College degree? Or MOOC? Or Bootcamp?

As the demand for programming is growing, many are flocking to MOOCs and coding bootcamps. These programs are often cheaper, teach practical skills, and offer flexible curriculum. So, is the traditional college education in computer science still worth it?

Many argue that the college education has become too pricey and fails to equip students with practical skills. In some sense it is true. You pay an ever increasing tuition to get a piece of paper showing you completed a 2 or 4-year program. But how much do you utilize the stuff you learned? Some may say ‘a lot’, but for the majority, ‘not much’. And that’s precisely why these alternatives are popular. For programming enthusiasts, they offer practical courses on web and app development (and a few other advanced topics) for a fraction of college tuition if not free. Some even offer a job guarantee policy. (see the comparisons in my previous post)

So, what’s good about these alternatives?

Well, they are cheaper! And their contents are pretty good. The competitive market drives them to offer quality contents at an affordable price. You can select the courses of your interest at your convenient time. But the major issue these alternatives face is establishing its credibility. Today, a college degree is the only valid credential accepted by the majority of companies and institutions. Therefore, these alternatives are trying hard to make itself more credible. Coursera hosts contents solely from major universities with an option of getting a certificate of completion (with a university’s name on it). Udacity partners with industry giants like Google and Facebook to provide unique and practical courses with a job guarantee policy. edX offers courses by major universities and a tuition assistance program. Some bootcamps boasts about its ~90% hiring rate among graduates (although this includes a three month co-op position).

These certificates issued by MOOCs cost about $70, and you can print it out or display on your linkedin page. But, these certificates are seldom considered valid because of its questionable verification method. Carolyn McIntyre at Mooclab.club points out that the verification method used by MOOCs fails to ensure academic integrity that it promises. The study done by MIT and Harvard shows that it is quite easy to cheat on MOOC. So, that’s why no company will take it as a valid proof.

In order to address this problem, edX now implemented a virtual proctor program for its verified track (mainly for GFA project and MIT’s micro-masters program). The proctoring system monitors the student using video and audio during the exam, and the recordings are archived as a part of your certificate. edX combats any cohort by giving time-limited exams with randomized questions. Udacity also has a proctoring system for its master’s degree program in computer science, a partnership program with Georgia Tech. If you are accepted into the program (which requires a 4-year bachelor’s degree from a recognized institution) it costs only about $6600 over 5 terms to get a degree — a fraction of its $40,000 on-campus price tag.

Beside these exceptions (which cost more than MOOCs’ regular courses), the certification from the MOOCs does not serve as a credible proof of your learning. Yet, you may still find them quite beneficial in other ways.

First, the certificate shows your attitude towards continuous learning which can be quite meaningful on your promotion evaluation at work (talk to your manager whether this kind of effort will count towards the evaluation). Second, research shows that about 60% of people successfully completed the coursework when they paid for a certificate while only 6% did when they just audited the course without paying for a certificate. So, if you are determined to complete a course, you may consider paying for a certificate to motivate yourself.

Only about 6% complete the MOOCs’ free course, but the percentage goes up to 60% for those who pay for a certificate

So, what about college degree?

2016's Stack Overflow survey shows that about 43% of their users have a BA/BS degree in computer science or a related field. Although the justification for the hefty price tag on college degree is debatable, still many people consider it important. The consensus among developers is that college education makes you a better programmer. Although those academic courses — computer architecture, data structure and algorithms — may look impractical at the moment, they are necessary for you to become a good computer scientist. An architect needs to study the history of architecture, building materials, and human factor. A chef needs to learn nutrients, sanitation, and a lot more than just cooking. College education offers a well curated and concentrated curriculum for you to gain a wealth of knowledge quicker.

It’s also well known that a college degree can help you land on interviews a bit more easily. But keep in mind, it may get you to an interview, but you will still need to prove yourself during the interview.

Ultimately, it is up to you to calculate your ROI. Study the job postings of your dream job.

First, find out what you want first. Study the job posting of your dream job, and see what they are looking for. Some may just require a portfolio (projects from freecodecamp, bootcamps, or even your side projects can be quite helpful here) while others may require a degree in CS. But, don’t just stop there. Take a look at other senior position postings as well. You may need to compete for those senior positions years later, and you want to prepare for what you will be up against.

Consider all these and see what option will give you the best return on your investment. ;)

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