Is Getting a University Degree Worth It

After reading Jake’s post (2013-04-23) about being a university graduate, I felt inspired to write my own. I’ve thought a lot about why I initially chose to go to college, why I stuck around instead of dropping out and what it means to me now that I’m a university graduate. To some people it might sound crazy to drop out of college when it seems practically required you have a college degree to get a job these days. However, I’m assuming many of my readers could understand the appeal given the largely technical audience of my blog and my technical background. So is getting a university degree worth it?

Introduction

Over the last several years, app development and entrepreneurship have exploded. The demand for developers of all kinds, including designers, programmers and testers, has skyrocketed. Furthermore, the push for smarter entrepreneurship and more efficient means of finding potentially successful products and exceptional talent has increased. As a result, many would-be college graduates have dropped out and started their own companies. Some have been successful; others not so much. Instead of starting companies, others have found they don’t need a diploma to find a high paying job, as long as they have the sought after skills. Still others are attracted by the potential to fund their their dream jobs and ideas with the money of VCs and angel investors, not to mention friends, family and fools.

The point is, young twenty somethings are finding ways to make a living without obtaining a university degree and, from what I’ve seen, primarily by leveraging technology. We hear about successful blogs, YouTube channels, Kick Starter projects, mobile startups, work-from-home entrepreneurs, sell-it-on-ebay-ers, etc. every day. Furthermore, with the advent of free online college courses (e.g. Udacity, Coursera, MIT Open Courseware, Stanford iOS Development Lectures and others) there’s more incentive than ever to NOT go to a traditional university and pay tuition (read Reinventing College & Education). While many college graduates are anxious to find jobs, technologists are making it big. That’s not true for the majority probably, but it seems like it’s become much more prevalent.

So now that I’m a university graduate, how do I feel about it? Do I have any regrets? Do I wish I would have done things differently? Do I have a job?

Open Doors and Career Decisions

When I applied to BYU, I declared my major as biophysics. It sounded prestigious and exciting. I loved physics and I loved biology. This would be the perfect major for me. I never once looked at the required coursework. A couple months into school, I realized I needed to start planning my major and the classes looked unappealing. Furthermore, people told me the career options, and I wasn’t really interested. The only thing that sounded cool was being a doctor, “cuz doctors make lots of money” (Obamacare didn’t exist yet). That was when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” I realized for the first time that classes don’t determine what you do for your career necessarily. In other words, I liked biology, but did I want to be a doctor for the next 30 years? Did I want to go to med school? I really had to check my motivations.

In the meantime, I left to serve as a volunteer missionary for two years and I thought that would give me plenty of time to figure it all out (false). When I got back, I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps and give Information Systems a try. It just so happened I loved it, just like most of my brother’s interests.

Then it came again. I knew that information systems was the major I wanted to commit myself to because the coursework was interesting, the jobs were interesting, the jobs paid well and the jobs were in high demand, but I didn’t know which company I wanted to work for or which field of technology I wanted to dedicate myself to. Therefore, I chose to apply to the Masters of Information Systems Management (MISM) program, which would give me another year to think about career and company and another shot at an internship. In retrospect this worked out perfectly because it gave me an extra summer to take an internship, more time to try different part-time jobs and more time to delve into all sorts of tech on personal projects.

My first internship opened my eyes to what kind of company I wanted to work for and also what kind of work I didn’t want to do (among many other invaluable experiences, skills, etc.). Then by the time I got through my second internship I figured out what interested me most and what I saw myself doing full-time for the next 30 years (or so) of my life. And that’s when I started focusing my efforts into developing a master’s capstone project that would really help me obtain skills revolving around designing and coding.

The university setting provided all these open doors to me. It seems to me that if I had gone straight to work after high school or dropped out of college to jump on some big idea I would have felt almost forced to take the path that I had chosen without more time to explore other opportunities. I know that’s how I felt when I was faced with company offers: it felt like the end of career exploration, like I’d never switch jobs once I signed one of those contracts. While that may not be likely these days, a full-time job will consume most of your time to explore other opportunities, not to mention present other potential side effects like the ‘golden handcuffs.’

