat or don't run into the others. I think part of this is also that it's a bit unclear whether OP is aware of other side-effects the choice might have (you go there a bit with your reasons, but imho there is more to it). And whether he consciously wants to exclude that wrt. "social aspects" or whether he only considers prestige etc. in that. IF we look at this just from the financial aspect – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 0:54
  • then there is still a bit assuming going into the answer - i.e. that you can do the same jobs with and without a college ed. (imho, all else being the same, you cannot - not without further time of specialized training in some cases or with lower performance or both, but you could argue otherwise). And if you cannot (directly) do the same jobs, then the financial aspect also needs to include some estimation of which types of jobs are available in the future. For instance, are all "simple" web dev jobs simply gonna be replaced by autogeneration tools/AI etc.? – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 0:57
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    Tried my own version, but also not perfectly happy with it. You are right, it's a broad topic, and in the end, even if we reduce to just the financial aspect, we're stargazers that make educated guesses at best. Anyway. Have a nice day. – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 2:05
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If you've gained the skills needed to do your job, you don't need a college degree. In fact, I'm highly skeptical college degrees are worth it these days, given their massive cost and the availability of free education material online.

There is a catch tho: you can learn the same things (or even more things) online as you can in a college/university, but you need to be able to learn in a new way- by yourself. For the first 12 years of your school life, you're trained to learn by going to a classroom and learning from a teacher. That creates bad "habits" which don't really work in "real life," where you will have to learn by yourself. In fact, many of the software engineering (and even non-software engineering) interviews ask you what you do to learn new things on your own. Not only is there an expectation that you'll be able to learn new things on your own, but people that end up being successful at their job are those who are able to learn new things on their own.

So if you've managed to build the habit of learning on your own before you go to college/university, then you might be able to skip it entirely and save yourself a lot of money.

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    Typical - downvoters who can't type... – Solar Mike Mar 8 '20 at 22:23
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    The purpose of college is also to give you enough basic abstract understanding to make it easy to learn new stuff, it's typically a lot harder to learn that part just on your own. I.e. I'd wager that the average person needs a lot more time to get to the same level by learning alone from freely available online material than if they'd go to a reasonable college. Note that you also have to be able to select the right material - which is not a given when you lack the oversight that college is supposed to give you - and spend time on doing so. – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 0:36
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    I'm not disagreeing that purely financially it might not be worthwhile in the US if you already have enough skills to do some development jobs. This depends a bit on predicting future job market and so on, but yes, the time and money lost would be hard to make up with higher salary by different jobs. It could happen, but it's a wager I would not bet on. That being said, it can open other doors and provide you quicker with a different broader knowledge base; the question is whether that falls for OP into the "social aspects" or not. – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 0:39
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    @dan-klasson there is also nothing primary school can teach you, you cannot learn on your own, but it's absolutely less efficient. same goes for what a (good) college teaches you. – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 15:13
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    That's a great question, but I think you need to answer it for yourself based on what your criteria for "worth it" are. I'm not interested in answering that question for someone else (which is why I haven't posted an answer) - it's pretty subjective. I do think there's a level of rigor that can be learned in university which people who didn't go often don't even realize they're missing. I think that's what @FrankHopkins and others were trying to get at here. – dwizum Mar 9 '20 at 19:32
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If we exclude all other aspects like social standing, professional expertise level and professional versatility (how easy is it to switch from one area of your profession to another), and just focus on the financial life-time income assuming you stay in the same line of work and provide adequate quality, then it is very likely not worth it - but it still might be.

Very likely not worth it because:

  • You have a job currently and do it apparently well enough to stay employed (for other readers: this is crucial! A college degree can make getting that first job a lot easier.)
  • Let's assume you keep doing the same kind of developer jobs over your lifetime
  • Then your industry experience will be enough to get you the next, a degree would barely make a dent upwards in the likelihood to get a follow-up job
  • You will likely have to switch the programming language at least once in your life time along with the tool kit, but assuming your tasks otherwise stay the same, that change is manageable. I.e. you can learn the other tools gradually and/or will likely be able to transfer some general knowledge in how they work

it might be worthwhile because:

