Turn on, tune in, drop out


Seth Godin:

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students […]? Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in US News and other rankings. […] Why bother making your education more useful if you can more easily make it appearto be more useful?[…] a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness than a degree from a cheaper institution.[…] A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.

[…]there are tons of ways to get a cheap, liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter and to learn to make a difference (start here). Most of these ways, though, aren’t heavily marketed nor do they involve going to a tradition-steeped two-hundred-year old institution with a wrestling team.

Tim Cavanaugh:

Student borrowing has more than doubled since the end of the 20th century, according to the College Board, with $85 billion in loans in 2008, up from $41 billion in 1998. And as the rising rate of defaults indicates, borrowers in aggregate are not making the kind of mone–i.e. twice as much as a decade ago–they would need to pay those loans back [….] we have too much money going into an asset, not enough value coming out, a massive increase in leverage, and a large taxpayer liability for the difference. […]The traditional university of ivied walls, lecture halls, and full-dress balls is heading for a crisis. […] If diplomas are going to continue costing more and losing value, then at least the customers should have more choice when shopping around for them.

Giles Bowkett:

Wages have not risen since the 1970s for workers with college degrees. Wages have diminished since the 70s for workers without college degrees. However, in that same period of time, CEO pay has gone from 40 times worker pay to 500 times worker pay. What’s happening here is class distinctions growing tremendously, and in a society where class distinctions matter a great deal, the perceived value of a college degree skyrockets, even as the economic advantage that it used to give you deteriorates into nothing. In a society where social class and family background can profoundly distort economic achievement, a mark of prestige like a college degree goes way up in price, because without it, you’re just a member of the working class. (Oh noez!) Colleges are selling liferafts on a sinking ship, and that gives them a license to print money.

Dave Troy:

The unrelenting message is, “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be successful.” […]

There’s no doubt that everyone is different; not everyone is suited for the same kind of work — thankfully. But western society has perverted that simple beautiful fact — and the questions it prompts about college education — into “Not everyone is cut out for college,” as though college was the pinnacle of achievement, and everybody else has to work on Diesel engines or be a blacksmith. Because mechanics and artists are valuable too.

That line of thinking is the most cynical, evil load of horse-shit to ever fall out of our educational system. Real-life learning is not linear. It can be cyclical and progressive and it takes side-trips, U-turns, mistakes, and apprenticeships to experience everything our humanity offers us.

The notion that a college education is a safety net that people must have in order to avoid a life of destitution, that “it makes it more likely that you will always have a job” is also utterly cynical, and uses fear to scare people into not relying on themselves. Young people should be confident and self-reliant, not told that they will fail.

I have a an admitted bias in this discussion. My only higher education experience was a few part-time semesters of community college. I started writing software full-time at age 18, when most of my peers were entering college.

For years I felt guilty about that. Everyone advised me to get back into school at my earliest opportunity. My bosses freely admitted that while I was working above my grade, they were unable to promote me because I didn’t have a degree. At one point I even enrolled in a continuing education school, and almost immediately got a massive pay raise on the mere prospect that I was going to go “legitimate” and get the piece of paper stating that I knew how to do the job I’d been performing for years. Meanwhile, I learned more about the practice of software development from books, free online resources, and hands-on experience than the college fresh-outs had learned in four years of school.

All this time my advice to aspiring developers was still to ignore my example and finish school.

Then one day I took a good long look at my career and realized that while I had an immense amount of respect for the people who were telling me to get my degree, I didn’t envy their careers in the slightest. I realized that the one thing a degree would buy me was a management-track career in the sort of organization that discriminates against employees because of a piece of paper. I also noticed that the kids who were going to school were coming out saddled with student loans that they would spend the next couple decades repaying. With the economy going down the tubes as a result of a credit crisis, this started to seem like less and less of an auspicious way to start out a career.

I realized, too, that my time was limited, and that any after-hours time I spent in classes and on homework was time I wasn’t going to be spending attending users groups, writing Open Source software, and networking. And that it was those latter activities that were measurably more likely to move my career forward in the direction I wanted it to take.

I dropped all pretense of “going back to school someday”. Instead I focused on contributing the software community, building my network of contacts, and becoming the best at my craft. The results of this strategy speak for themselves: for the past several years I have enjoyed steadily increasing job satisfaction, worked with amazing people, enjoyed community recognition, and realized my dreams of working from home, surrounded by my family.

Today my advice to a young developer who is passionate about building great software is to drop out. Spend your time learning by doing, attending your local users groups, participating in mailing lists, contributing patches to Open Source software. Don’t learn to write software and work in teams; write software, and build teams. The paid work will come to you.

Of course, this only applies if you want a career like mine. If you want to do pure CS research, stay in school. If you want to work for a larger, older organization (including Google), get that degree. And if you’re only in a CS program because you heard there’s good money in software, well, frankly you should get the hell out of this industry and find something you genuinely enjoy. There are plenty of software wage-slaves in the developing world who would be happy to do a mediocre job at a fraction of the salary you’re expecting to earn.

Of course, YMMV. Results are not guaranteed. Consult your doctor, therapist, or priest to determine if this path is right for you. Just remember that your elders are coming from a time when having a degree was actually correlated with having a better life.

On the larger question of how to improve the education situation, I agree with Dave Troy and Seth Godin that we need new models of education, not simply reform of colleges. Toward that end, signs point to apprenticeship as the most promising model to build on. I’ve been hearing of more and more forward-thinking software companies embracing apprenticeship, and I think it’s a move in the right direction.

I don’t know how applicable my path or the apprenticeship model is to fields outside of software development. Giles Bowkett is right that the accredited college system isn’t just going to fade away into irrelevance. But in true Internet fashion, I look forward to seeing alternative approaches route around the establishment entirely.

UPDATE: John Trupiano points me to a related post about the sense of entitlement that often comes along with a CS degree. I think what we’re seeing here is a generational clash: the old rules about greater education automatically conferring an elevated position simply don’t apply to this industry. Unfortunately, like light from a dead star the messages young developers get are still coming from that old, vanished world. One of my motivations in writing this article is that I’ve noticed while most people in the industry recognize this shift, few will come right out and tell aspiring programmers that they’d be better off dropping out.