Travails of the College Dropout

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Kanye West’s 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout” makes it clear the rapper/producer has a rather large chip on his shoulder about not having a college degree. Throughout the album, West, whose mother formerly served as English department chair at Chicago State University, lampoons the necessity of a college education, his underlying point seeming to be that a lack of one didn’t prevent him from becoming a superstar.

“Back to school, and I hate it there, I hate it there. Everything I want I gotta wait a year, I wait a year,” West raps. “Told ’em I finished school, and I started my own business. They say, ‘Oh, you graduated?’ ‘No, I decided I was finished.’”

Yet, even in the wake of an album’s worth of tenaciously sardonic mockery of the value of academia, West seemed to later think better of his scorn. He titled his next release “Late Registration,” and his upcoming album is rumored to be called “Graduation.”

The college experience seems to have gone through a similar transition within IT, having matured or appreciated in value. The tech field is well-stocked with mavericks of sorts who bucked the system by dropping out of college or forgoing it to bank on their skills.

But as with any form of cutting corners, there are limits to the extent to which one can get away with this.

“I’ve worked with many intelligent, gifted individuals who have nothing more than a high school diploma, but you hit that ceiling where a high school diploma only gets you so far in a salary range, whereas if you have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, it opens up the salary range,” said Brian Epstein, Institute for Advanced Study network and security officer.

Epstein received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rutgers University and is completing his master’s degree in information technology, specializing in information security, from Capella University.

Meanwhile, he’s seen firsthand the “salary ceiling” that less-educated IT professionals meet, and he was shocked by what he saw.

In his first job out of school, Epstein served as a senior interviewer and consultant for a tech company.

“We would get resumes all over the place, and it was the common practice of my colleagues to immediately sift out the ones that didn’t have a degree and just throw them away without looking at any skills, any experiences, anything like that,” Epstein said. “It was something that I was shocked by because I knew people who had a lot of skills that didn’t have a degree. But in companies that are getting lots and lots of resumes, they have to be able to filter them out in some way or another.”

This approach didn’t necessarily lead to the most qualified candidates, however.

“I got a few resumes from people who had all types of certifications and degrees, yet they couldn’t answer a simple technical question in an interview,” Epstein said.

So, what does a degree do if it doesn’t really make you the most qualified candidate for a position? It increases an IT professional’s marketability and maneuverability — without a degree, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. You don’t have much to ensure certain doors are open to you, and your career might depend on luck to a certain extent (where you can get your foot in the door, whom you know, etc.).

“For example, I’m in my job here, and I have a bachelor’s degree, and I’m finishing up on a master’s degree, and I know that having those is like a parachute — I can go to another company,” Epstein said. “Whereas, I see other folks, friends of mine, who don’t have a college degree and feel like they’re stuck at the company they’re at, so they can’t benefit from an increase in salary or benefits.”

Epstein said he thinks, across the board, degrees have become more significant within IT. He points to the fact that information technology is now offered as a degree as a direct indication of this.

“I graduated college eight years ago, and at the time, there really wasn’t an IT degree,” Epstein said. “It was computer science, computer engineering — it wasn’t information technology. So, just for the plain fact that now there are degrees in information technology says a lot.”

Perhaps if there were a degree in hip-hop production, Kanye West wouldn’t have been so academically disenfranchised. But he seems to be doing all right without it.

– Daniel Margolis,

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