Thoughts On College

For the past six months, I’ve been struggling deciding whether or not college was right for me.

After reading a few entrepreneurial books and some of my followers responses on Twitter on this subject, it’s been hard not thinking about the time I’m possibly wasting.

At the same time, dropping out is a huge decision that could result in me missing out on a ton of opportunity, both from a career & personal standpoint. I’d be missing out on connections I could make, skills I could learn, and most of all, the experience of college.

But the University of Florida hasn’t made it easy to stay focused on school. My computer science program requires me to take two semesters of Chemistry, two of Physics, as well as Calculus 1, 2, 3, and differential equations. All so I can learn how to code!! The only real, valuable learning I’ve done so far is outside of the classroom when I’m diving into online programming classes.

This has all led me to this conclusion: if you want to do anything tech related, college is the farthest thing from a requirement.

Universities do not keep up with the times, and for the rising costs they’re now charging students, it’s sometimes difficult to justify college all together.

I can vouch first hand because I’m currently a college student who’s talked to professors, actively taking classes (I am in a class about Java at the moment), and getting involved. Sure, you could say my school is the exception, not the rule, but the University of Florida is considered one of the best 5 public schools in the nation, so it’s hard to justify it’ll be much better elsewhere in this aspect.

There is hope that this might change, though. A few days ago I emailed Adam Penenberg letting him know just how awesome he is for teaching students at New York University about topics like blogging, entrepreneurial journalism, and data journalism. It’s easy telling entrepreneurs to stay in school if they’re getting taught that material, but unfortunately that’s not the case for most.

But why is that? Why don’t we see more schools paying attention to internet business? There are so many grad students struggling to find jobs, yet every day on Twitter I see an agency hiring another 10 people or a startup looking to bring on a few more developers. The Internet is a huge business channel, yet universities are largely ignoring it, even in 2012!

For me, I guess only time will tell. The reason I’ve continued with my studies is because I think the risk of lost opportunity is greater staying in school than dropping out, and seeing how I’m doing with a few of my recent entrepreneurial ventures, financials aren’t going to be an issue. But who knows? If one of my projects really takes off in the next few months, I’d almost be forced to dedicate more time to it.


Discussion

  • admin

    I enabled comments. Let me know what you think.

    Reply
  • Ryan Jones

    SO I got my CS degree back in ’04. If you want to just do SEO or web design or make iPhone apps, none of that physics or math will be relevant.

    If you want to get a job at Google or Facebook and do some heavy information retrieval work, make a search engine, create a database like MySQL, do some physics based game engines, get into encryption, or work on some unsolved problems in computer science – then all of that math (and more) will be useful. In fact, I’d also recommend taking a prob&stats class, a matrix algebra class, and as many economics electives as you can fit in.

    Chemistry, not so much. I’ve never seen a need for that…..

    Seriously though, if you just want to do SEO or Web design – major in marketing or finance or something else. You’ll use very little of your CS degree. OF course, keep learning web programming methods (php, .NET, Python, regular expressions, MySQL, etc – they’re invaluable)

    Reply
    • Chris Le

      I agree with Ryan. If this is your direction, then it’s better to pivot and learn marketing or finance. You’ll be more challenged and you’ll end up with the skills that really matter in the industry. There’s no reason to throw away the work, time, and energy you’ve already invested.

      Another argument is that the tech industry doesn’t last forever. It goes in cycles, and the skills you should learn should be applicable to more than just one job. I elaborated more on (http://www.chrisle.me/2012/10/leave-school-join-a-startup-wait/)

      Reply
  • Joe Hall

    Jon,

    I have a degree in political science. I had no idea I would ever be working in SEO while in college, but here I am. :) Even though all of the course work and pretty much all of my degree had nothing to do with what I am doing now, I wouldn’t ever trade my experience. In the end my study of politics has helped me greatly in starting my own business and understanding marketing. Also college is a unique place where you can test social skills and build greater self confidence. I do a lot of speaking now and learned how to do that effectively during college. There will be no other time in your life when you will have the time to hone those skills like the time you have in college.