  • a college education gives you a broad foundation which helps to allow/adjust to bigger changes
  • 1) say in a few years a lot less developers of your type are needed, perhaps they are automated away. You might need to completely re-adjust and convince employers that you can work in that other domain with that other tool-stack in a short time. Your broad college foundation can help with that.
  • 2) if you do not want to keep doing the same, but want to move up or side-ways, e.g. becoming a software architect or data analyst, the same applies
  • you can still achieve either of this without a college education, but it can be a lot harder: because you actually have the foundation and because you can prove it. So the college education provides an increased chance to switch to a more profitable line of work or prevent joblessness should you not find a follow-up job fitting your current role. It's a bit like an insurance in that aspect, albeit, it does not give you a guarantee either.
  • such a foundation might also make it easier to move up the hierarchy, when you are about to reach (technical) team lead or CTO level

Bottom Line: Without a college degree you will likely not earn significantly less over your lifetime than if you now invest the time and money in said education, calculating that in, you might actually earn about that amount more (probably a bit less, as you might secure a bit higher income with a degree and/or move faster up). BUT: you will be less flexible in choosing your path, which translates to a certain income gap risk later in life when you need to re-educate yourself.

Going for a college degree, you will certainly loose the time and money you'd spend in the college education. There is some chance that the college education does open you routes that would allow you to gain significantly more, but that chance is small (it's still larger than the chance that not pursuing a college education opens you a route that would make you significantly more than if you'd go with the college education - aside from the money and time spent to get the education in the first place). The main difference that increases financial risk without a college education somewhat is that you are a bit less flexible (at least in the short term) to switch directions within the big field of software development and its related fields.

Other aspects:

Note that this is just looking at the likely financial income assuming you mostly follow the same path. There are other aspects in choosing a college degree aside from social (e.g. prestige) and financial aspects. For instance, there might be personal development aspects, i.e. which kind of work do you want to do, which quality standards do you want to achieve. A college education can help you to think more abstractly, give you theoretical background knowledge that can help to steer your career into a more general/abstract direction (less dealing with tooling more with algorithms and architectures) or give you the backing for highly specialized jobs where you need to know all the details and be able to prove what you implement is safe and secure (e.g. cryptography, blockchain etc.). It can also simply mean you are the go-to person for the few more complex problems in an otherwise mundane project. Or it can mean that the guy who is, is less frustrated when he needs to translate the complexities under the hood to you. You obviously can achieve all that in other ways, but a college education is exactly aimed at that, so it will be hard to beat it in terms of efficiency of reaching that.

Personal Opinion: Do what feels right for you! We don't know how the job market looks in a few years. Our answers are mostly based on the current situation. We also have no idea how you want to develop yourself, how ambitious you are etc. Maybe you become a manager in a year and then you don't need much technical knowledge anymore anyway. We can only project your financial income along a "likely path" of an average person. Much depends on a lot of other decisions you will make.

So, from my perspective: if you love what you do and you don't feel any interest in getting a college education, keep doing it. Put some money aside and consider broader education when you need it (if you hear people complaining that you just don't get the bigger picture, maybe that's a cue). If you however are curious about the bigger picture, want to learn some theory, get a broader stack etc. then you should seriously consider a college education, as that's exactly what it's meant for.

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  • Any stats/citations for "likely not earn significantly less"? Not saying it's not true, but this goes directly against the garbage that my peers and I were spoon-fed our entire lives. "College-grads earn on average a million more dollars over their lifetime!" type stuff, with zero qualifiers added – Mars Mar 9 '20 at 2:58
  • This is thoughtful and well-argued, but the premise on which you start, the idea of "just focusing on the financial life-time income", I think, is a mistake for a young person. – teego1967 Mar 9 '20 at 16:12
  • @teego1967 I agree, but it's the premise of the question and I did try to indicate that this limits the scope and that there are other aspects than the ones OP seems to have considered aside from the financial ones. – Frank Hopkins Mar 9 '20 at 18:33
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Hello to me from 30 years ago!

Seriously, I was right where you are now. A different era in technology, but you're right where I was.

