So many people ask me each week: is college still worth it? In this 1-hour video I answer this question and other commonly asked questions about university.
I've been in adult education for two decades at this point, and even though I'm not a labor market economist, I do feel confident enough to answer these questions.
I met in Philadelphia with freeCodeCamp instructor Ed Pratowski to film this in the same studio where he records his mathematics courses. His high-school age daughter Stella read the questions and I answered them.
Here are some of the many topics you'll learn about:
- economic considerations (ROI and Net Present Value) of college decisions
- the US higher education system and labor market dynamics
- strategies to minimize college costs and maximize ROI
- the student debt crisis and student visa system
- practical tips from decades of adult education experience
- how to make informed career decisions and maximize your options
Also, you may want to read my recent book How to Learn to Code and Get a Developer Job. It's completely free and chock-full of career advice.
If you're considering going to university or have college-age kids, I encourage you to watch this and share it with your friends. I'd welcome any feedback you have. (1 hour watch):
And here's a full transcript:
Aside from buying a house, going to university is probably the biggest investment decision you'll face in your entire life.
At the end of the day, going to college should be an economic decision, not an emotional one. In this free course, Free Code Camp founder Quincy Larson will help you decide how to plan for college. He'll explain how US higher education works, how the labor market works, and he'll provide some strategies for minimizing your costs. At the end of the day, he wants to help you maximize your return on investment.
Quincy recently published a free, full-length book about developer careers, and college is the number one thing people ask him about. By the way, people also ask him a lot about Chat GPT and whether they still need to learn to code. Spoiler alert: his answer is yes. So grab your notebook or crack open your text editor because Quincy's going to fire a lot of data at you from his decades of working in adult education.
Quincy pulls no punches and has no mercy when talking about the US university system, the student debt epidemic, and a student visa system that leaves so many bright people unable to get a US degree. But rest assured, he has tons of practical tips that your college counselor probably never told you about. At the end of the day, Quincy wants the same thing for you that your family wants: for you to earn a good living and have a ton of career options. If you learn something from this course, be sure to send it to a friend or family member who's planning for college.
Hey, I'm Quincy Larson, teacher and founder of FreeCodeCamp.org. And today we're going to be asking the very timely question: Is college still worth it? And I'm going to be arguing that in most cases, yes, it is still worth it. You're going to hear all this hype around 'Oh, college, who needs college anymore?' I'm going to argue from numbers that college is still incredibly useful. It's still incredibly worth it. I'm also going to be talking about lots of situations where I don't think it's worth it. And I'm going to be talking about some strategies that you can use to reduce student debt, reduce the capital outlay that this giant four-year education can represent for many people who are learning. So let's dive in.
What about return on investment? The first thing you should consider about education is this is an economic decision. You may have aspirational reasons why you want to go to college. Maybe you're the first person in your family lineage to ever go and get a degree, and that can be a very proud moment. Maybe you have served in the armed forces and you essentially have this freeway to go to university in the sense that you've got the GI Bill that's going to pay for a lot of your higher education. You still should think about things in terms of economics. And you should still think about it in terms of how much money is going to cost and ultimately how much is going to affect your earning potential.
We're going to think about this in terms of return on investment, or ROI. You may have heard that acronym before. There are other ways, of course, you can think about this. For example, if you're a big finance person, you might think in terms of net present value, which will factor in the time value of money. And that's a very real consideration as well because money today is worth a lot more than money in the future. Not just because of inflation, but because of the opportunity to invest that money. So you might, instead of going to university and spending the equivalent of $40,000 on four years of in-state tuition, you might want to just take that $40,000 if you have it in cash now and just put it in some sort of investment vehicle, probably like an index fund and just let it accumulate over time. That might be a rational thing to do, depending on the ROI that you're looking at.
Now, in order to figure out what the ROI is, we want to figure out how much money you're earning right now, just with your current skills. You can probably go out and get a job as a janitor and make about $12 an hour in the United States. So if you think about $12 an hour, you multiply that times about 2,000 hours per year - the year you're going to be working - that's about 40 hours a week times approximately 50 weeks, assuming you've got two weeks off, which may or may not be paid. I'm just going to call it $24,000 a year. So let's go ahead and let's think in terms. I'm going to show a fancy chart on the screen right now.