To put it differently, I needed a good 3 years trying different things (internships, personal projects, part-time jobs, even just interviewing lots) to figure out my career. I don’t think I could have done that as well any other way, even traveling the world and just taking time off to think. It’s possible I could have dropped out my last year to try and launch a startup, but until then I didn’t even know what I wanted to do! Regardless, I was at the end of the university race. Why drop out during the final sprint? Alternatively, I could have skipped college and gone straight to work and figured it out that way, but I didn’t have enough experience to get me anything more than a fast food job or maybe some personal assistant work. So maybe a university degree and experience isn’t for everyone but it was perfect for me, for someone who didn’t know what they wanted to do or be. And what’s more is that the open doors and opportunities not only provided a path for my career but gave me other life experiences. The opportunities, experiences, people and time helped me find myself.

An Experience, Not Just Education

Attending a university is more of an experience than just an education. There’s so much happening at a university that if you go just to get an education and do nothing else but school school school, then you’re missing out. That should be obvious to most if not all college graduates (I hope). Even aspiring high school students know there’s more to school than grades and test scores. What about the extra curricular activities?

For me BYU was an experience and I had a blast. During my first semester, I slept an average of 3 hours a night (class at 7am every day; I took 3 hour day naps). I went to dance parties, went on road trips, went sledding at 2am and stayed up late just to stay up late. That’s what you do when you’re in college, right? Toward the end, I got more involved in clubs, service organizations, dance classes, an occasional intramural sport team and business competitions, many with the intent of not only building a résumé but building my character and enjoying life.

Being involved in so many things and meeting so many different people helped me see the world through an ever changing lens, something of a kaleidoscope, but more organized and meaningful. College is a unique experience that can’t quite be replicated and I’m glad I lived it. I’m also glad it’s over. No more homework and no more tests.

Education Is What You Make of It

Parallel to the idea that attending university should be an experience is the idea that education is what you make of it. As a masters student studying information systems (IS), I had the opportunity to take MBA classes in addition to my IS coursework and electives. One of my MBA professors started one of our many lectures by referencing an article that supported the claim that going back to school for an MBA is an economically sound choice based on the average salary of MBA grads in the US. However, he disagreed with the article and provided this insight: You don’t go back to school to earn an MBA just because it will increase your salary by maybe $10k more than other university graduates. Based on how much tuition you’re paying, you probably won’t break even for a number of years, not to mention the opportunity cost of leaving the work force for two years and the time you give up. You go back to school for whatever it is that you need and want to get out of it. In other words, an MBA is one of many ways to increase your wealth, but don’t go back to school for just that one reason.

There are so many other things to get out of a university education. Perhaps more importantly you could create an extensive network of connections among your professors and peers to land a prestigious job. Chances are if those connections don’t help now, they will in the future. Or perhaps you could seek co-founders for the new venture you’ve launched or are preparing to launch. Or perhaps you could enter a competition and pitch your big idea to judges and investors to refine your idea, get noticed and maybe win $50k of crucial seed capital.

I witnessed a number of my peers just sorta go to class without really learning anything valuable. For them, a degree in information systems was just the key to a job. They worked hard in the classes they enjoyed, but sorta just shrugged their shoulders in the classes they didn’t care about or didn’t perceive as valuable. Maybe for them it wasn’t valuable. Maybe they will never use the material. Maybe they are happy with their job and skills and that’s all they want. I’m sure some of them spent their time working more hours in part-time jobs. Money isn’t a bad trade-off. Others were probably trying to launch start-ups or push ideas through entrepreneurship competitions. Not a bad trade off either.

I don’t have any regrets about obtaining a university degree. I believe I did pretty well for myself. If I could go back and do it over knowing what I know now, I’d probably change a few things, but that’s typical of knowledge and experience. If I could do it over again, I’d probably spend less time as an underclassman having fun just hanging out and spending more time having fun building my career and skills. Additionally, I’d maybe take a year off or attend classes part-time and see if I could launch a startup. At BYU I had a number of free resources right at my fingertips that I could have utilized more than I did including professors, experienced entrepreneurs, career services, students with similar interests, the Crocker fellowship and the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology just to name a few. Regardless, I have a job, I have a degree and I have developed the skills to do what I want and become what I want to become. I made the most of my education.

Trade Schools

One thing I want to draw attention to separately is the focus of general education classes. GE classes at BYU were often a pain because they were just that–general. This is something I would change and do differently.

A friend of mine attended the LDS Business College and took the same required GEs but got so much more out of his classes because they looked at history, economics, writing, math and even science through the lens of business. Everything was applied to business from what he told me. I think I’d much rather enroll in a business college from the beginning, knock out my GEs, get my AA and then transfer to a B-school like the Marriott School of Management. While many of my peers successfully knocked out their GEs with AP or IB credit in high school, I don’t think this is the necessarily the best route either. Most of us are too immature and inexperienced in high school to get significant value out of the classes we test out of. Even though they are more than sufficient introductory courses, they’re not applied. In my mind, application and contextual understanding is one of greatest keys to mental persistence and creating value.

