Why go to college?

It feels like every day I see an article on some script kiddie’s blog that advocates not going to college for a technical degree. They tend to say something like, “I can learn this stuff myself,” or, “Why waste the money?” or, “This stuff is easy, I can stay in my Mom’s basement while doing it.” Well maybe not the last one, but you catch my drift.

I agree with the content of what they’re saying. You can learn technical subjects on your own. I learned most of what I know on my own. And why would you want to waste money? Damn, if I didn’t have my student loans, I could be a travelling or wasting it some other way.

But let’s be serious for a second. If you’re just out of college, have no loans, and are making bank, you’re going to be wasting it. I mean who wants to invest for the future when you could blow it now? Who listens to their parents anyway? Who are parents? I digress….

So onto the million dollar question: Why go to college to study in a tech-related field?

First, you need the stress. Stress is a necessary evil. It pushes you to get things done, to deliver on what you promised. In college, you are under constant stress. (You don’t count if you’re one of those people who is good at everything and never needs to study.) You need to get this done for this class, that done for that class, oh and you forgot you have a paper due tomorrow that you haven’t even started.

This stressful atmosphere is extremely similar to today’s work environments (yes, even start-ups; especially start-ups). Your deadline is your release (usually, or some feature launch). Is this ticket complete? Does the new feature function correctly with your 5-person team’s work incorporated into it? As in college, if you don’t have it all done on time, “bad” things will happen.

When you go to college, this stress is a daily part of your life. So, when you get to your first real job, you’ll be accustomed to it. You’ll be able to make a smooth transition from college stress to work stress, and be able to deal with such situations appropriately.

Everyone reading this who didn’t go to college is probably saying, “I was stressed in everyday situations,” or, “Freelancing is hard and super-stressful.” To you I would say, “It doesn’t compare” (and yes, I have done both).

If you don’t complete something on time, be it a freelance gig or an assignment you made yourself do to learn something, the worst that can happen is that you might not get paid or you have to wait until tomorrow to tackle it. But if you’re in school, you’re like, “Shit…I cannot afford to stay here because I messed up. I just wasted $15,000 over the past 3 months. What was I thinking?” Can you judge which one is more stressful?

Second, go to college for the teamwork. In today’s tech work environment, unless you can do the entire project yourself or you’re a superhuman, you’re going to be working on a team. Most of the time this will be face-to-face, but if you’re working remotely, it’s going to be all over the phone and through e-mail.

If you’re a freelancer, chances are you’re going to be doing it all yourself. Or you’ll have one specific function and the other person will have another (I used to do all the programming and my buddy did all the design). If you’re working with the right people (let’s not even get started on working with the wrong people), communication within a small group is super easy. Or if you’re learning something by yourself, you’re probably going online and posting on stack overflow or chatting in forums. No real communication there.

This doesn’t mimic the real world. Depending on the size of a company you could be interacting with 20 or more people a day. I think my max was about 50, and that was when I was just a new hire.

Does college mimic this environment? I would say it’s the closest you can get. You take roughly 5 classes a semester. You’re given group projects for most of those classes. If you’re working in a 4-person group, you’re interacting with anywhere from 9-20 people over the course of these projects. And that’s just the people in your group; don’t forget the professor (a.k.a. your boss). And what about the other groups? If your group can’t figure something out, you need to ask others to point you in the right direction.

Third reason: networking. Pretty self-explanatory. If you’re willing to work hard and do exceptionally well, your professors will help you when it comes to getting a job by writing reference letters. And I’m pretty sure every decent professor knows people in your field that are hiring, as most of these profs already have real-world experience.

If you’re a freelancer, yes, your clients could be your references, and that could be enough. But what if you’re just learning stuff on your own? Are open-source contributions enough? Will making one website with the basic skills you learned get you the job you’ve always wanted?

Lastly, college makes you friends. I had fun in college because I got out of my comfort zone and met people. I couldn’t have done that if I had been behind a computer in my parents’ house teaching myself to program. The people I met at college helped me get my first internship, and my first job, and they are the people who are trying to pull me away from my current job.

I think college is a necessary evil. I have done it. I have learned languages on my own. I have freelanced. And now, I’m working at a job I enjoy going to every day.