This is a question that I've asked myself plenty of times during the past ten years, as I'm sure many people ask themselves at some point. My thoughts on the matter change drastically from year to year. It can vary from "super important, can't get a job without it" to "I've used nothing that I learned in college in 8 years". But the older I get the more I tend to lean towards the latter mindset. I spent 5 years in college and all I have to show for it is a piece of paper that states that fact. I don't remember much of what I learned there and after a few years working as a software developer very few companies even mention the fact when I interview with them. I'm a professional web developer currently, and in college I only took 1 web development class and it only covered ADO.NET for the most part.
So how important is a college education to success?
I'm going to be playing both sides for this post, because at different points in life I've believed in both of them. Maybe you can pick which one best suits where you are in life, or maybe they'll both make sense to you. Everyone is different and everyone has different career goals. Some career goals do in fact require a college degree, so if you're in that group, then college it is.
It's very important
On the one hand, many employers nowadays require a college degree of some sort in order to even consider you for a job. And some jobs require it of course. You can't be a doctor with a GED, fortunately. You get to make connections in college, and it's usually your first real taste of socializing as an adult. Poll after poll time and time again reveals that people with college degrees will end up making several times more money in their life than those that don't have one. In the past I've definitely encouraged family members to focus on school and put other things aside. And those that have, now have the honor of having finished an education at a higher level and have gone on to work in their field.
Since I was a child, it's been beaten into my subconscious mind that finishing college is the only path that needs to be taken for a good life. And I can affirmatively say that without a college degree, I probably wouldn't of gotten my first software development job. And now, after 8 years of software development, I can definitely say that my career has reached a decent enough place that I feel like it's time to branch out on my own. Could I have learned to develop software without college? Possibly. Would I have? Probably not. So for some people such as myself, college is definitely the place to discover what you're good at.
Not important at all
Many of the most successful people in this world never went to college. Or if they did, they quickly decided to not waste their times with it and went on to find ways to change the world. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steven Spielberg, and the list goes on. And many people will quickly argue that these guys were at the upper echelons of intelligence already and so they had no need for college. And while that may be true, there are even more non-famous people that never went to college and went on to find success living life by their own means.
And usually it's people that found a passion for something at an early age and just went with it and took it to higher and higher levels. You have tattoo artists, bmx riders, skateboarders, now YouTubers, startups, game developers, app developers, bloggers, photographers, etc etc etc. Many of these people have found success in life by doing things their own way. You don't need a college degree to be an artist or to develop a game even. These people weren't told to spend 5 years of their lives learning one task and then going from office to office in search of life's riches. They simply did what they loved doing and success came to them after many many failures and picking themselves up each time, something which you don't really learn in college.
When I was younger I had a ton of interests. I rode BMX, I wanted to get into Skateboarding, I played guitar, I started to learn to program in high school and I did many many things that I don't do anymore. And the reason I stopped most of these things was because of my focus on school and because everyone always tells kids that are into non-academic things that they'll never amount to anything. A few years ago, I met several BMX riders that moved into my apartment complex. They were just temporarily in the city until they made their move to the next state for several BMX competitions on their list. At first I thought they were loud and obnoxious kids that had nothing better to do. Until I talked to one of them, who told me that he spends his days with his closest friends doing the thing he loves doing and that he makes enough money riding his bike that he can live a normal life. He had been riding BMX since he was 8 years old. He said he felt bad for those people that have to go into an office everyday for 8-10 hours for 35 years, just so they can stop working at age 65. And, he was absolutely right. That next day, I had to go into work. I sat in traffic for an hour. I logged in to my machine, answered emails and had some terrible meeting about why Safari won't load a GIF for an hour. Then I went home, sat in another hour worth of traffic, and had enough time at the end of the day to eat dinner and watch a show on Netflix. At this point in life, it seemed like this BMX rider definitely was more successful than I was, and in many ways, that is the truth.
The final answer?
So my final conclusion. College is only important if you're career goals require it or if you truly have no idea what you want to do in life and have no passions of your own and need some help figuring it out. If you love doing something, and you can do it well, you can make a living off of it. If you're into photography, get a job, buy a camera and take a picture of everything around you. If you want to start a business, then start a business. The best way to learn how a business works isn't through a textbook. It's through non-stop hard work with hiccups in the road that you'll have to figure out.
Personally, I'm still conflicted about this question. On the one hand I'm definitely glad that I've gotten the chance to improve my skills over the years at different companies. But I also wonder what it would have been like if I had just skipped college and spend those years developing my skillset and my own client list. The good thing about life, is that it's usually never too late do something that you're passionate about. So since I've done the college part already, maybe it's now a good time to pretend it didn't happen and see what the second option holds for me.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.
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