by Robb

I spent $110,000 on grad school, only to realize that the free online resources were actually better

I spent $110k to Decide That the Free Option was the Better Option.Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/gyKBzbiuiPg

When I got into a computer science master’s degree program, I felt ecstatic. Finally, my dreams were starting to come true. My days were pervaded with a sense of comfort — of determinism.

That makes explaining what happens next a bit harder, but explain it I shall: I dropped out.

I didn’t drop out because the program was too hard, or because I didn’t have enough time for it. I dropped out because I discovered that the resources needed to make my programming dream come true were already available to me for free. And as I found, these resources ended up being even better than those of my “fancy” university.

Let’s back up a little bit. Before I started my master’s degree, I had barely any experience with programming. Well, to be honest, I had no formal training at all.

I was a jock in every sense of the word. I coasted through college on a football scholarship, and instead of the “hard” degree of computer science, I opted for a much easier degree in history.

But my college experience left a bad taste in my mouth. To this day, I can’t force myself to sit down and read a historical memoir, and my distaste for sports only grows stronger with every edition of College Gameday.

Ugh.. not another mascot

My grandfather was more than into computers — the man built and programmed a sorting warehouse robot, and maintained it until the day he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

I saw his drive, and the excitement he felt for programming, and it inspired me. I wanted to program, too.

not quite but you get the gist

So I knew that programming was what I wanted to do after graduating. It seemed to be my path in life.

The problem was that I had completely loathed math all throughout middle school and high school. Plus, my parents were too busy to help me with my math homework in the evenings. I continued to fall behind.

Looking back on it, I was probably just disengaged because of teaching styles. Nowadays, people can use tools like Khan Academy, and many schools have special math labs. But I was born too soon to benefit from any of this.

The upshot was that — while my body got plenty of exercise running around the football field — the analytical problem-solving side of my mind scarcely even stretched its legs.

My high school did offer a web-design class, though. It was centered around Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver wasn’t a bad product by any means, but it was a poor substitute for actually programming. And unfortunately this was the only programming course my school offered.

Dreamweaver made web design easy. The price was you were always about 5 years behind the times.

By the time this class even started to get my programming juices flowing, it was over, and off to my graduation ceremony I went.

The next five years were a blur of marriage, and five cats, a conference championship, and national championship. Don’t get me wrong — I’m happy all of this happened.

But I always felt the absence of programming in my life — and the creative outlet that it provided.

So one day, I decided to finally scratch that itch. I bought a programming book.

The first programming book I bought. You can get it here.

I asked my dad for advice on which programming language to learn (my grandfather had passed by this point). He mentioned that a lot of his friends were working with Python. He added that it was generally considered a good language to start out, thanks to its ease of use.

Long story short, I am still trying to master Python to this day (do you ever really master language?) But from that point on, I was hooked. I felt it in my bones — I wanted to code for the rest of my life. Programming engulfed my life.

So I decided to start applying to computer science masters degree programs. The only catch was that the program had to be completely online. My wife was going through nursing school, and I had a full-time job. So I opted for online-only, because I need to be able to cover the bills, her tuition, and my ever expanding cat collection. And this is where I made my mistake.

At the time, I had no idea about free options. But I somehow stumbled up on Reddit’s learnprogramming subreddit, which espoused a variety of free resources like EdX, Coursera, and Free Code Camp.

My online master’s degree program was fine. But with all the money I was pumping into it, I needed it to be much better than merely fine.

All of these free resources made me question why I was paying so much for a university program that rarely even had advisors available for help — advisors who would often go out of their way to make me feel like an idiot when I didn’t know something.

Kind of?

Now, make no mistake, this is not a “woe is me, my university was bad to me” post. Instead, it’s a “I found free resources online that were way more helpful than the university for which I was paying a small fortune” kind of post.

Seriously, it seemed strangely counter-intuitive, but the people I reached out to in Free Code Camp’s chat rooms were immensely more friendly and helpful than the paid university staffers, who were ostensibly trained in teaching methodologies.

On top of that, I was tired of taking out student loans. I felt my personal finances spiraling forever out of my control. Not a good feeling.

In total, upon graduation I would be carrying $55,000 in federal student loan debt, and an additional $150,000 in private loan debt — which had interest rates through the roof (one loan had a rate of over 10%).

I sat down with all the figures in front of me and gazed into my financial future. Then I glanced back at all the friendly people who were improving their programming for free (and helping each other along the way).

I concluded that paying for something that I could essentially do for free no longer made sense. And this not only alleviated my anxiety, but made me feel in control over my life again.

Currently, my life is a mix of constant work, streaming on twitch.tv when time permits, and now writing here on Medium.

As far as programming is concerned, I’m still getting better with Python, learning more and more Linux, and I am working back through Free Code Camp’s early web development challenges yet again for further practice.

Even though my life could head in one of a dozen different directions — and my general game plan is more cloudy than ever — I am finally happy, making forward progress, and no longer having issues sleeping.

I decided to focus more on the web development side of things, since that’s the focus of most good free online resources. So far, HTML and CSS are the main things I know “fluently.” I am getting there with Javascript and jQuery, though, as well as Git and SQL.

I wouldn’t recommend taking out a ton of loans for grad school to anyone. That said, I wouldn’t change anything about my journey so far.

For once, I’m really excited about the direction my life is heading in. I hope you get to a place where you feel a similar excitement. Even if it takes dropping out of a master’s degree program to get you there.