This is approximately how much you can expect to earn with varying levels of what we'll call educational attainment. So, if you went to high school, great! Congratulations on graduating from high school. You're going to make more than somebody who didn't go to high school or didn't finish high school.
Now, getting a general equivalency diploma, GED, that's basically the same as going to high school for most economic considerations. If you go to some college, that does technically increase your earning potential a little bit. But what really helps is not going to some college, not getting an associate's necessarily, but getting the full bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree will roughly 2x your expected annual earnings over what you would get if you just had a high school diploma.
So, that is why you definitely want to consider going to college depending on how many years of productive life you have left. Let's say you're 18 to 25, which would be the age range for a traditional student. That's what most economists and educators would consider to be a traditional university student age. That probably means that if you live to be about 80 years old, which is the life expectancy of most Americans, (with factors like women living slightly longer than men, income bracket, family history, etc., playing into it), you have many years ahead. But we'll just call the average life expectancy of an American 80 years old.
You've probably picked up that I'm focusing mostly on the United States. That's because I grew up in the United States. I'm an American citizen, I have studied abroad, specifically in China for several years. So, I have a bit of a study abroad perspective, and I have worked extensively with international students who come from other countries to study in the United States. We'll delve into that later, but there is a heavy US focus in this course.
So, if you're going to live to be 80 years old and you're going to work maybe 40 years, you could take that 2x multiplier and compare earning $24,000 a year as a janitor to earning something like $44,000 as a college graduate. By the way, your janitor income is not going to necessarily increase steadily over time. It may keep up with inflation, but don't expect to be making 2x as a janitor just because you have a lot of janitorial experience. However, if you're working as a software engineer, you might be able to make 4x, even 10x, of what you made when you first got out of college as you progress in your career, gain more experience, understand the industry, and take on more responsibility. So, think about how long you're going to be working and what the wage differential will be. That will be the best way to figure out your ROI.
How does student debt work in the United States? Most people pay for their education through a combination of working during university, parental support, scholarships, and of course, student debt. Student debt is one of the most complicated factors in determining ROI because you have to repay that debt, and uncertainties abound: whether you'll finish university, whether your post-university wage will be sufficient for repayment, etc. I know people with more than $100,000 US dollars worth of student debt to repay. Think of student debt as an additional risk. As mentioned earlier, if you finish college, you'll basically double your income. However, the real threat of student debt remains, regardless of whether you complete your degree or not. Life can throw curveballs like accidents, illnesses, or other unforeseen events that might hinder your ability to finish school. The debt remains, and repaying becomes a challenge. So, my advice? Avoid debt if possible. If you already have student debt, strive to pay it off as soon as possible.
What major should you study? Some people joke about liberal arts degrees, implying they aren't financially rewarding. However, I've known many liberal arts graduates in powerful positions. My own degree is in liberal arts, and I now run an NGO with 35 people reporting to me. Liberal arts degrees provide skills like language proficiency, argumentation, debate, analysis, writing, and presentation. That said, fields like computer science undoubtedly offer better immediate financial returns. I'll show a chart highlighting the earning potential of computer science majors compared to others. Interestingly, while petroleum engineering might seem more lucrative based on some data, the job market for them is narrower compared to computer science.
Considering life quality, the difference between earning $80,000 and $100,000 is less significant than going from $25,000 to $45,000 or $50,000. Once you reach a certain income threshold, every additional dollar, while pleasant, becomes less critical. Computer science offers numerous job opportunities, a well-defined skill set, and a promising trajectory. While other degrees like computer engineering, IT, and software engineering exist, hiring managers often prioritize computer science degrees.
Finally, if you're contemplating STEM fields, remember that many graduates from physics, chemistry, or life science often shift towards software due to its lucrative job market. So, if you're leaning towards STEM, consider integrating more programming and mathematics into your curriculum. Computer science majors, especially software engineers, often out-earn even those who study finance or business administration. This speaks volumes about the value of computer science in the current job market.
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It may make it slightly harder for you to find that job. When in doubt, just go with a computer science degree.
What if I'm older?