    I agree that the current computer science curriculum at most schools is off the mark. I have always thought that studying the humanities in college while computer science on your own is the perfect combination for most SEOs. Having a deep appreciation for the arts coupled with a study of social psychology, history, and communications makes an awesome entrepreneur and SEO.

    Also, teaching yourself to program is a piece of cake. Hell, if I can do it, I know you can! Good luck!

    Reply
  • David Cohen

    There’s a lot of things our university system does wrong, but two that really standout to me is that in their current form and function, most colleges still follow the system of education that was created at the turn of the 20th century to produce lifelong factory workers — this is well-documented and not a conspiracy theory.

    No kid on earth says they want to be a factor worker when they grow up.

    The other thing is that most colleges focus on helping people get a degree, but what about helping people understand their purpose in life, and then how to custom-tailor their educational experience to help them fulfill what it is they’re designed and wired to do?

    Reply
  • Matt Powers

    Jon, I graduated double majoring in multimedia studies and print journalism. Both degrees helped me get a job in SEO/Internet marketing but had to take an underpaid internship study just as hard or harder in a shorter period of time to land the job.

    However, for me at least I’m so glad I did the whole college experience. The little things I learned that help me now but most of all the friends and experiences I had with them.

    While I still think I have a long way to go to ‘perfect’ my craft I love what I ldo now but wouldnt trade it for the good times I had in college with no money, no plan and just a 12 pack

    Reply
  • Markus Allen

    Ah, the University of Florida. Home of Five Star Pizza.

    I was inches away from starting 5 Star Pizza up north with John Gillespie (the same guy who started it in Gainesville). We didn’t get the lease approved (I still to this day don’t know why) at the University of Delaware, so he eventually flocked to Florida because he hated the cold.

    It was John’s idea to take over the lease of a hoagie shop that was directly across the street from the highest-grossing Domino’s Pizza store in the USA. Gillespie is a marketing legend. Brilliant.

    John turned his tiny pizza delivery “shack” into an empire. When he started, it was $4.99 for a large cheese pizza delivered free. (I understand it’s a bit more expensive today).

    He got his start at Domino’s Pizza (we worked in the same location) and I always knew he’s make it big.

    I bring him up because you’ll learn more about life, sex, marketing, sex (did I mention sex) and struggle from John’s pinky finger than you will from any course in Gatorland.

    I’d suggest dropping out ASAP and tracking down John. Offer to buy him lunch (also buy him a beer) in exchange to pick his brain. It will be the best tiny investment you ever made in your life.

    College (for most people) is a whopper of a scam (unless you’re in the right fraternity or sorority and exploit those connections to the outside world).

    Reply
  • James Norquay

    Hi Jon,

    I agree mate it is the same problem here in Australia where in most uni courses they make people do a whole bunch of subjects that you may not want to do. Because the thing is they come with the idea that you want to get a taste of all related subjects before you go into your main subject area. That been said most students are a bit lost to know what they want to do when they leave school so the transition from school to uni.

    the problem is course work is also out of date, I remember I did an “e-marketing” subject at uni years ago and I didn’t even buy the text book haha, reason been the year was like 2006 and the course data was from 1996.

    Hope you pass the subjects but mate, I mean you could look at doing uni at nights or part time if you really want to kick off work and uni, I did that when I was younger I did uni full time for a year and then switched to nights and really enjoyed it, sure uni is very different in Australia too their isn’t so much the “live on campus” style scene.

    Regards,

    James.

    Reply
  • Harris Schachter

    Hey Jon,

    When you first mentioned you were headed off to college on twitter, my initial reaction was “Why!?” However, I didn’t voice my opinion because a lot of people see it as a personal goal, and I don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade. Now that you’ve got an open dialogue going, I’ll throw in my pair of pennies.

    For me, college was about discovering what I wanted to do. I had absolutely no idea, but found psychology interesting so I stuck with it. In retrospect, as an internet marketer, I don’t think I could have chosen a better major. I don’t even think a Marketing major would have been as beneficial, since the focus is still traditional marketing. (I’ll get to that one in a sec). For you, it seems pretty clear what you want to do, what makes you happy, and how to bring home the bacon. To boil it all down really simply, being an intelligent person has nothing to do with whether or not they have a degree. I do think you’d be successful without one, but if it is a personal goal, by all means do it.

