A Tech Career May Not Require a Four-Year Degree

Math Lecture

Do you need a bachelor’s degree to have a successful career in IT? Not necessarily. In some occupations, professionals with less-costly two-year degrees may actually out-earn people with more education, according to research from Georgetown University. In fact, Georgetown says that 28 percent of people with an associate’s degree make more than the median of workers with a bachelor’s degree.

For instance, you can make a nice living as a Web developer, application developer, computer programmer, computer support specialist, game designer, systems analyst or network administrator if you have an associate’s degree or relevant college coursework and certifications. The Brookings Institution says half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year degree.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore what a bachelor’s degree can bring you. By 2018, 65 percent of all job openings will require workers to have at least some college experience. Plus, like it or not, some employers won’t even consider candidates who don’t have a four-year degree.

What should you do? It’s not a simple decision. You have to consider the cost, quality, and shelf life and relevance of the curriculum, plus your near-term career goals, marketability and potential earnings.

Your Path and Earnings Potential

While it may be difficult to predict what you’d like to be doing in five years, you need to at least know where you’re headed to determine what kind of higher education you should pursue. Do you want to work for a prestigious company or government agency? Do you want to move into software engineering or IT management or make more than $125,000 per year? If so, odds are you’ll need a bachelor’s degree.

Although the starting salaries for professionals with two-year degrees are often higher than those of recent four-year graduates, the bachelor’s degree almost always results in higher earnings over a lifetime, Georgetown says. In fact, computer and engineering managers and software engineers are among the top five earning occupations for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Also, consider your marketability. Brookings says employers in certain metro areas tend to require a bachelor’s degree. And when tech hits a down cycle, employers can hold out for candidates with more education.

On the other hand, if you’re unsure about your future plans, a community college might be the way to go. If you take the right core classes, you can always complete your bachelor’s degree later on.

Calculate the ROI

Money is also a factor to consider. Obviously, a scholarship could make your decisions easy, but if you have to pay your own way, calculate the return on your investment by comparing the cost, quality and shelf life of the curriculum to the earnings of recent graduates.

For example, it may be difficult to cover the $200,000 a private four-year education could cost you, but relatively easy to pay $64,000 for a similar degree at a state school. When it comes to community colleges, tuition runs an average of $3,200 a year, according to the College Board. If you need room and board, add another $7,500. That would bring the total cost to about $10,700 per year, or $21,400 for your associate’s degree.

Once you’ve calculated your costs, think about the amortization. How long will the skills you learn last you? For instance, math proficiency will stay with you forever, but expertise in a specific technology will last only as long as that technology remains in vogue.

Most schools will furnish you with the data you need to calculate these things, or you can check the outcomes from different schools at CollegeMeasures.org or Collegerealitycheck.com.

The Bottom Line

Some employers may be willing to substitute experience for a higher degree, but it’s hard to get your foot in the door with a high school diploma alone. And with the emergence of hybrid jobs and the growing need for communication and other soft skills, a degree is sure to shift the odds in your favor. Bottom line: Some kind of college education is sure to pay off. What you have to decide is which kind of education will get you where you want to go.

 Related Stories

Image: Tungsten/Wikimedia Commons

5 Responses to “A Tech Career May Not Require a Four-Year Degree”

  1. Bachelors sounds impressive in this case and all or some of us may possess it, but what about having no related work experience? Hope this question get some readers start to “think” 🙂

  2. Sadly but true, reason why this country is going down the drain in technology and by technology I don’t mean just IT but engineering, Physics, Mathematics, etc. Long time ago, to have a university degree was mandatory in order to work as an engineer; however, now days everyone is an engineer with only a certification. 20 years from now the USA will be at the end of the developed countries China taking the lead as well as India, Russia, and several other countries. As it is now, companies cannot find qualified people for technical jobs and by that I don’t mean Web design, System Administration and the such… I mean, real engineering and programming – they have to go to India to find that people with university degrees and the US native is and will be just a Joe blow.

    • Good article. People are not engineers by merely taking a certification exam. An electrical degree is still just that. People do earn a title by proven work and years of a experience in an industry, however such degree’s or titles are honorary. I myself have been unemployed for the past 5 years in IT, and have not had any other jobs. I just attended a VMWARE User Group one day conference, and enjoyed the event, but was told I should do Virtual Desktop implementations as that is were the majority of the hiring is. For me that’s like starting out again in desktop support, I started implementing VDI back at IBM in 1997 so our AIX developers could run Lotus Smart Suite by using the X protocol to connect to a Citrix Winframe Server using NCD’s Winframe X server on NT 3.51 desktop interface. The only difference is that now Vmware wants you to use a separate virtual machine for each user which they connect to using RDP. I am not sure of that is as cost effective as just using Microsoft Terminal Services for end users that need to be locked down, or want to use a less expensive workstation such as a 10Zig.com , Wyse , etc network computer.

      Regards, Jose F. Medeiros
      The Unemployed IT Guy!

  3. Marcus griffin

    Company don’t want to hire new american software engineers grad/career changers. I’ve been looking for work two years after graduating with my computer engineering degree.

  4. Wow, imagine that, a study by a UNIVERSITY says that people with bachelor’s degrees earn more. Does anyone else think that perhaps that is biased?

    With a successful career in IT, I can say that being adaptable and being able to learn on your own are key skills. Whether you learn those in college or of your ow accord, you’ll eventually find yourself out in the cold if you don’t have those. For example, Jose’s comment makes him sound like he’s unwilling to move into new technologies and adapt to what companies are doing. (not trying to pick on Jose, just using it as an example) As someone who architects software systems, I can say that I’ve started on the ground floor in technologies over and over again – that’s part of what you sign up for in this industry. Your skills are going to be dated and need to be re-learned on almost a constant basis.

    I’d also say that I’ve seen plenty of job applicants that lack communication skills, business acumen, or a good attitude. Again, college or otherwise, you have to learn these skills if you want to be a top earner. I think that part of the reason that people with degrees have more earning potential is that they’ve had to give presentations and learn to deal with the politics of an environment; but you can just as easily train and hone those skills without a degree. What I can say is that if you can’t walk into your boss’s boss and explain that defect or outage to him in words he can understand in 2 minutes or less, then you aren’t going to be standing out among the crowd. It is rare these days that simply being a rock-star get you to the top. Check your ego at the door, learn to talk to your business consumers, and have a good attitude and you’ll go a long ways.