The Costs of Education

My post was featured on hackNY’s blog as part of their summer lecture series.
Written by: Joel Kemp
Edited by: Manya Ellenberg

Students are finishing their education at top universities with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. For computer science undergraduates, their coursework only scratches the surface of what is necessary to succeed in the competitive job market. Rightly so, these talented students are questioning whether or not experience trumps education; i.e., whether or not pursuing a formal degree is necessary in these “frothy” times. With the abundance of capital and exorbitant company valuations (“froth”) in the current startup technology scene, there is an increasing plethora of startup companies emerging across many vertical markets.

As a result of the increase in the number of companies, there is a high demand for talented software engineers. Many students in computer science (and other fields) question their enrollment in academic institutions – amidst lucrative job offers and the promise of solving problems that can change society. These students believe that they are fully capable of succeeding in the market – without a formal undergraduate education and that, solely by way of experience, they can acquire the skillset and knowledge necessary to thrive in the workforce.

“No class taught me or my peers how to scale a web-service,” said one student; this prompted others in the audience to speak against the university system – complaining about the value of the instruction and the debt accrued from their enrollment in top institutions around the country.

Before the hackNY class of 2012 sat two individuals who are challenging traditional education, Ryan Bubinski and Zach Sims – the co-founders of Codecademy. Codecademy is a web platform that allows anyone to learn how to code. The duo delivered stories of their college experiences and how it motivated them to change the means of education.

The two friends turned cofounders met at Columbia University, working at the school paper. Sims mentioned that school is the best time to meet your future cofounder. The ambitious duo wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Granted, school shouldn’t only be about meeting people; however, the social aspect of the university system forges lifelong friendships and establishes meaningful connections for future endeavors. Had Bubinski and Sims not enrolled in college, they wouldn’t have created a multi-million dollar company with a platform that draws millions of users – a platform that empowers laypeople with technical skills that can lead to new careers.

With talented students up in arms over the value and price of their education, many seem inclined to drop out of school and pursue startup ventures. Technology media outlets seemingly abet this life-changing decision by glorifying college dropouts turned successful entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Gates. These founders are more exceptions than the standard.

Sims withdrew from Columbia University after 3 years of studying Political Science to pursue his passions in business development and venture capital. Ryan finished his undergraduate degree in computer science. Both Ryan and Zach, however, do not condone withdrawing from school; they both understood the opportunity costs of forgoing their degrees. Zach in particular, was asked by startups to drop out of school on two occasions prior to his departure from Columbia. He computed how much money he would need to live comfortably and offset his lack of formal education. He decided that a meager share of employee equity wouldn’t suffice given a modest exit.

Ryan attributed his skills in programming to his time spent at Columbia. During the hackNY talk, he urged students to take advantage of the fact that they have 4 or 5 years to experiment with technology – without the pressures of shipping high-quality code with ever-approaching deadlines. By building various products on the side, Ryan developed his practical understanding of computer science. In the classroom, he learned the theoretical foundations that would allow him to adapt to complex, technical problems.

During the talk, Ryan hinted at the ability for anyone to learn to program; however, mastery and adaptability come from both theory and practice. Indeed, anyone can write code to solve a problem, but it takes training and insight from experts to not only push the boundaries of the technology, but to produce breakthroughs and architect complex systems.

Traditional systems need to be revised with the times – education is no exception. Products like Codecademy prove that there is a market for learning – that everyday people want professional skills but have trouble obtaining them through traditional means of education. As students, we need to dispute the cost of the instruction and less so, its value.