If you are older, again, it comes back into the question of ROI. How many years do you think you're going to be working? I would say that don't underestimate yourself. I'm 42, I feel high energy. Granted, I don't have any genetic issues, I'm not on insulin, and I don't have a lot of things that may be plaguing people as they get into their 40s. But I do believe that I can probably work another 20 or 30 years productively. Retirement age in the United States, I believe, is 67. Just subtract your age from 67, and that's a rough rubric for how many years you're going to have left.
Now, if you take that multiplier, double your income, and then you subtract out the cost of a college education, again, if you go to in-state tuition at a four-year institution, it's going to be about $10,000 a year in tuition. That doesn't include fees. When you go to a big state university, you're kind of also paying for them to maintain the lawn on the stadium and to maintain the random buildings that provide air conditioning and water to all the other, the physical plant. There are lots of fees - student activity fees, library fees, things like that, so factor those in.
Then, of course, the big thing is the cost of living, and the thing you need to factor in is, okay, I'm going to be spending approximately 28 hours per week. If I'm a full-time student, that's about how much time a full-time student spends studying in the United States, according to studies that I've read. You might think, oh, I thought students would probably be, it'd be more like 40 hours. Now, it turns out that school is not nearly as hard as everybody pretends it is, and 28 hours is about how much people spend studying and going to class, taking exams, all those different things.
Now, that may vary from major to major. Like if you're studying medicine, for example, it may be way more intense than that. But if you're working, let's say, 28 hours a week on your studies, that's 28 hours of time and energy that you don't have to devote to a job that can help you earn income. Let's say that you're working at a grocery store as a manager, and you're working there, you're making $30,000 a year, and that job takes 40 hours out of your week. You could basically have to bolt on an extra 28 hours per week worth of work if you're full-time or if you're doing part-time school. It might only be like half that, 14 hours additional study. It would take you twice as many years to finish the program, but it may be much more sustainable.
To answer the question of should you go back to school if you're older, it ultimately comes down to ROI. It comes down to your own personal feelings about how much longer you think you're going to be able to work and whether you think you could balance going to school with your current obligations, both familial and work.
What if I'm outside the US?
So, of course, I'm very blessed to have been born in the United States. I'm a native English speaker, I've got a US passport, and there are only about 4% of the world population also shares that privilege. If you were born in China, India, Nigeria, one of many other countries that receive many of the 1 million international students that are studying in the United States, these are people that have generally finished high school in their country and then gotten into a university here in the US. They cleared the very lengthy visa process, maybe their family has saved up for a generation to be able to afford for them to be able to go to the United States and study. If you're one of those people, it can be very tricky. I'm not going to give super granular advice for that, but I will say that there may be some alternatives that don't involve going through the visa process where you can still graduate from a US university without having to spend a huge amount of money.
Now, we're talking about $40,000 US per year to attend a state school without state tuition. So, by virtue of being outside of the country, you are out of state. And in fact, some schools may charge even higher tuition for international students than they would charge for another US resident who is just from a different state. Let's say I grew up in Oklahoma, if I had studied in Texas, even though it's very close geographically, I would have to pay out of state tuition, which is three times as much, which really incentivizes you to go to school in your state. As an international student, you face a whole lot of additional considerations around cost. Later, I'm going to talk about some alternatives that can allow you to get an American education without spending American international student prices.
Does it matter which type of university I go to?
So, it does matter quite a bit which type of university you go to, and I'll tell you which one you should go to in a minute, but let me first lay out the three big categories.
So, first, there's public, and that could be both community college and universities. That could be like a state university system. It could be just like the research university systems. For example, in California, you have California State University, and you also have the University of California system.
Then there's private, and that's nonprofit. Private nonprofit. This is usually private schools, small liberal arts colleges. It can also be like all the Ivy League schools are private. Most private universities in the United States are owned by churches, for example, so they may have some required theology-related credits for the undergrad.
Then there's what's called private for-profit. This would be the kinds of universities you see on late-night TV, basically, running commercials. There have been so many of these that have been shut down recently because, frankly, you should just assume that these are scams until proven otherwise, in my opinion. I know there are probably lots of people out there who are watching this who work at a private for-profit, and if you're one of the good ones, fantastic. I really believe that these are the only considerations you should make, and it may be harder to get into these institutions. There may be more paperwork, there may be less guidance from a counselor-slash-salesperson to try to get you in, but it is absolutely best to go to one of these.
