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Ask HN: Would college be a waste of time in my case?
7 points by enduu 1611 days ago | hide | past | web | 21 comments | favorite
Hey HN,

This may get asked a lot around here and I know some of you guys are probably sick of answering questions like this, but as I still can't make up my mind and will have to make a decision pretty soon, I thought asking you guys would be my best shot at gaining valuable advice from people who actually work in the industry.

Basically I'm in my last year of high school, and for the last 2 years I have been working as a freelance web designer / front-end web developer. I still don't know what I want to do in the future full-time, because although programming comes to me more naturally, I enjoy designing stuff a lot ( and I'm actually not rubbish at it ). On top of this, I have realised that my goal is to eventually step away from client work and develop my own products / become an entrepreneur

At the moment I'm considering university, but I'm 99% sure it's not going to help me a lot in the future since I learn programming better on my own ( and on top of that, a CS degree might not make that much sense since I want to become a developer and not an engineer ), and most business degrees are rubbish ( many people such as Paul Graham have said that basically entrepreneurship is something you learn as you go ), so that leaves me with design courses ( my main interest would be interactive design, so again, not sure how much a typical graphic design degree would help me ).

Despite all this, my plan is to choose a design course ( by the way, I'm from Eastern Europe, not US ) which isn't that intensive and would allow me to work a lot on my ideas in the free time, while still having the perks of college: a lot of fun, making connections, parties, etc.

Is this a good idea, or am I going about this the wrong way? Could a degree actually make sense, should I continue freelancing or should I just pack my bags and move to Sillicon Valley? What's the best thing to do under these circumstances?

Thanks HN, I'm really looking forward to your answers.

If the schools suck, then don't bother with college.

If you are horrible in school, then don't waste your time and money.

If you have a burning desire to do start a business (other than freelancing) or to travel, etc, then skip college.

If you believe that you want to be a developer / designer in the future but not so sure about details beyond that, then college might be good.

The great thing about college is that it's a good environment for discovery and being around a lot of other people at the same stage of life as you are. It's also a good environment for learning from others, bouncing ideas off each other and experimenting with starting businesses with your peers. Who knows, maybe something shows promise and you can drop out. ;)

Keep your freelancing to a minimum because after those first couple of years or so, you can get to a point where you aren't learning nearly as much as you could while working on your own stuff. With freelancing, you get paid for what you know. With side projects, you can greatly expand what you know. Since college is generally a time where your living expenses are relatively cheap, this is a great time to focus on side projects rather than spending all your time on freelancing.

Keep in mind that programming skills are most valuable when they can be combined with deep knowledge of other domains. Most developers, especially those who are self-taught, know programming well, but not much else at a similar level of understanding. Consider topics such as statistics or other engineering / science fields. Get internships in areas which aren't programming. This will make you more valuable and will also give you a leg up on your ability to break into niche areas which don't have a lot of competition in delivering services if you ever decide to start a business.

Personally, I did horrible in school and freelancing ended up devouring me. So, I dropped out, stuck with freelancing and eventually moved abroad.

"[university is] also a good environment for learning from others"

Yes, yes, yes. I was delighted by the variety of experiences and interests of my new university chums, after four years of high school and its stultifying homogeneity. I learned as much from my pals as I did from the profs.

First of all, thanks for sharing your experience and getting back to me.

The thing is I was really good in school because I didn't really know what I wanted to do later on, so I learned pretty much everything I was given. I mean, I guess I always knew it was going to be computers but it's not like I was a really young programmer or anything like that.

Regarding freelancing, I have learned a lot even from client work but I can see your point; lately I've been doing the same repetitive Wordpress coding gigs even though I would really fancy learning Rails.

I can't really say I'm interested in any other domains since I hate math, physics, etc. I do love design though, but I'm not sure how art fits in with what you were thinking.

Regarding college, moving abroad is exactly what I plan to do, but I can't say I have everything planned out yet, but I'm not sure how helpful a CS degree would be in my case.

Couple of points:

1. Immigration Related: Do you have a green card or are you a U.S. Citizen? If not, working in the U.S. is going to be impossible legally unless you have an advanced degree in Math/Science/Engineering.

2. The most I learnt in School was not from classes but from all the meta stuff around classes: Interacting with incredibly smart people, professors etc. Depending on the university you go to, it is very unlikely you will find that kind of concentration of smart, interesting people in every work place that you go to so I generally do support the idea of people going to school. On the other hand, as a person who had to do a couple of career pivots due to stupid decisions on the part of 18-year-old-me in choosing majors, I am a big fan of figuring out what you want to do in life and then going to school. So I would support taking a few years mucking about in the stuff that you are doing and then eventually figuring out where you want to go.

1. Like I said I'm from Europe, unfortunately I do not have a green card. However, I think that if you manage get a job at a company it is possible to move to US and work even without a proper degree. For instance, Tim Van Damme ( http://maxvoltar.com/ ) moved from Belgium to work for Gowalla as a designer and from what I remember reading I don't think he even graduated high school.

