Do You Need a College Degree for an Entry-Level Job in Technology?

Does a college degree matter when it comes to landing an entry-level job in tech? Can that degree impact how much you earn in your first role? Those questions are key for people entering the tech industry (or considering doing so).

The importance of a degree is a contentious issue in tech. Colleges and universities would argue that one is essential if you want to land a job; but the technology industry has a long history of embracing workers who don’t have a formal degree, so long as they can demonstrate that they have the skills to do the job. In February 2020, for example, Elon Musk famously Tweeted that he needed people to work on artificial intelligence (A.I.) applications at Tesla, and he didn’t care “if [applicants] even graduated high school”—they just needed a rock-solid grasp of the fundamentals.

When we analyze tech jobs via Burning Glass, a platform that collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, we see that a vast majority of open positions request a BA. On one hand, that’s good news for those who want to quickly land a job in tech, because it means you don’t need to spend years earning an advanced degree to access millions of jobs. But on the other, those without a degree might have to go through extra effort to demonstrate they have what’s necessary to do the job. 

How much do entry-level jobs in tech actually pay, and does that change with a degree? Comparably, which monitors workplace culture and compensation, recently crunched salary data from 18,500 employees with 0-3 years of experience in technology jobs. These entry-level employees worked for companies of varying size, from tiny startups all the way to the tech giants such as Amazon and Apple. Comparably’s salary data didn’t take bonus, stocks, or other forms of compensation into consideration.

What does the data show? Having a degree will earn you more money in an entry-level position—but not that much more money (with some notable exceptions). Also, entry-level positions in tech tend to pay extremely well, especially in “hot” categories such as data scientist, product manager, and developer. Check out the chart:

For salary data on more positions, including business analyst and web/visual designer, head over to Comparably’s site. It’s also worth noting that many factors determine salary besides experience, including your specific skills and even your city or state. According to this year’s Dice Tech Salary Report, for example, 2020 saw significant salary increases in some of the nation’s more nascent tech hubs, including Charlotte (13.8 percent, to $99,961), Detroit (7.7 percent, to $90,110), and Houston (7.1 percent, to $99,727). If you’re an entry-level technologist in an up-and-coming tech scene, you can expect location to impact your take-home pay.

If you don’t have a degree or much formal experience, you’ll need to rely on other factors to land an entry-level tech job. If you code in your spare time, make sure to include a link to your work (such as a Github repo) in your resume and application materials; if you build cool projects such as apps or websites, you’ll also want to show those off as examples of your abilities. A prospective employer may also subject you to additional rounds of testing to verify your skills, which might be tough—but you can succeed.