Popping the Higher Education Bubble4/24/2011
As a current CS student and full time programmer, I am keenly aware of both the rising tuition costs and utter uselessness of a degree as a "signaling" tool to potential employers.
The Higher Education bubble will pop, and it'll pop because most students just aren't that interested in four more years of school. They attain degrees and fight tremendous loads of debt to get a good job. As long as the universities are that gateway to the middle glass, the bubble will continue to grow.
The current thinking is that somehow students are going to suddenly decide, en masse, that a degree just isn't worth the trouble anymore.
Instead, the first crack in the system will be the employers, not the students. Rightly or not, many companies require degrees and some sort of proof that a person is worth hiring. Eventually, more employers are going to wise to the fact that for many positions, a degree doesn't signal a qualified employee anymore. Then, when students see fewer reasons to go to college, the whole higher education system will crash.
IT companies have already have stopped using a degree as a filter. If a degree had any value at all for career preparation, we wouldn't have to code in interviews. Degree holders would simply be hired on the spot if they seemed likeable enough. Like the old movies, we'd take the "help wanted" sign off the window and confidently walk inside with it. There'd be no reason for doubt.
Instead, the Googles and Microsofts of the world pride themselves on developing increasingly more difficult interviews. Employers ask all kinds of advanced questions to weed out the credentialed but unfit.
IT companies are fully aware that a degree means precious little. It surely doesn't mean that the interviewee can code. Over the last few interviews I sat in on, 4 out of 5 failed the fizzbuzz tests. Of course, they all held degrees and were able to talk convincingly about programming. Sadly, most struggled to code the simplest loop.
The degree as a signal of any kind of competence is already horribly broken. It is only a matter of time before students realize that there are many paths to good paying jobs that require more focus and passion than beer and Ultimate Frisbee.
Before long, potential college students will learn that even with a degree, they will still be woefully unqualified. Students aren't taught version control or testing. They probably used the same language the entire four years, when a professional programmer might use 5-6 wholly separate programming languages every day (and would be expected to learn even more languages as needed). Students would often still have to learn or train on operating systems, security and secure programming, and a whole mess of other skills. They've likely never managed a large program or worked a project that lasted more than a few weeks.
Of course, CS teaches merely "what can be computed and how to compute it ," and shouldn't be considered as programming preparation. However, thousands of degree seekers don't graduate every year hoping to be computer scientists, they graduate expecting to have a future. Universities are complicit in their own bubble, continuously fretting more about enrollment rates than if students will learn anything practical. Society simply doesn't need to graduate thousands of new computer scientists every year.
Sadly, a basic CS degree means little to employers who have been stung by hiring the wrong person too many times. They want to see past experience instead. Anybody who hasn't spent significant time learning on his or her own won't even get an interview.
Of course, higher education is much more than CS, but CS is merely one of the first to fail to prepare students. CS students are unqualified to program, but that isn't necessarily the fault of the universities. In fact, it's simply not possible to teach everything for a fast-moving field in a few courses spread between History and Composition.
Even if universities decided to create truly preparatory BS in Software Engineering degrees, they would still struggle to effectively teach all the skills an entry level programmer would need. Without doubt, the rate of change in the world is increasing manyfold. The rate of change in IT is astounding. If a program was designed at this moment for the next four years, it would be far outdated by the time the first senior graduated.
As the world changes the amount a person must know to be useful in a career likewise increases. CS is not going to be the only program to struggle to fit enough learning into a single four year degree. It must be difficult to decide how to wedge in just the basics before everything we know changes, again. Other degrees will likewise struggle. Nothing is immune to change. ** The only skill worth having is the ability to learn new skills. **
You might ask why I am finishing my degree if I have such doubts. Well, I paid for it already when I qualified for the GI Bill. Even if a degree is a terrible indicator of career knowledge, I believe a good education will improve my skills to learn and acquire new knowledge. Contrary to the needs of most students, I actually want to learn the theoretical basis for the things I use every day, even if it is not always immediately beneficial.
My hope is that after the coming reset, more universities will return to preparing minds and they will no longer be abused as credential makers. Hopefully employers will learn to hire on the basis of intellectual curiosity and learning ability. Higher education should have a higher purpose.