2. I'm still trying to decide whether to go for a CS degree or a Graphic Design one, but I can totally see your point. College is useful indeed, I've never said that it's a complete waste of time.

> 1. Like I said I'm from Europe, unfortunately I do not have a green card. However, I think that if you manage get a job at a company it is possible to move to US and work even without a proper degree. For instance, Tim Van Damme ( http://maxvoltar.com/ ) moved from Belgium to work for Gowalla as a designer and from what I remember reading I don't think he even graduated high school.

Interesting. So the only way a U.S. based company can sponsor your visa is if they offer you a job and claim that owing to the fact that you are highly skilled labor of whom there is a shortage, they absolutely need you. As part of this, you basically have to have degrees.

Now, Tim Van Damme is an interesting case. As you said, I am not sure he has any of these degrees. However, I suspect he came in on a special visa called the O-1 visa (An alien with extraordinary ability) which has a long laundry list of requirements. Refer: http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b...

College isn't about learning a skill or some specific knowledge. It's about the overall intellectual atmosphere (and the people who make up this atmosphere.)

In the end, it's about becoming an educated person. Will it help you learn programming? Probably not. But you will learn about the world in ways that are extremely unlikely to happen if you skip college. Things that may seem irrelevant, like the philosophy of science, the fundamentals of microeconomics, or any other "obscure" academic topic. Can you go to the library and read a book about the subject? Sure, but you probably won't even know what books to read. Even then, reading a book pales in comparison to a good course.

Also, I'd take advice from recent dropouts with a grain of salt. In all likelihood, they don't know what they don't know. In other words, life may be good now, but unless they had a broad pre-college education, or read classic literature, science, etc. for hours a day, they probably won't know what they're missing. Their frame of reference on the world is likely very narrow and limited to web development (or startups, or whatever.)

Edit: check out this design school in Germany (relatively close to Eastern Europe). When I was applying to schools, I looked into it and really liked what I saw. (I stayed in the US for a bunch of unrelated reasons).


Thanks for the recommandation, the one I was talking about applying to is IED http://www.ied.edu/

I agree with your remarks about university, however I'm not sure if this applies to the majority of courses. Anyway, lately I have been trying gain knowledge by reading books that are non-programming related but instead focus on personal development, etc. so I think I know what you're trying to say.

I don't know much about IED, but it looks like a solid school.

And yeah, read as much as you can. But if I could tell you just one thing, it's that reading books is in no way comparable to going to a decent college. You'll be exposed, directly and indirectly, to so many different things at university. Things that would never have occurred to you otherwise.

You'll have to do projects that seem irrelevant, but being forced to learn X skill will pay off later in life. That's the main issue with being self-taught: you tend to only do things you're interested in, and as a result, you miss out on some of the more boring, important stuff.

Final thought: students have a ton of free time. Most don't manage their time well. Learn time management, and you can get a degree AND build a startup at the same time.

Best of luck!

I always advise people to separate college into its components like you would everything else, than make a cost-benefit analysis.

The components of college are as follows: 1) Information you'd learn and the structured environment for learning it. 2) The degree you get at the end 3) The people you'd meet 4) The social events you'd attend (parties)

So the questions is - is this "college package" worth the time and money you'd invest? and "Is there another way to get these components for higher quality, less money, and less time investment?"

Since you say you can learn on your own, I think (1) The Information you'd learn, is not worth college. Especially in tech, you can learn all these things better online.

In web design and development, no one cares what school you went to - they only care about your portfolio and experience, so (2) is definitely NOT worthwhile.

You'll definitely meet cool and smart people in college, but you can meet even cooler and smarter peopler elsewhere I'd argue. Problem with college is that most people are just loafing around in a fantasy world with no consequences. In my personal experience, the people I've met in my post-college life have provided more value to me. And my college friends who are providing value now are only doing so because they are outside of that college bubble where you just drink beer and chase girls all day.

Finally for (4), if you really wanted to do the whole college social life - there's nothing stopping you from doing it for free. Just lookup the social events online and show up with a good story. Sounds weird to most people, but then again, most people go to college and live uninteresting lives. Entrepreneurs are NOT like most people, so who do you aspire to be?

College and "place-based education" as Bill Gates would call it is archaic. Information is extremely cheap and mostly free, and connecting with mentors and people you want to learn from is also much easier.

As someone who attended an elite university education for a bankrupting sum of money, I have a bitter view and am obviously biased, but I'm sure most entrepreurs agree that with this last point that learning and connecting is available for free to anyone who works hard to get it

Perhaps you could move to a college town, meet a few people and take a couple of classes that interest you instead of persuiting a degree full-time? Another alternative would be to join a program like The Starter League for a few months. I'm in the Rails for Designers class, and I've learned a huge amount in two months.

I think you should have always something to fall back-on if things go sour for you. Whether that be a college degree or a skill-set that you know can obtain work for you. With that said though, you are young and free. There is time in the future for college but the market for your ideas may close once college is done.

