Should Aspiring IT Pros Go to School?

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“A University should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning.”
–Benjamin Disraeli (1804 – 1881), Prime Minister of Great Britain


“Toga! Toga! Toga!”
–John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi), Animal House


Head-splitting hangovers. Pizza-crust leftovers for dinner. Perpetually bloodshot eyes from all-night cram sessions or…well, you get the picture. It’s hard to believe that anyone would miss out on all this, right? Many in the IT field, though, have done just that: skipped college and gone pro like techie versions of Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett.


A CertMag EXTRA reader recently contacted us to request information about this very topic. A high-school junior training for the NACSE Associate Network Specialist certification asked whether he should attend college or take an online class to achieve another certification.


It’s a valid inquiry. We contacted our brain trust to address the question, should I go to college?


“I would answer with an unqualified ‘yes’ without any hesitation at all,” said Tim Warner, director of information technology at Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tenn. Warner, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cornell University, and wrote an article on how to use Windows Remote Desktop for the current issue of Certification Magazine (see “I believe that anybody, IT or otherwise, needs to get their rear end into a four-year program. There’s no substitute for it. I would say that it’s not even necessary to major in computer science.”


Warner said that certification is also a valuable step toward an IT career, but that a degree can help aspiring IT pros find work. “Certification also is a leg up. It shows interest, commitment and dedication to the IT field,” he said. “I do also want to underline the importance of the college degree. I’ve seen so many of my friends who don’t have college degrees struggle and get closed out of so many job opportunities—IT or otherwise—because there were hard-and-fast educational requirements.”


Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of IT consulting firm Robert Half Technology and “Tech Careers” columnist for Certification Magazine (see, affirmed the importance of a college education, but also acknowledged that the learning path for IT professionals often can be somewhat distinctive.


“I think overall, IT can be a bit different when it comes to how employers rate someone’s qualifications for a position, because they really take a look at several factors,” Lee said. “They look at certification, hands-on experience, soft-skills and education. They weight them pretty equally, actually. IT is different because it’s very specific when it comes to technical skills, and those skills can often be outside of a college degree. A lot of people in this field attend a technical school rather than going to a classic four-year university. So I don’t think a college degree is always necessary.”


However, both Lee and Warner recognized that key to professional success does not rest solely on technical skills. Aptitude in socialization, business savvy and the singular erudition that comes from life experience also play a role in career accomplishments.


“I would recommend he go to school and become as well-rounded an individual as he possibly can, and take as wide a variety of courses as he can,” Warner said of our reader’s situation. “If he has the aptitude in IT that he says he does, and has the interest that he says he does, he can continue to pursue those certifications. I’m sure his interest will carry him as far as he wants to go. In just going the hard-core IT route, he might run the risk of becoming a techno-nerd. You don’t go very far up the ladder just being a techno-nerd who talks above everybody’s head. You’re not going to become a good IT director or IT manager if you just don’t know how to relate well with other people. That’s one good thing about the university experience: being with all sorts of people in different situations.”


“If this is someone who wants to be a network engineer for the rest of their career, will go out and get every certification possible and will really look at the security avenue, he would probably be fine forgoing college,” Lee said, but added a caveat: Think about the future. “Don’t just think about what you want to do today or tomorrow, think about where you want to be five, 10 or 20 years from now. Someone with a college degree is typically going to be more marketable.”

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