by Bill Rosenthal

Saying yes to no college

May 13, 20154 mins
CareersIT SkillsTechnology Industry

With tuition costs skyrocketing, is traditional college becoming a thing of the past?

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Credit: Thinkstock

Young people are rethinking the traditional view that college is the best route to career success. Many who are working in information technology without having had a day of college are making substantially more money than their college-educated peers.  Some of them were self-educated. Others had attended coding “boot camp” classes that took as little as two months of time. Yet others have taken online certification courses requiring only a few days.  

Right now there’s a shortage of computer security specialists, a job paying from $39,500 to $102,000 annually, or a median salary of $65,000. The cost for training and taking the tests for three qualifying certifications is currently about $8,600. It can all be done in 11 days, plus the days needed for study.  

A recent survey of graduates of 48 coding boot camps found that the employed graduates were earning an average salary of $76,000, or 44% more than their pre-boot camp pay. Top programmers are hiring agents to help them negotiate their salaries.  There are almost five times as many Web developer jobs open as there are Web developers. 

There also are excellent job opportunities in other IT specialty areas where a college education isn’t needed. They include chief information security officer, a hot career that will continue to grow as cybercriminals become more sophisticated. They also include computer-based jobs in functions such as social media strategist, Google AdWords and mobile app security. Many employers pay for the cost of certifications training. Some coding boot camp schools charge no tuition and take a percentage of graduates’ first-year salaries instead.

Many employers prefer graduates of these programs over college grads  because the skills the programs teach are workplace-oriented. Only 11% of business leaders believe today’s college graduates have the needed workforce skills, according to a recent study.  (This compares with 96% of colleges’ chief academic officers.)

The cost of university tuition and fees has surged about 1,200% since 1978, far outpacing the overall 280% inflation increase over the same period. More than 70% of college students now graduate with loans. Average debt is $33,000 — on top of what the student’s parents may have borrowed. Nationally, student debt now exceeds $1.1 trillion and one in 10 borrowers is 90 days late on payments. Close to half of recent graduates work in jobs for which a college degree isn’t needed. Close to 85% move back in with their parents shortly after graduating.

It also takes longer to earn a college degree than it did in the past. At most public universities only 19% of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. In community colleges, only 5% earn an associate degree in two years. 

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel said recently that he sees higher education as the next big bubble, comparable to the technology and housing busts of a few years ago. He’s giving $100,000 scholarships to people who drop out of college to work for two years in areas such as biotechnology, education and energy. 

It’s important to remember that college graduates earn much more on average than people without degrees. Moreover, the young people who are saying yes to no college should understand that they’re not getting a complete education. It was years after I graduated from college that I realized that the arts, sciences and other courses that I took helped shape the way I think, work and lead others. Can we continue to have a cultured and ethical society if larger numbers of people forego getting a college education? Business and education leaders need to have a dialogue about this issue.

What’s more, employers should understand that all technology employees — those with college degrees and those without — must get ongoing on-the-job training to continue being productive. Technology is changing so rapidly that today’s skills will be obsolete tomorrow.

An employee who wants to build a career in IT may want to specialize — in an area such as regulatory compliance or intellectual property protection. To reach the higher echelons in the organization the employee must understand fields such as finance and marketing, disciplines such as project management and strategic planning, and so-called soft skills such as communication, which is needed to manage the sometimes conflicting expectations of the organization’s many decision-makers. All this might require education at the business school level, whether for a degree or in an executive education program. 

Ambitious young people who choose not to go to college might well find that to really advance their careers they do need college — only later in their lives.