I don't feel like a college degree in CS would really make that much of a difference to a good programmer, most companies are looking for experience and not degrees. Am I right?

The whole "something to fall back on" thing used to work for college degrees, but these days it doesn't seem to be much of a safety net.

I'd agree with that sentiment. I've met people with masters degrees working in a captcha farm. Makes you think about perceived versus actual value.

Also makes you think about profiteering and exploitation. Universities and financial aid institutions have deliberately strip mined the perception of the college degree as a career asset. The result is that college degrees have less meaning, and that the labor market has been flooded with college graduates with staggering levels of student loan debt and no job to help them pay it off.

A liberal arts degree, no, but an engineering or computer science degree can be extremely helpful.

> I still don't know what I want to do in the future full-time

This would leave me to say go to University and do some kind of Engineering degree.

I am just finishing my Design Engineering and Motorsport degree. I feel like my eyes have been opened to a lot more possibilities than before I started University.

Hey there, I responded to this, but HN says it was too long :p I'm including a snippet here, and you can read the full response from this gist: https://gist.github.com/4144386

I've been in this boat, so maybe I can help a bit.

I went to a university for about three months before ultimately deciding to leave to pursue a job offer at a company I had applied to. I didn't actually end up going to that company because it was in San Francisco and I wanted to stay in my home state, but I did get a matching offer from the employer I had been with prior to leaving for school. It has been a year since then and it has been incredible and exciting but there certainly are downsides to choosing this lifestyle.

1. It is exhausting. I went through high school without exerting very much effort and the most challenging experiences I had were my job outside of school or related a girl or some other social drama. However, at the time it was very clear between me and my employer that I was still in high school and that it came first so I always had an excuse if I needed a break or just some time relax or cool off. Once I had signed my full-time employment contract that understanding was thrown off a very tall building and then shattered under the pressure of an immense amount of work.

I was in no way prepared for as much stress or exhaustion as I endured at that job, and it was one of the biggest factors that led to me quitting. I'm sure freelancing has been stressful, but it's worth considering that you will not be prepared for the amount of stress that you will have to deal with if you choose this path either.

Since leaving that job and taking another position at a startup, I have been incredibly happier. But guess what? That stress does not go away. I am able to manage it much better these days, but it took a long time for me to get to where I am now.

2. It is lonely. To be fair, I am not the most social or outgoing person, and maybe you're better at meeting new people, but this can be a numbingly difficult problem to manage. I've lived alone for almost a year, and I've grown to love it. Making and enforcing my own rules makes maintaining my lifestyle (ex. long hours, late nights, a lot of sleeping on the weekends) much easier. But outside of work, I don't spend a whole lot of time with other people. On weekdays, I generally get home late enough that I am too tired to do anything else, let alone make an active effort at maintaining multiple personal relationships. That being said, I still find time to see my (established) friends on the weekends and holidays (many of which go to school locally so I am immensely lucky in that regard); however, it isn't really enough to combat the loneliness, not to mention it can be quite the tiring endeavor. The nicest thing about college for me was just being around people, specially people who are my age. You will be the minority in the working world and that can be really terrifying and intimidating when you don't have others in similar positions surrounding you. In school, you can be afraid or worried or intimated but it doesn't matter because most of the people there probably are, too. And this quickly fades as it is far easier to get comfortable in an environment where you are part of the majority. College makes it easy to be social, whether you accept it or not. In the real world, where most people aren't going to be your age, you have to work several times harder to experience an even remotely similar level or intensity of social interaction. There are more details to this that I don't necessarily won't to speak about publicly, but I'd be happy to talk to you about it over email :)

...continued in the linked gist.

Edit: added the 'continued' bit.

Holy crap dude, I seriously owe you a drink for this one. You basically gave me the best answer I could've hoped for.

Since you were in my shoes and I'm a lot like you, I can totally relate to what you've said. I find managing work extremely stressful at the moment, which is why I'm looking to work on my own products in the future rather than go full-time. You're also spot-on about the personal relationships part, lately it's been really hard to keep friends close and go out like I used to. For me, having a girlfriend is out of the question for now since my life is such a mess, I can totally see your point. Just like you, I'm not the most social person in the world so I'm afraid that if I start working full-time I would actually start to feel really lonely, which is one of the main reasons I am considering college at the moment, I think the social life is one of the main aspects for which it's really worth it.

Thanks for the money advice as I am seriously considering moving out, so what you've said made me think this through a bit more. I've always saved 90% of what I made, so the safety net you're talking about makes a lot of sense to me as well. Also, telling one of my friends how much I make is one of the biggest mistakes I could've made ( just like you said ) but since some of them were always bugging me I finally gave in. I won't ever do that again.

I'm aware I would actually learn a load of awesome stuff in a short time, but in my case I'm afraid the emotional stress would be just too much. In the end I guess I'm just going to go ahead with my plan of pursuing an almost-meaningless degree in order to make the most out of the college experience, and do some more freelance / work on projects I'm passionate about on the side.

It won't be meaningless

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