Getting the Degree and Debt

Yesterday I said to just get the four year degree. It’s a checklist item and I’ve had several folks comment about how it is a limiting factor in job searches.

One of my friends asked an important question: should you go into debt to get that four year degree?

My initial thought is, “No.” If you’re already gainfully employed, not having the degree isn’t worth going into debt over. Avoiding debt is generally a good idea, as espoused in sites like Mr. Money Moustache. Stop and think about the fact that we’re complaining about crippling student loan debt here in the United States. Debt and having to pay interest on that debt hurts.

But what if your company reimburses? Should you put the course(s) on your credit card or get a second mortgage? The problem with depending on the reimbursement is it might not be there at the end or you may choose not to take the reimbursement. There’s a whole host of reasons why that I won’t get into here. So if it’s not there, you’re stuck with that debt. Better to save up and have the money to pay up front for the hours and if you can and choose to get the reimbursement, you’re in the clear (and can use that money to help with the next round of courses).

Get the Degree

Fake diplomaRecently, a friend of mine with a lot of experience in her field was back on the job search. She is good at what she does, the local community (related to IT) knows she is a senior-level professional, but there was one big problem: she didn’t have a four year degree. As a result, there were some folks who wanted to hire her but couldn’t get past the mandatory HR checklist. She has a good job now, but her job search took longer than it should have because of that degree requirement. And it wasn’t that she didn’t have a degree at all. She had a two year degree. But the HR checklists all said, “Bachelor’s degree.”

I’ve asked a few other friends who don’t have four year degrees and their experience has been the same. Yes, they’ll eventually land a great job, but they’ve been turned down for opportunities because they don’t have a bachelor’s level degree. Keep in mind that rarely does the subject of the degree matter. I happen to have two technically related degrees: B.A. Mathematics and B.S. Physics. I don’t have a computer science degree. That has never come up as an issue. The fact that I have the four year degree is enough to check the check box and continue on. I know others who have a degree in music, in public administration, in elementary school education, and in other fields that aren’t “cousins” with computers. The subject hasn’t mattered. The fact that they had a four year degree did.

When it comes to who I work with, I don’t care if you have a degree. I care about whether or not you can do the job. Most IT pros I know feel the same way. However, we’re not the entry point in the hiring process. As a result, my perspective has changed on whether or not to get a degree. Before, I was of the opinion that if it’s meaningful to you, if you want to go into management, etc., then go ahead and get the degree. However, given my friend’s case, my opinion has changed to recommend folks get the four year degree, period.

The degree isn’t just about having better prospects on the job market. I know of specific cases where not having a degree meant a lower salary for excellent professionals, even architecture-caliber folks. Even if you’re gainfully employed now, you could be leaving money on the table by not having a four year degree. Yes, in my opinion this is unfair, but it’s the reality in a lot of organizations.

So should you try and get a computer science degree if you’re in the IT field? You’ll certainly pick up things you likely won’t come across in day-to-day work but which could influence things if you knew about them (like O(n) notation and algorithm analysis). However, whether or not you have a bachelor’s degree, any bachelor’s degree, is what is on the checklist the vast majority of the time. Therefore, get a degree in what you’re interested in (and what work will pay for, if you have that option and choose to take it), and get it done as quickly as possible. Simply get the checklist item out of the way. Hopefully, you’ll have fun and learn some interesting things along the way, but the main thing is to get the degree.