In Today’s World, Do We Need A College Education?

One thing you hear quite often in the tech industry is that experience and practical skills are more important than a degree or where you went to college. The tech industry prides itself on being a meritocracy, in which individuals are rewarded based on what they accomplish. Because of this, there is a somewhat pervasive “we don’t need college” narrative in tech. However, this narrative comes with mixed reviews. Some believe it, while others view it as a dangerous perspective. Who’s right?

The answer is complicated and, in fact, is something that has been discussed in many of our TechTables—with varied responses from both our attendees and convening guests. Not surprisingly, this issue was raised during our TechTable with Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California. She was asked the question, “Do you believe the narrative about not needing college is dangerous?” Since Napolitano is so deeply involved in the education system, it’s not surprising that she said yes. She sees a strong U.S. education system, in one way, as a competitive advantage. However, the education systems in other countries are surpassing ours, and further neglecting our own could cause us to lose our spot as a competitive nation overall. Another convening guest, Rob McKenna, former Attorney General for the State of Washington, spoke about the marginal value of a college degree. He pointed to statistics showing that, while income of someone with a college degree, adjusted for inflation, has remained about the same since 1977, the salary for someone with just a high school degree had dropped from $44,000 a year to just $20,000 a year. He describes our nation’s population as human capital, a resource that he believes, like Napolitano, needs to be developed to keep the U.S. at the top.

The tech industry, however, has a different perspective. They understand the value of education, but also acknowledge that the traditional methods of obtaining such education or skills are not the only way to do so. For one thing, college tuition prices have risen astronomically: The College Board predicts that the average cost for a “moderately” priced college for the 2013-2014 school year is about $23,000 for in-state public schools and $45,000 for private schools. Not to mention debt—U.S. News says that a student of the class of 2012 graduated with an average debt of close to $45,000.2  This is staggering compared to the cost of a college education in 1977.  The College Board shows that for the 1977-1978 school year, tuition on average, adjusted to 2007 dollars, was about $2,225 for four year public schools and $9,172 for four year private schools.3  With such a high price tag and four years of lost wages, many are beginning to find it hard to justify, or even afford, a college education. In an industry known for disrupting established systems, many are seeking out other ways to obtain the skills and knowledge they need for a well paying job.

Much of this comes in the form of coding bootcamps. As we pointed out in our previous post, there will be close to 1,000,000 more computing jobs than computer science graduates to fill them over the next 10 years. This has encouraged many, young and old, to learn to code. A variety of programs exist to facilitate this, ranging from expensive 9–12-week coding academies to free online courses through sites like Coursera. Some promise jobs, others just give you the basics of coding. These programs do provide an alternative to traditional educational programs, but the results and accessibility vary. Coding academies, while many essentially promise employment4, can cost up to $12,000 and employ a rigorous application process to find students. Free courses, while easily accessible, will not likely provide you with enough training on their own to get you an entry level engineering job.

The simple answer to our question is that we have yet to find a perfect solution. College is too expensive and external training programs are not yet able to promise an affordable equivalent to a college degree. Board Member Rusty Rueff has spoken frequently about this dilemma and how it is approached from a hiring standpoint. He shows that while a degree is still important, some employers are no longer using it as a requirement. In his words, “We see [organizations] placing less emphasis on the academic credentials, and working harder to better identify the skills and experience that are needed within the company.”5

But maybe this is a place we want to be? Maybe rather than having it one way or the other, college degree required or experience only, we do both? If college isn’t for you, no problem! If it is, that’s great too! By allowing ourselves to have this balance and flexibility, we are able to let people customize their education in a way that works for both them and the industry in which they hope to participate.

1 What is the Price Tag for a College Education? (n.d.) Retrieved on August 7, 2014 from

2 Sheehy, K. 10 Colleges Where Grads Have the Most Student Loan Debt. (2013). U.S. News. Retrieved on August 7, 2014 from

3 The College Board. Trends in College Pricing. (2007). Retreived on August 8, 2014 from

4 For example, “Seattle-based Code Fellows, are so sure they can get students work they will refund a student’s tuition—$12,000 for 16 blitzkrieg weeks to get a person from zero to trained—if that person doesn’t get a job.” Mims, C. (2014). Computer Programing is a Trade; Let’s Act Like It. The New York Times. Retrieved on August 7, 2014 from

5 McGraw, M. Education versus Experience. (2014). Human Resources Executive Online. Retrieved on August 7, 2014 from

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