I have a degree in something other than IT, and while I started out in that arena, I "moved" to software development and analysis many years ago. I still, to this day, even with 20 years' of successful projects behind me, have trouble getting through the resume filters for development work. Fortunately, I've become a well-known name in my segment of the industry, and my reputation will let me "get around" that problem.

Had I no degree whatsoever, I'd likely not be successful.

If you're confident in your tech chops, then I'd seriously recommend taking night/weekend classes in business management, focussing on project management, and perhaps with a long-term goal of getting an MBA.

You're a successful self-taught developer. Yay. There are hundreds of thousands of us out there. That skill will serve you well for about 12 years. Then you'll be "stuck" as to your career advancement. Getting a degree will help you move into something beyond that.

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You do not have to have a degree to get a job.

But, employers in computer field, usually, concentrate on education along with experience when looking for mid/high level position filling. larger companies, rely on education more that experience.

So why would you limit yourself from the start of the carrier?

If you have a comfortable income level with loose schedule and no family or kids yet - you are in the prime position to get a college / university degree.

When you be done, you will have a great experience level being working while studding and a diploma.

Senior Developer / Team leader / Tech Evangelist etc

That`s in current US market 80+

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  • "But, employers in computer field, usually, concentrate on education along with experience when looking for mid/high level position filling. larger companies, rely on education more that experience." Citation needed, that is the very opposite of my experience. – Tymoteusz Paul Mar 9 '20 at 21:36
  • @TymoteuszPaul I guess it is very location based then – Strader Mar 9 '20 at 21:53
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I think the perspective is different if getting a degree is expensive like in the USA, or relatively cheap.

If a degree is affordable it could be useful especially in some firms, like banks or insurances where a missing degree could make one hit a glass wall in career. A degree helps to have a more general view of the field and even have some education on other fields like chemistry or electronics. I have an MsC degree in CS engineering and had a couple of courses on processor architecture and I learnt 8086 assembly language. Never used it in my work, but knowing the different indirect modes will make absolutely clear what a pointer is or other high level languages constructs.

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  • What if you dedicated those 3-4 years into software dev entirely, think how much you could learn besides just what is a pointer. And this is what op is asking about, not "degree or nothing" but "degree vs work experience". – Tymoteusz Paul Mar 9 '20 at 21:38
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purely financial perspective

Well, you would lose 50k per year that you're earning now, plus college fees and living expenses. Then you can probably double your student loan to account for the interest. So maybe 500k in total.

If you work for 50 years, you'd have to earn 10k a year more for it to be worthwhile. That's quite possible, and I'm sure universities can point to statistics that show their graduates earning that much more than non-graduates - however it's hard to tell if that's due to the course, or just because bright, hardworking ambitious people tend to go to college.

The years you spend working instead of studying should give you a head start. It could take quite a few years for a graduate to reach the same level of pay, and they may never earn enough to repay their investment.

More importantly, that's just the total when you retire, and you should consider the effect in the next 5-10 years because that's when your finances will be the most stretched, as you will probably want to buy a house and start a family. In 4 years time, you'll hopefully have had a few pay rises and saved enough to buy a house easily, while a new graduate will be starting as a junior and will have a big debt to pay.

Also, a single person with savings has a lot more freedom to change job. You could take the risk of working for a start-up (or leaving a dead-end job) without worrying that a missed pay-cheque would leave you unable to pay important bills at the end of the month. Ironically, needing less from your job puts you in a better negotiating position, and can lead to getting more.

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No. Unless you want to pursue an academic career (e.g. professor, senior lecturer etc...), you don't have to expose yourself to tertiary education.

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    I didn't downvote, but you should defend your answer with evidence rather than just making a claim. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Mar 8 '20 at 21:34
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    @EJoshuaS-ReinstateMonica so what is the categorically correct answer to the OP's question? My guess is it will be an opinion based answer so this answer is therefore good enough... – Solar Mike Mar 8 '20 at 21:45
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    @SolarMike there's a difference between an opinion backed up by evidence and this answer. There are benefits to getting a degree (beyond the obvious), there are costs, and there are other options also with pros and cons. This answer is too simplistic to be a good answer. – HorusKol Mar 8 '20 at 22:00
  • @SolarMike In that case, the question should be closed. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Mar 8 '20 at 22:00

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