    To your point about the lack of internet marketing education – I share the same amazement. There are tons of jobs available for those who have experience (made a successful transition from traditional marketing, web design, or programming) or those who have an education. For myself, I didn’t have any experience and the only graduate degree I could find in internet marketing was online, so I put my personal feelings about for-profit colleges aside and did it. But, this was just to get my foot in the door. Personally, I think there is a lack of internet marketing education in general because: 1. It changes so frequently. 2. There aren’t too many people who can do it well enough to teach it, and 3. The people who can do it well are out there making the real cheddar, not teacher’s wages.

    You’re already more qualified than people with diplomas. More importantly, you have the entrepreneurial spirit (which they can’t teach you in school) so no matter what you decide I’m confident you’ll kick ass.

    Sorry, that was kind of long winded. I’ll end with a simple statement that there are some aspects of college (outside of academia) which you will remember for the rest of your life.

    Reply
  • Hillary MacBain

    Hi Jon,

    You’ve been getting a lot of great advice of varying opinions from many of the top SEOs in the industry, but I hope that I can provide some insight from the perspective of a recent college graduate.

    In May, I graduated from Indiana University (majors: Marketing, Operations Management; minors: Economics, French), and now work in digital marketing at an agency in Minneapolis. Now hold on tight, because we’re about to talk about *experiences* and *feelings*:

    You’re going to hear this time and time again, but college is a really a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the first time in 13 years of education, this is one of the first times that the education won’t be purely academic – you’re going to learn more about yourself in the next few years than you thought possible. Sure, you need to go to class and get good grades (keep your eye on the prize: graduating and starting a kick-ass career), but there’s more to it. Enjoy a night or two in the library finishing a project the night before it’s due, spend every Saturday belligerently celebrating in the football stadium, and make a fool of yourself in front of a cute girl from one of your lectures. And at the end of three, four, or five years, you’re not just going to be 22 with a lot of knowledge floating between your ears – no, you’re going to know a hell of a lot more about who you, Jon Cooper, are.

    At only 19 years old, you have time to grow up. You’ve clearly established yourself as the voice of link building in the SEO community, and as you learn more and expand your network, you’re only going to find more success, which will pay off as you begin your career in a few years. Not only can a degree speak for itself, but your presence in the SEO community will act as a bullhorn for your qualifications and achievements. Right now, take a breath, slow down, and focus on building the friendships and memories that are going to last way longer than your time at UF.

    At the moment, college may seem like a lot of busy work or a waste of time, and at times it will be. But in the end, I firmly believe you will look back and know it was worth it. Best of luck as you make this decision.

    Hillary

    Reply
    • Raj

      I completely agree. I went to college and grad with a deg in Finance – something I thought I would enjoy doing lifelong as I love crunching numbers. Since graduating I’ve used <10% of my lessons from Finance/Business school. Even the 2 years of Finance work I did, I could've used my HS diploma to succeed in it.

      If that's what I based my overall investment on, I'd say college was a poor investment. I could've worked, attempted start ups, etc. and perhaps learned/earned more but I don't regret the experience one bit. The experience, the habits -both good and bad- really shape the type of person/professional you're going to be the rest of your life. The friendships I made in college along with the older friendships that got stronger make it all worthwhile.

      That's not to say this can't happen in the real/online world outside of school. However, the difference is the personal touch. Talking to professors face to face. Living with roommates/friends. Experiencing all the social gatherings firsthand. Nothing can replace these.

      At this point in my career, at 26 managing an SEO team, having 2 different view points – traditional education & self-education – gives me both a competitive advantage and perspective on what really makes me tick/happy. Good luck.

      Reply
  • mike

    I wouldn’t drop out if I were you, mate.

    Your already invested in the course. You’ve already paid your money, your on the register, – even if College was a mistake, you might as well see it through. Don’t worry, the world isn’t going anywhere.

