We all know the cost of a university degree is daunting - especially in the US. Even a public, in-state degree will set you back over $10,000 for one year’s tuition.
If you’re considering a future in web development or design, you’re probably aware that there are countless online training resources to teach you pretty much anything you need to know. And, of course, there are vibrant online communities (cough, cough - The Admin Bar!) to support your learning as well.
In one of our recent podcasts, myself and Matt discussed if higher education is a must-have requirement to enter this industry… and we got some good points raised by agency owners over in the Facebook group too.
So it’s a fair question to ask - do you even need a college degree to work as a web developer or designer? Well, that depends on the type of career you’re planning. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each choice.
The self-taught web developer
You can learn most of the skills you need to become a web designer or developer from online learning sources in your own time. You can find answers anytime you get stuck with a simple Google search, and there are loads of great tools to make development and design more accessible, even while you’re still learning.
So if you’re planning to start your own web development company, you may not need a college degree. A university can’t replicate the real-world experience you’ll get by working independently. Even if you decide to work for another company later in your career, your self-taught expertise will be attractive to employers.
Plus, the experience you’re getting from your current projects is likely more up-to-date than what you’d learn in college. Established universities tend to move slowly in updating their curriculum, but working on current projects means your expertise stays relevant and on-trend in this very fast-moving industry.
Even if you’re not planning to work for your own company, self-taught web development skills are attractive to potential employers. Training yourself to be a web developer takes patience and tenacity that no college can teach, and employers will be impressed with a steadfast work ethic and formidable hands-on experience.
The college-trained web developer
Still, there’s much to be said for a degree in web design or development. Large employers tend to be old-fashioned in their hiring practices, and most add “Degree in related field” as a default start to their “Requirements” list for open positions. While small or medium-sized companies in agile industries like tech may not require a web developer to have a college degree, traditional sectors like banking, medicine, and oil/gas will probably expect their tech employees to have one.
Going to college gives you a great base of industry contacts. Remember that your fellow students in your degree course will soon be working professionals with industry connections that may help your career. Your instructors are usually well-connected too, and happy to help their students’ careers when they can.
Internships and mentorship programs can give you an edge on breaking into the industry, and your class projects are usually accepted as relevant experience.
Though a university’s web development or design degree may not cover the most up-to-date changes in the industry, it can give you an invaluable history of web architecture and older coding languages. You’ll also be exposed to development frameworks and structures that you won’t learn by teaching yourself to code to current development standards. That deep industry knowledge won’t get you a job, but it’s invaluable if you plan to pivot your career towards a CTO position.
From a philosophical perspective, time spent in a university can offer benefits outside the coursework. Going to college is viewed by many as a rite of passage that allows students to grow into fully-fledged adults in a relatively safe environment. It helps expand your worldview on religion, culture, music, and art, and it teaches you how to navigate social and classroom settings that mimic what you’ll find in the workplace. While none of that makes you good at web development or design, employers see it as a way of finding an employee that will fit in well at their company.
The chameleon web developer
So really, there’s no straight answer on whether you need a degree in web design or development. But there may be a middle-of-the-road option that you can tailor to suit yourself.
If you choose to skip the degree and start working as a web developer for your own company, consider taking some business classes in your spare time.
You’ll earn a degree, which is attractive to future employers if you ever decide to go that route. But more importantly, you’ll know how to run and grow your business. Instead of just being a self-taught web designer who is making an ad-hoc living, you’ll be an entrepreneur with the business chops to scale her company as she sees fit.
You can join entrepreneur groups for support and industry connections. You can supplement your self-taught coding skills with courses or books in older languages or infrastructures. Just as you taught yourself current web development skills, you can put that entrepreneurial spirit to good use by teaching yourself the history of your craft.
If you decide to go to college, don’t rely on the degree alone to land you a job. Seek opportunities to gain experience, like developing websites for friends and family whenever you get the chance.
Sign up for any internship or mentoring opportunity you can find. If you need to work to support yourself while in college, don’t just take any job. Look for one that is tied, even loosely, to the career you’d like to have someday. You may be answering phones at a web development agency, but once you earn your degree, your employers will start to see you as a great candidate for entry-level positions.
Ultimately, it’s your career. No matter which path you take, you’ll need to create your own opportunities, supplement your own skills when you find them lacking, and make your own industry connections, even when you don’t feel like networking.
As the old saying goes, a web development career is what you make of it… or something like that.