Now, you generally want to go to a community college first. The reason is twofold. One, community colleges are a lot cheaper. They are a lot cheaper. They're designed for people who don't necessarily have a whole lot like a giant scholarship for playing sports or for academic reasons. They're also designed with people who don't want to commute really far. They want to continue living with their parents or living with a roommate in the area where they have their job or if they already have kids not having to uproot or spend a huge amount of time on the road.
A lot of times, the instruction you get at a community college is actually better than what you'll get at a four-year research institution. The reason is that everyone at community colleges is focused on teaching. They prioritize helping students learn, and they're less concerned about academic citations.
Another point to consider about community colleges is that they are more affordable and often have better teaching methods. Successfully completing a community college course can help you transfer to more selective schools that might otherwise be challenging to get into. For instance, the University of Texas has stringent admission criteria. However, if you attend a community college in Texas, your chances of transitioning to the University of Texas are significantly higher. This isn't the case for all community colleges, so research is vital. If your goal is to attend a selective state university, then starting at a community college can be an excellent strategy. After two years, you can transfer to a four-year university and earn your bachelor's degree. Many community colleges also offer associate's and bachelor's degrees.
The second type of institution is private nonprofit universities, which include Ivy Leagues, MIT, and Caltech. These institutions often have higher tuitions, enabling them to offer better facilities and pay their faculty more. These universities tend to be older and are sometimes affiliated with religious organizations. Their prestige often correlates with their age; for instance, Harvard, the oldest U.S. university, is also considered one of the best. Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, other Ivy League schools, are also ancient institutions.
While these private nonprofit universities offer exceptional education, they come with a hefty price tag. Your return on investment (ROI) may not always match the cost, especially when compared to public universities. However, the major you choose plays a more significant role in your future success than the institution you attend.
If you're considering the best path through university, there are several options to reduce costs. High school students can earn AP credits, which can be converted to college credits. Another option is the CLEP program, allowing students to test out of certain courses, saving both time and money.
There are also ultra-low-cost universities, such as the University of the People and Western Governors University. While they don't have affiliate relationships, their ROI is impressive. Both universities offer different payment and study structures but provide affordable accredited degrees. Accreditation is a way universities maintain standards, but it shouldn't be the sole criteria for choosing an institution. It's essential to do thorough research, connect with alumni, and ensure that the university aligns with your goals.
When considering your education, think of it as a significant investment, second only to buying a home in the U.S. Transferring credits between institutions can be challenging, so it's crucial to pick the right school from the start. Always consider the ROI and avoid making decisions based solely on proximity or prestige.
Lastly, be wary of common traps. For instance, while pursuing your passion is commendable, it's essential to ensure that the educational institution you choose offers a good ROI. If you're passionate about photography, it might not be the best decision to attend an expensive private school for it.
For example, or even at a private nonprofit photography school, I wouldn't necessarily encourage you to pursue photography as a major. In fact, I would encourage you to continue studying, looking at professional photographers, analyzing their work, and exploring other disciplines. If you major in photography, it doesn't really matter for most gigs. When you're looking for work as a photographer, employers aren't going to ask, "Where did you study?" Instead, they'll say, "Show me your portfolio," or "Who recommended you?" There are fields where a college degree isn't crucial unless you're aiming to become a professor.
Speaking of academia, it's quite dysfunctional. We often refer to it as the "academic pyramid scheme." For every Ph.D. or tenure track position in the U.S., there are 50 Ph.D. candidates trying to climb the pyramid. Securing a tenure track position at a university is a challenging feat. Unless you're genuinely passionate about a field where a Ph.D. is standard, like physics, I'd advise caution. Many people spend years pursuing their Ph.D. before realizing it's not for them. While this isn't solely about Ph.D. programs, understand that academia can be likened to a pyramid scheme. Some might liken it to playing the lottery. For those who secure tenure and can delve deep into research and teaching, it seems worth the effort. However, for every successful individual, there are numerous others who didn't make it.