    Very few people have related degrees in most industries, but learning a subject isn’t the only thing University gives you. There’s plenty of Soft skills to be learnt as well, which are important. Also, it gives you a degree of futureproofing and flexibility to your CV – without it, your just as good as your last project.

    Fuck, I’d love to be in Uni having known Internet Marketing exists . Doing affiliate stuff or maybe working parttime for clients would of beaten the hell out of the call centre monkey job I had at the time. There is literally no reason you can’t have your cake and eat it.

    Reply
  • Matt Evans

    Hey Jon,

    I’m happy to admit University (or College to you USA guys!) wasn’t the right direction for me and I left after a similar period. I’m also very happy to admit that I picked up and agency job and never looked back!

    I personally feel that each experience and thoughts are unique when dealing with College/Uni, some people will find their calling and their passion for work whilst there – whereas others just don’t fit in well with education and self-structure.

    It’s all about what makes you happiest really isn’t it? I definitely am much more motivated to work when happy, and I imagine it’s the same with most people. Without waffling too much, what I’m trying to say is ; if you know what you love to work on and that career path doesn’t require a degree for any progression at all then why not just get into doing what you love in a workplace!

    Some good thoughts Jon!

    Reply
  • Ian Howells

    I got my BFA in graphic design. It’s mildly helpful now, but not something I wouldn’t be able to live without. I had already taught myself most of what we learned the first 2 years before I set foot on campus.

    Personally, the cost for college wasn’t worth it in terms of professional development. I didn’t meet anyone over the course of my degree that I have done business with yet or gotten a referral from, etc. The local Philly Meetup has brought me a ton of business – college brought me none.

    Now, granted – that may very well be because I went to a school that has zero business focus. The art program had zero to say about how to actually run a business as an artist, or frankly get hired as one. But – if you need to know about apertures and complimentary colors, they’ll hook you up.

    For me, if I had to do it over, I’d skip college in a heartbeat. (I also would have sold all my poker sites before the safe port act passed.) But, that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for you.

    You should know by the end of your freshman year if this thing is going to be a waste. I’d take a hard look at it once you finish this year, and decide if it makes sense to cut your losses.

    Reply
    • Ross Hudgens

      +1. Did college, and I did business/MKTG, and if I knew what I knew now, I’d probably skip it. That said I did not enter in the mature business state you did – not sure I could have ever discovered what I did – “learned how to learn” – if I had undergone the process. For you, though, it seems like no college is the right answer.

      Reply
  • Shawn Cohen

    I didn’t graduate from college until I was 26–I did it online in an accelerated program while I worked 30-35 hours a week.

    I didn’t wait to graduate until then b/c I was sitting on my ass. Like you, I was doing cool stuff I was interested in in my early 20s.

    Just b/c you drop out now to continue being a kickass digital marketer doesn’t mean you can’t go back later.

    I’m also a dropout of sorts. I started an MBA program in 2010 and soon realized it wasn’t the networking opportunity hub I thought it would be. I sat for a whole semester listening to a prof’s war stories instead of discussing real business challenges I was facing (like the school had promised me).

    And I haven’t looked back since! Dropping out was probably the best decision I made. Maybe it’ll be the same for you.

    Reply
  • admin

    Thanks everyone so much for the comments! I’ve read each one, including some multiple times. Thought I’d add link to the post Chris Le wrote in response to this: http://www.chrisle.me/2012/10/leave-school-join-a-startup-wait/.

    Great discussion so far, but haven’t really commented on each because I’m currently in a learning mode and not a contributing one.

    Reply
  • Matt Beswick

    Jon,

    I always wanted to run my own business – it was something that I told everyone I’d do, and flirted with a few different ideas (some more profitable, others more ethical than the failures) both before, during, and after Uni (as us Brits call it).

    For me, getting a degree isn’t about what you learn and how that knowledge affects you in later life – it’s about the experience. My CS course was an absolute breeze – the first couple of years I could’ve done in a couple of months – which gave me chance to do other things, like growing up, ‘finding myself’, getting drunk, messing up a relationship or two, and plotting how I was going to take over the world. It also lead into my first and only ‘real job’ which lasted for all of two years.

