Self-Taught or Not: Is a Computer Science Degree Worth It?
You’re interested in a career in the exciting field of technology, and for good reason. Jobs in technology are projected to grow faster than the average rate of growth through 2026. These in-demand positions often pay well, with a median annual wage of $82,860.* That’s much higher than the median for all occupations at $37,040.*
With a career in technology, the odds are good that you’ll have the coveted skills to earn a comfortable living. But what you’re not sure about is how to get there. Should you go back to school? Is a Computer Science degree worth it?
Some determined people have been able to teach themselves programming skills, build some experience and connections and enter the technology field on their own. Others enroll in a Computer Science program as a means of launching their career. But which route is right for you: self-taught or school?
We spoke with a few experts in the field and dug into the numbers for a closer look. See what we found and educate yourself before moving forward in this big decision.
Breaking down the education levels in technology job titles
Is a Computer Science degree worth it? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ guide to computer and information technology occupations, the answer is yes. Almost all of the outlined fields—from programming to developing and information security—have an entry-level threshold of a Bachelor’s degree.
But what about specific careers common to Computer Science graduates? There’s no single path forged for students of Computer Science; it’s a degree that opens many doors to a variety of positions. We identified some common job titles in tech that accept candidates with a Computer Science degree.** Take a look and see who is working with a degree in the field.
9 Common careers for Computer Science graduates
1. Software developers, applications
Software applications developers create computer applications software or programs. They analyze user needs and develop efficient software solutions. The Department of Labor (DOL) estimates 80 percent of software applications developers have Bachelor’s degrees.
2. Software developers, systems software
Systems software developers design and develop operating software for medical, industrial, military, communications, aerospace, business, scientific and general computing applications using computer science, engineering and mathematical analysis. The DOL estimates 77 percent of systems software developers have Bachelor’s degrees.
3. Systems engineer
Systems engineers solve network, application and system administration issues. They develop solutions, monitor systems operations and integrate functions. The DOL estimates 61 percent of systems engineers have Bachelor’s degrees.
4. Business intelligence analyst
Business intelligence analysts provide market insights and make recommendations through research and reports. They identify patterns and trends in data and communicate their findings to stakeholders. The DOL estimates 58 percent of business intelligence analysts have Bachelor’s degrees.
5. Systems administrator
Systems administrators configure an organization’s networks to ensure availability to all users. They also perform maintenance and administer security measures. The DOL estimates 52 percent of systems administrators have Bachelor’s degrees.
6. Computer systems analyst
Computer systems analysts examine processing problems in order to improve computer systems. They analyze user experiences to automate existing systems. The DOL estimates 33 percent of computer systems analysts have Bachelor’s degrees.
7. Computer systems engineers/architects
Computer systems engineers/architects develop solutions to system application and administration issues. They collaborate with software developers to ensure compatibility of systems. The DOL estimates 61 percent of computer systems engineers/architects have Bachelor’s degrees.
8. Computer network architects
Computer network architects design and implement computer and information networks and other data communications networks. They also analyze networks, implement safety measures and recommend hardware and software. Educational attainment information is not available for computer network architects.
9. Web developer
Web developers design and create websites. They convert multimedia content for websites and integrate computer applications into a compatible web format. The DOL estimates 46 percent of web developers have Bachelor’s degrees.
Can you really teach yourself?
Is a Computer Science degree worth it? Can you really teach yourself instead? Coding tutorials, digital resources and online communities are, as far as the eye can see, for anyone seeking to teach themselves. However, you won’t have the guidance of a seasoned professor or the other benefits of an education, such as the network of connections and a chance to become well-rounded through soft skills.
"A part of me wishes I'd studied it in school."
“I don’t have a Computer Science degree, but my roles have been increasingly more tech-focused. A part of me definitely wishes I’d studied it in school,” says Joe Stanish, co-founder and COO of Honeyfi. “It would have helped earlier in my career as I had to self-teach certain concepts.”
With a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Philosophy, Stanish found his career path requiring more coding and programming knowledge, so he took coding tutorials and online courses on foundational subjects to teach himself what he needed to know. And with a plethora of online resources and all who use them, he is far from alone.
But what do the self-taught not know they’re missing?
What you really get out of a Computer Science degree
Can you really teach yourself without sacrificing any of the skills, knowledge or experience gained with a Computer Science degree? To answer that, one must understand what is included in a Computer Science degree program first.
Much of the focus in Computer Science programs is on programming. Students learn a variety of programming languages and coding methods. But it’s not just a matter of mastering different syntaxes—a Computer Science education helps students better understand why code works and the logic powering it. Beyond the curriculum, an education can round out your skills more than you may realize. Soft skills—such as critical thinking or problem solving—can be further fleshed out in Computer Science degree programs.
"My bachelor's degree in computer science taught me how to think."
“My Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science taught me how to think,” says Roger Wu of Cooperatize. “When I took the operating systems class, in which your grade was based off of building an operating system, I found myself taking a huge problem and breaking it up into little pieces. I realized I could do anything if I took what appeared to be a massive undertaking by the first, bite-sized step.”
Setfive Consulting’s Ashish Datta found value in the broader learning through his education.
“It’s not the degree that's important, but rather the exposure to a variety of computer science topics and abstract soft skills that are vital,” he says.
He points out that learning how to code is not too difficult, and children in school are even learning to do it. However, what truly separates the self-taught from those with a Computer Science degree is a broader understanding of things like computer architecture, types of algorithms and problem-solving techniques.
So is a Computer Science degree worth it?
A look at the employment statistics should be your first indicator. Add to that all you’ll learn in school, and the answer should be clear.
If you really think you can piece together online resources to teach yourself, you’re welcome to try forging your own path. But if you want to invest in yourself, possess a clear advantage in the job market and give yourself the best shot at a successful career in technology, a Computer Science degree will be worth it to you.
Learn more about the exciting careers you could pursue after graduation in our article, “What Can You Do with a Computer Science Degree?”
*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
**Burning-Glass.com (Analysis of 702,795 technology jobs seeking computer science degrees, Sept. 1, 2016 – August 31, 2017).