A $35,000 Piece of Paper

The life changing but also very expensive proposition of getting a degree for that job in tech.

GUEST COLUMN | by Todd Thibodeaux

When driving home from work recently, I keep hearing a Google commercial about jobs in tech. It talks about all the openings and competitive pay available. Then watching TV at home I see a commercial about a woman taking night classes at DeVry University to help her get a job in tech. It looks so ideal: a working mom about to get a degree to help build a better life for her family. Getting a degree from a for-profit institution, or any institution of higher learning for that matter, can be life changing but also very expensive proposition.

The out of pocket costs of going to school add up fast! Beyond tuition and fees, you have housing, travel, food, books, the hidden opportunity costs and more. Since most people don’t have the resources on hand, they borrow, an average of $35,000 per person in pursuit of a degree. Since getting a degree is positioned as a must for any career, what choice do you really have?

Mortgaging a part of your future in pursuit of a degree seems like your only path forward. But after walking the stage and collecting your diploma, you have to ask yourself, does reality live up to the marketing hype?

Key to the Golden Door

Higher education is sold as the key to open a golden door to new opportunities. As the first rung on the career ladder and the way to build a valuable social network in society. But is it all a self-fulfilling prophecy?

So many job listings require a bachelor’s degree to even apply which leaves me wondering if all these companies are really looking hard at what a successful employee could look like, or are they just going through the motions and checking the box marked “bachelor’s degree required”? Is a college degree just serving as a filter? Keeping people out of the process who might be really capable and productive employees?

Hallmark of Higher Ed

A hallmark of the U.S. higher education system has been a liberal arts education. This idea dates to the ancient Romans and the idea of an educated, involved citizen. The liberal arts tradition has evolved to include emphasis on building a global perspective, strong soft skills like teamwork, critical thinking, and communication.

Theoretically, students supplement these broad skills and awareness with subject matter knowledge to prepare them to work in a particular field.

Okay, that’s in theory.

In Practice, What Are You Left With?

In practice, how many people do you know who remember half of what they learned even six months removed from a university classroom? If you don’t get a job quick, what little knowledge you did acquire becomes lost or dated quickly depending on industry. So what are you left with? No job, the value of your knowledge diminishing and no experience. It’s not hard to understand why so many recent college graduates end up underemployed or forced to work in fields they have no interest in.

Oh! And let’s not forget about the debt. The current level of student debt in the US is estimated to be around $1.52 trillion. To give perspective, that’s almost $4,500 for every man, woman and child in this country and is currently more than credit card debt. Something for that working mom to think about when she sees the DeVry commercial.

Many for-profit institutions have terrible track records. They often end up being more expensive, and around 52% of students who attend them end up defaulting on their loans, impacting credit scores creating a negative spiral affecting the rest of their lives potentially.

By making a bachelor’s degree a hard requirement to get a decent paying entry-level job, we’re forcing a tax on people they might otherwise choose not to pay. If there were better alternative education systems emphasizing the teaching of a true core skills needed to get started in a specific career, wouldn’t we better off as a society? Is there really any entry-level marketing, finance, accounting, HR or business job that truly requires four-years of school? Isn’t that the question we should be asking?

If the answer is no, then college is just a super expensive way to show an employer you can socialize effectively. Especially when you consider you’ll learn more in the first 6-9 months in your first professional job than you learned in your entire college career! And when it comes to move on to your second job no one is going to care a bit about where you went to school.

What the Key Really Is

The key is knowing your options, and what you can get from each. Maybe a four-year degree is your answer. If it is, go for it and choose the best school you can afford with a good track record of placement success.

Is a two-year program better? Maybe you’ll start a little lower on the ladder in some careers but you’ll probably skip the crippling debt in the process.

Maybe you just want to work in any random job to pay the bills while you go to school. Nothing wrong with that. Having at least some solid job experience on your resume as you work toward a degree is absolutely a plus.

Professional certifications are another great route and in some fields get higher preference than a degree from hiring managers.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, there are more options than students and parents ever see. The trick is evaluate all of them with an open mind and faith in your ability to execute and get where you want to be 5-10 years down the road.

Todd Thibodeaux is president and CEO of CompTIA, a leading nonprofit trade association for the global technology industry representing more than 2,000 member companies worldwide. A tech evangelist, news junkie, economist, historian, world traveler, political wonk, and charity advocate, all opinions are his own. 

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