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Sylvan Learning VP of Education Emily Levitt Ponders: Is College Really Necessary?

Not Every Fulfilling Career Requires a College Degree, and Software Development Is the Perfect Case in Point

This may seem strange coming from someone who’s spent her entire career in education, but college is not the only path to financial and career fulfillment. 

This is not to say that college is a waste of time. There are still many benefits to going to college. For one, it is a great time to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, providing a space for young people to gain some independence before they are launched into the real world. There are also certain career paths for which college is absolutely necessary, such as medicine, law, or most science careers. 

Not every field requires a college degree, though, and computer programming, which simply requires that you build upon your existing skill set, is a perfect example. The field does require some foundational background, but not as much as one would think. What’s more, students can often acquire the necessary foundational skills while still in high school. This will open doors for them once they graduate. 

Indeed, when it comes to computer programming and related fields in the technology arena, it wouldn’t be surprising to see college completely disappear as a necessity. This is a positive thing. In the past 10 to 20 years, we lost something by pushing vocational education to the side. We thought every child should be college-bound, when the truth is that there are many fulfilling and high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. And thank goodness. This can help students avoid the massive amounts of debt that plague so many college graduates. 

For these reasons, high schools would do well to encourage at least some students to pursue alternative educational paths that do not entail acquiring a college degree. It may be hard to turn that battleship around, so to speak, as parents and administrators will likely push back on the idea, but science-focused schools that offer activities such as hackathons and robotics clubs are already off to a great start. Students can even pursue such activities outside of school thanks to nonprofit groups that specialize in teaching young people all things tech-related. If a student leaves high school with reasonably decent grades, they’ll already have a lot of what they need to start their careers. They will only need to refine certain skills, such as communication skills, and those can be learned on the job. 

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you have a B student who is bright but maybe not totally academically motivated. That said, they work hard and have decent interpersonal skills. This student could be an excellent candidate for a career in software development. If they also enjoyed some kind of exposure to robotics in high school, even better. 

One person who can speak to software development as a viable career option straight out of high school is Ed Mullin, the Executive Director of the Baltimore Robotics Center and a board member of the skills-training nonprofit Year Up. Mullin has noted there is a vast need for software pros in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. He frequently encourages his tech industry contacts to visit competitive robotics tournaments to recruit students who can fill such roles when they graduate from high school. 

“When you do competitive robotics, part of that is learning code to make the robot run,” Mullin said. “So here you have kids who know how to code but they’re working as baristas because they don’t know how to get the software developer job. They think they need a college degree and that’s just not the case. What hiring managers want to know is whether someone has the mental aptitude to learn and build upon their skillset, and the answer for many of these high school students is yes.”

This is not to say that parents and school administrators who have pushed kids to go to college should take college completely off of the table, but they should make sure to check in with students and learn about what they’d like to do after high school. The desire and end result of education is that you are ready to go into society as a self-supporting individual who hopefully wants to do some good in the world. College is not the only path to that. Students who find alternative paths to a college education can achieve the same life goals and levels of personal and financial fulfillment as those who opted for brick-and-mortar schools. They should just be willing to put in the work and take every opportunity to learn more about their chosen field.  And if you’re interested and enthusiastic about a particular field, as so many programming and robotics club participants are, you will definitely put in the work.