Now, let's discuss some common traps. The first trap is micromanaging. You might look at resources like the U.S. News World Report and see a plethora of data. While it might seem like you're making an informed decision, this data might not be as helpful as you think. Factors like the socio-economic backgrounds of students aren't always considered. Ivy League schools might show better outcomes, but that's often because their students come from affluent backgrounds. I'm not criticizing specific universities, but it's essential to look beyond the surface. In countries like India and China, there's an obsession with getting into top-tier universities. However, attending a good state school, working hard, and progressing in your field can lead to success comparable to Ivy League graduates. This obsession with micromanaging and relying solely on data can be a trap.
The second trap is disregarding the importance of money. I've worked various jobs in the past, from Taco Bell to construction, and enjoyed simple pleasures that didn't require much money. Living frugally might work in your 20s or even 30s. But unforeseen circumstances, like health issues or family emergencies, can change things. The U.S. healthcare system can be unforgiving, and you need to be financially prepared. Earning a decent salary and saving can offer security. You don't need to be a millionaire, but achieving a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and saving for the future is prudent.
Lastly, let's address the myth that many successful entrepreneurs drop out of college. Yes, people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out and achieved immense success. But they are outliers. Many Fortune 500 CEOs hold degrees. Companies like Google and Apple might state that a degree isn't essential, but if you walk their campuses, you'd find that most employees are degree holders. A university degree demonstrates commitment, long-term thinking, and reduces hiring risks for companies.
To wrap up, avoid these traps: choosing passion over practicality, micromanaging your education based on limited data, and neglecting the importance of financial security. Pursue a path that offers a good return on investment, like computer science, and plan for the future. If your career takes off while in college, and you feel the need to drop out, ensure it's for the right reasons. Some institutions, like Stanford, even allow students to return and complete their studies later.
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Other institutions have a policy where if you're gone for a certain number of years, your credits expire, and you have to start at the beginning, right? So you'll want to look at those considerations. But really, unless you're getting some sort of crazy product-market fit or traction with your startup, or a very wealthy person offers you a unique job, I wouldn't leave college for that. Now, if you study at places like Stanford or a university that's more permissive about taking breaks, you could consider a gap year. That's totally fine. However, I would recommend eventually returning and completing your degree, even if it's at institutions like the University of the People or Western Governors University.
As you can tell, I firmly believe in the value of a college degree. You won't find me disparaging it or suggesting that alternatives are always better. When you hear a successful individual claim that college isn't necessary anymore, ask yourself if that person has a degree themselves. Many overlook the advantages they gained from their education, such as not being filtered out by HR or getting more job interviews because of their degree.
I'm a strong advocate for everyone pursuing a degree, and I think a degree in computer science is especially valuable due to its flexibility. It's the Swiss army knife of tech degrees. I'm encouraged by ultra low-cost universities like the University of the People and Western Governors University, which have made significant strides in reducing the cost of obtaining an accredited US university degree. However, there's still more work to be done. Education should be free and accessible to all. Consider the majority of people globally living on less than $10 a day, or those outside the US who can't afford international education. These individuals might not be able to attend a traditional university, but they could access platforms like freeCodeCamp.
We're developing a comprehensive program that includes an associate's degree in mathematics and a bachelor's degree in computer science. The curriculum is rigorous, but students can learn at their own pace for free. Our goal is to gain accreditation by the early 2030s. We're committed to teaching relevant, current skills, including topics like security, ethics, and general education subjects. We aim to provide a solid foundational degree based on the curricula of top US universities.
Job compensation is influenced by various factors: market economics, skills, working conditions, and job danger levels. Of these, skills are the most controllable and can significantly impact earnings. That's why I urge people to learn software engineering—it's a lucrative skill.
Thank you for listening to my perspectives. Continuous skill development is essential, and you don't necessarily need a formal education for that. While I value master's degrees (I have an MBA myself), the return on investment isn't always clear-cut. If you can get your employer to fund it, that's great, but it's not always necessary.
If you already have a degree, think twice before pursuing a second undergraduate degree. In most cases, it's better to self-teach. There are countless success stories of self-taught developers, many of whom have used freeCodeCamp. Also, check out the freeCodeCamp podcast, where I interview many successful professionals, some without formal degrees.
In conclusion, an undergraduate degree is valuable, especially in computer science. Choose an affordable institution and major that offers the best return on investment. Remember, you don't have to spend a fortune to learn coding. Platforms like freeCodeCamp and many YouTube educators offer invaluable resources. All you need is curiosity and dedication.