Last week, Nick D’Aloisio became a millionaire at 17 when he sold his mobile app Summly to Yahoo. The teenager doesn’t have a college degree in computer science. He doesn’t even have a high school diploma. He taught himself how to program. He still lives with his parents who still make him clean his room.
Though D’Aloisio is British, the US press sold him as the week’s poster child. That should come as no surprise: In the “land of the free,” the mythos of the self-made man—the rich man minus a college degree—still holds sway. Who doesn’t know that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard? What tech-savvy teenagers can’t rattle off the names of famous non-graduates? “Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Ted Turner…” Even the big financial magazines get into the mix. Take this recent headline from Forbes: “Five Reasons to Skip College.”
So is college for saps?
The Lucky Few
For the lucky few, the answer is yes.
Tuition at MIT last year cost $42,050, and that doesn’t include living expenses or books. CMU ran the wannabe programmer a whopping $44,880. And these days more and more students are forking out even bigger bucks for a graduate degree.
The cost of these programs puts topnotch college degrees out of reach for many. Even those who can pay, though, might question whether they’re getting their money’s worth.
Jeffrey McManus who covers online learning at The New New Thing writes, “The Ph.Ds who are teaching in these programs generally got their degrees from five to ten years ago at a minimum, when the tools and tactics for software engineering were very different. The industry simply changes faster than academia.” This critique that computer science programs are behind the times rings true.
So the thinking goes: If Nick D’Aloisio can become a millionaire without dumping $160,000 on college, why can’t I?
Or perhaps those who see college as an obstacle to striking gold in the tech world are just calculating risk and reward. Like gamblers who go all in, they understand that the lucky few who succeed succeed big.
The Unlucky Many
Why can’t you be the next Nick D’Aloisio? Well, for starters, you might not have the big idea or the business savvy. You might lack the fire in your gut or the gambler’s cool.
And even these qualities don’t guarantee success. After all, most startups fail.
Though the statistics vary widely, none of them should hearten the “Dream Big” crowd. In fact, for every Bill Gates, they’re 11 Joe Blows. According to the Startup Genome Project, which looked at over 3,000 fledgling tech companies, 11 out of 12 startups fail within 5 years.
And what if you manage to attract capital? Surely you’re set, right? Well, a new study out of Harvard University shows that 75% of venture-backed startups don’t repay their investors. And more than 95% don’t deliver the promised returns. Surprised? The Wall Street Journal quotes the author of the study as saying that venture capitalists “bury their dead very quietly… They emphasize the successes but they don’t talk about the failures at all.”
The news gets worse for tech companies: Startups in the tech industry fail at a far greater rate. Only 37% in the “information” sector are still in business after four years. Your chances are better launching a farm or daycare. Why? Those who study entrepreneurship point to incompetence. And you have to wonder whether those who do succeed owe their success to college.
It comes down to this: Nick D’Aloisio is the exception.
But dreamers dream—and who’s to say that one failure doesn’t lead to success down the road?
Hacks vs. the Bosses
The unemployment rate among math/computer science majors stands at 3.5%. What that means on the ground is that graduates of computer science programs are guaranteed a job.
And while employers might wish computer science programs taught more technical skills and less theory, they continue to hire their graduates. Perhaps that degree shows that the applicant can learn, function within an institution, or follow through. Perhaps the degree indicates something as basic as math skills.
In its job listings, Google requires “a college degree or equivalent experience,” but many other employers hire only college graduates.
And the job outlook is unlikely to change: The U.S. Department of Labor expects the number of jobs in computer science to grow by $20 by 2020.
So in the end, if you like the work and aren’t worried about getting rich, perhaps college is right for you. And who really needs to make headlines?