Pursing higher education is one of the biggest debates when it comes to personal finance and life choices. It is a traditional model that is falling apart, mostly due to costs.

As young high school graduates move from the financial safety of their guardians’ income, they leap onto a path paved with debt and potential extended poverty. Not everyone that comes out with a Bachelor’s degree end up in Silicon Valley, nor do they make $100k+ right off the bat. The idea is nice, often painted by the media, Google’s massive amusement like park campuses and our own dreams of grandeur. Some say that doing a Computer Science degree is a trap, others will vouch for it.

But the question still remains — is it still worth spending 40K+ on a Computer Science degree in the age of self taught?

The seemingly magical golden ticket

If you think about it, a degree is merely an entry way into a highly profitable and lucrative industry. Demand is high and there’s no doubt that jobs are plentiful when it comes to technology based fields.

But with higher demands comes competition as more and more people enter the field to get a slice of the boom. A computer science degree is often how graduates find their way into positions and a steady paycheck. However, as each year passes, the aging population of developers makes it harder for newbies to enter the field or level up their paycheck. The ceiling sits at around $100k for back-end developers — which is not bad, but we’re talking the ceiling and not the average.

Salary from PayScale.com

The starting salary for entry level developers can sit on an average of $53k per year. However, cost of living is not part of the equation, making it hard to discern what $53k is actually worth in the grand scheme of things. You’d be struggling a bit if you’re living in Central New York City where cost of living is 68.8% higher than the national average. However, if you were in Kansas where rental properties average at $850 per month, you’ll be living like royalty on $53k per year.

Entry level salary from Indeed.com based on 3,697 employees, users, past and present job adverts on Indeed over the past 36 months.

Not every hiring tech company is Google or Facebook with entry level budgets that sit on lower range 6-figures, complete with health insurance.

And then there’s taxes to add to your list of life’s expenses. No one really think about taxes when it comes to career choices and getting a degree.

The missing parts

The perk getting a Computer Science degree is that your learning path is laid out in front of you. You don’t know what you don’t know and a degree often makes you aware of these things.

Self taught developers entering the field are often oblivious to code architecture, design, higher level thinking and paradigms. It’s not their fault, not really. They’ve learned how to code on an ad hoc, problem solving basis and sometimes it takes a major problem to finally push them beyond their comfort zones. Online guides and tutorials can only take you so far, and it takes a level of persistence and internal flame to keep up the learning process.

The main difference between self taught and Computer Science graduates is that there is a 3 year difference in experience and knowledge, obtained in a highly structured manner. It allows employers to look at a transcript and see what a candidate definitely know and what they don’t. The self taught track however, is much more risky in terms of expected knowledge — unless there’s a solid portfolio backing the claims with a good network of advocates to cheer you on.

Self made dropouts

There are stories of self made dropouts that’s earned their millions and billions in tech. The famous trio — Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — are often cited as dropout successes. But one also needs to take note that these dropouts did not leave to get day jobs but to carve out their own paths.

It is also worthy to note that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates left Harvard. Steve Jobs left Reed College, an independent liberal arts college with a high price tag. Both institutions are prestigious in name, International ranking and ruthless in their student applications culling. People who make it are already the crème de la crème — sometimes topped with scholarships, sportsmanship or top of class awards from their previous institutions.

The inspiring tales of self made and self taught dropout successes is a fallacy that many tend to ignore. It needs to be coupled with a certain thirst for knowledge, the constant sparks of ideas and certain level of self direction, motivation and sufficiency for it to work.

Why are you pursuing higher education?

The money that comes with the job is often the end goal for many. Tech is one of the industries where you don’t need to be officially certified to get a job. You can’t really say the same to those wanting to become doctors, accountants and lawyers.

For those who have no job experience, a degree may be the only pathway they think they can get a as a developer. For many and depending on what kind of companies you’re after, this is their reality. However, it is not always a feasible option, especially if you’ve got kids, a mortgage and is looking for a career change. You simply don’t have the same financial freedoms or time mobility as a new minted high school graduate. Self taught in your spare time seems like the only available solution. Whatever initial head start a graduate might have in salary can quickly be offset through skills.

With a computer science degree comes structure and an element of certainty. But the trade off is at least 3 years and $40k with interest rates. The alternative is a series of online courses strung together to form a spring board into your new career path. It won’t take 3 years and certainly won’t cost you $40k. But the trade off is massive gaps in knowledge and potential lack of a support system in your learning journey.

The answer to the question — is it worth it?

It really depends on you as a person, your financial situation and where you want to go in your career. A degree can help you get your foot into the door but so will a solid portfolio of projects.

Being self taught also doesn’t mean that everything will be free. Some online material can run in the hundreds and subscriptions can be pricey. There are also certified MOOCs and online degrees, industry sponsored courses, with some places like Coursera offering University backed certification for half the usual price. Nowadays, self taught is used very loosely and can encompass a wide range of learning breadth and depth and exclusively excludes those that walk the traditional route.

Anyone can teach themselves to code. Children are learning it in school. But a computer science degree is broader than that.

The thing about computer science degrees is that it’s more than just learning about strings and math functions. It’s a space where you learn how to think and develop soft skills that can help a student comprehend how code really works and the logic behind it all. It exposes you to a variety of topics that you wouldn’t really get in a self taught approach.

A degree can forge a clear career path while a self taught approach can result in a series of detours to get to where you want.

At the end of the day, the worthiness of spending $40k depends on how much you can afford based on projected long term returns, circumstances, financial responsibilities and age. That math is for you to figure out and solve before determining if a degree is going to be worth it.

For young high school graduates looking to get into big tech companies, a degree might be the way to go (along with the choice of institution). For the middle aged accountant looking at a career change with three dogs, a mortgage and remaining $20k in student loans, self taught may be the most efficient method with the help of community driven courses like Free Code Camp.

Whether a computer science degree is worth it or not all depends on your situation and what makes sense to you. At the end of the day, you just need to get on the ladder before you can start climbing it — then it’s only onwards and upwards from there.

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