I’ve never been to a trade school but from what I’ve heard, they sound like a brilliant alternative to a traditional university education, assuming they are accredited and you come out with a recognized diploma/degree. Personally, I think our society places too much emphasis on traditional kinds of degrees and credentials. We’ve overshot the goal, which I believe was to create a means of more easily identifying the individuals with the desired skills and abilities. It seems to me some jobs require advanced degrees, when in reality what the employer needs is a person with a specific skill set. Degrees are supposed to guarantee that skill set (though some times they don’t even do that); they shouldn’t act as barriers to people who have the necessary skills even if those skills were gained through experiences outside of an academic institution. In my field (and perhaps in others as well), it’s not uncommon to hire a technologist without a degree. What matters is if they can get the job done as expected. Usually this is validated through a résumé, references and targeted interviews. Naturally many companies simply require degrees to make the process easier on them by filtering out potentially unqualified candidates. This is one of the very reasons I got a master’s degree–to minimize the chance of facing job barriers, even red tape when looking for a promotion or career advancement. That said, some of the smartest, most capable people I’ve worked with don’t have have advanced degrees let alone college degrees.

Quality of Education vs. Cost of Education

The Information Systems program at BYU has consistently ranked as a top 10 program. Based on the tuition I paid at BYU, I’d say I got a steal of a deal. Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to graduate debt free. I don’t think that’s something every university graduate can say, especially those who pay top dollar at some universities. At the end of the day, IS grads from the Marriott School of Management get offered the same exceptional job opportunities from companies that recruit at other top ten schools.

There are a number of opposing arguments that could be made here, such as differences in starting salary, etc. I haven’t done enough research to really look at the various arguments, nor have I the experience or knowledge or wherewithal to make any judgments. The point of my post isn’t really to compare universities either, but I’d like to reply to the argument that the cost of a university education these days really isn’t worth it. For who I am and where I’m at today, I feel competent and competitive with those in the work place. I got what I paid for and I feel good about it. Like I said, I have no debts and I have a full-time job. Not everyone can say that, but I can. If I were thousands of dollars in debt and jobless, I don’t think I’d feel the same way. Not every degree can get you a job or put money in your pocket.

Closing Thoughts

If you know your end goal and you have an idea on how you want to get there or if you’ve found yourself, you may not need a university degree, especially if your field is technology related. If you know your end goal, maybe free online classes are the way to go. Maybe running a startup is the right choice, especially if you’ve already validated your idea, have potential customers and/or have interested investors. Diving in and getting to work can be some of the best education. It’s real, it’s valuable and it forces you to stay afloat or drown. If you have the drive to succeed, the proverbial leap of faith may lead you to success–you won’t stop fighting until your survival is made sure.

I’ve toyed a lot with the idea of founding tech startup and seeking funding. From one angle, it sounds like an amazing experience: someone else pays you to build your dream product. And it seems like that’s how a lot of the startup founders I’ve met feel about it. More power to them. It’s a pretty enticing opportunity, especially if it takes you where you want to go. From another angle, I’d rather start a business without funding. Why would I want an investor or venture fund for my boss? I mean in a lot of ways, that’s what investors and VCs are, your boss. At the end of the day, they are the people you report and answer to. I’d rather start a business to be my own boss. Isn’t that why most people start a business, for autonomy?

I’m happy where I’m at. I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m making money, I’m enjoying life both in and out of work. And it just so happens I’m a university graduate with two degrees and I have no regrets. Is getting a university degree worth it? For me, yes. Ask me what I think in ten years.

Premature Scaling Leads to Failure

What is the dominant reason for startup failure? Premature scaling.

To be more specific, to scale properly a startup must nurture consistent and timely growth in each of the following five core dimensions: customers, product, team, business model and funding. Premature scaling in any of these dimensions often leads to failure.

For those entrepreneurs interested in the cash outcome as opposed to the king outcome (control), this is a big deal. Startups that experience premature scaling are valued 3x LESS on average than those that scale properly across the five dimensions.

Take a gander at the infographic below from Blackbox’s creation The Startup Genome project entitled “Why Startups Fail.” The image offers intriguing stats with valuable insight for young startups.

Why Startups Fail: Premature Scaling

Originally found on visual.ly.