Why Go to College?

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While recently looking over Forbes magazine’s list of the 10 richest Americans, I was pleasantly surprised to find four of the slots are occupied by IT moguls: Bill Gates of Microsoft (obviously), Larry Ellison of Oracle, Paul Allen of Microsoft and Michael Dell of Dell Computers. (Interestingly, heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton hold the same number of positions within the top 10.) The combined wealth of these four tech magnates are worth about $104 billion or more than the 2005 gross domestic product of Iceland, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Jamaica and Monaco put together.

One particular fact caught my attention while reviewing the article that briefly discussed each of these four individuals and their rise to fortune: All of them dropped out of college. Why is this such an issue? Well, first of all, this works against the conventional wisdom with which most of us are brought up: work really hard in school, earn that bachelor’s degree (or master’s or doctorate) and you’re sure to succeed professionally.

Secondly, it demonstrates a larger trend that’s existed in IT longer than personal computers. Now, Gates, Ellison, et al don’t necessarily epitomize the IT workforce as a whole, but the fact is that many, if not most, technology professionals just flat-out disregard formal education in ways that people working in other industries can’t fathom. You majored in computer science at Yale? Great. Now let’s see you build a secure, reliable WAN.

What matters most to the majority of techies is that people can do a job well. Whether they have a degree from a four-year postsecondary institution is largely immaterial. Should it be, though?

The Case against College
The reasoning behind the decision to abstain from college is relevance. Many technology professionals simply don’t think the skills and knowledge covered by a computer sciences degree or a related course of study will give them a competitive edge in the IT labor market. And much of the time, they’re right. Colleges and universities struggle to keep their IT curricula up to date because of a combination of the rapid pace of change in technology and the often rigid structure of academic environments.

Also, let’s face it: College isn’t getting any cheaper. Tuition costs are soaring, increasing at rates much faster than income growth. When faced with the choice of spending an average of about $20,000 to attend an in-state public university for four years (not including room and board, books, beer, etc.) or about a grand or two to get a certification that focuses specifically on a product, technical area or job role, it’s no surprise that IT pros choose the latter.

The Case for College
Education is an investment, though, and the fact is that while people pay a lot to go to college, they get a lot more income over the span of their careers than those who don’t. Plus, IT professionals have options when it comes to charting their course through academia. They can go to a technical school or spend their first two years at a community college, where they might be able to pursue a certification or two, as these have been imbedded into the programs at some of these institutions. In addition, a significant number of the regular four-year universities have adjusted well to technology trends, and they offer learners some of the most sophisticated IT environments around.

Also, colleges offer the chance to develop interpersonal skills through life experience, something that money really can’t buy, and no degree can validate. In this sense, Paul Allen and Michael Dell didn’t waste their time at their respective universities just because they dropped out. To suggest the whole experience was a wash for all the IT mucky-mucks who now occupy the highest echelons of the world’s financial elite is to misunderstand the nature of education. Even though they didn’t leave with a bachelor’s degree in whatever, they obviously learned a great deal. So can you.

Brian Summerfield is senior editor for Certification Magazine. Send him your favorite study tips and tech tricks at brians@certmag.com.

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