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.
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.
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