    I’ve been lucky enough since then to launch a million dollar Facebook app, back out of an acquisition with the biggest social gaming company, try to launch a $10m dollar app (and fail), then have a couple of horrendous years when it comes to business, and now be in the position where things are pretty damn good again. I an honestly say that without going to Uni this probably would have never happened.

    Yes it’s expensive, no you don’t get enough from it because they’re all stuck in the past and don’t teach you any useful skills, but your time there and the bit of paper you get at the end us invaluable. In my opinion creating an amazing startup is as much about luck , confidence and personality than anything else… From the distant knowledge I have of you, you definitely have two of those – now you just need to make some luck ;)

    My advice would be to stick at it, do what you need to do, but keep going in the direction you already are… Just remember that life’s as much about fun and the people you meet as it as making a success of yourself.

    Inane rambling excuse for a comment over with – hope it makes at least a small amount of sense ;)

    Matt

    Reply
  • Paige C. Willey

    I had a math teacher once who told me I would never use the actual math he was teaching me, but the district required the class because it taught problem-solving skills. I majored in English and Medieval and Renaissance Studies–hardly a useful degree for an SEO (except maybe for providing me with a lot of writing experience for content creation). I wouldn’t have traded my experience for anything. I may not use the facts I learned, but I use the skills every day.

    Don’t worry about feeling as though you’re learning more out of class than in it. I was the exact same way. You just don’t learn in a traditional classroom setting and are self-taught.

    The reason I wouldn’t drop out is this: whether we like it or not, having a degree is important. Eventually, you may need one. I know right now people are doing a lot of cool things without them, but that’s because they can afford to do those cool things without them. I have a lot of friends who didn’t finish college and then when they were up for promotion or needed to change jobs to support themselves or a family, it was more difficult for them because they didn’t have a degree.

    It is possible to do a lot of great, innovative things while still in school. Also, I’d consider other schooling options–maybe the school itself isn’t the best fit.

    Reply
  • Casey

    For me, I’ve always been one to hate on school, I struggled through high school and didn’t go to college. But I turned out alright, I own a fast growing SEO agency and I get to do what I love every day. All without a college degree – something I actually pride myself in oddly enough.

    I have many friends who went to college, many of them still dont have jobs a few years out of school. But I hear the stories, experiences and friendships they made during college and that’s something I will never have, something I forever missed out on and will never get back.

    Reply
  • Kane Jamison

    Half of the usefulness of college is giving 18-22 year-olds a place to do stupid things until they grow out of it and mature enough to actually hold down a job. Not true for everyone, but it was for many of the people I was around in school.

    Don’t bet all your chips on getting a job as a result of a degree, and be conscious of why you’re getting a degree and how it will be useful to you if you change roles. I got a degree in Finance and went heavy on general business topics since I knew that would give me the most value regardless of what industry I went to. If I went back I might have done Computer Science, but would have lost a lot of what I know now about business management and ownership.

    Reply
  • Cason

    I left college to do my own shit after the first year.

    I’m lonelier than ever but it’s 100% worth it (so far), despite not having much success. Sometimes I do feel like shit seeing friends having fun, partying every weekend, etc. and thinking whether I made a right decision because I’m only young once, especially since I’m the playful type AND I won’t have much success instantly AND I’m an impatient person… but somehow I just know it’ll be worth it in the long run.

    In a way, it’s the best decision of my life. I no longer have to wake up when I don’t feel like it, sit through classes and waste my life away, spend hours copying homework and take multiple sleepless nights cramming for shit I don’t bother knowing.

    Instead, I get to learn anything I want. (however bizarre or “unethical”) I also can adapt and change directions whenever I want. Have a flexible schedule and basically pursue whatever I want. I can also get others to run a part of the business for me when I don’t know half a thing about a certain field. (You can NEVER do that in school) It’s the shit living beyond the so-called rule book and “taking advantage” of your competitors for not staying on top of the knowledge curve.

    I guess it just comes down to acting on your desires. You only get to live once so pursue whatever the hell you want, NOT what you’re good at or what others do. Just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it’s right. Just because you’re capable doesn’t mean you should do it. I guess I can say I’m pretty bright in terms of academics, I had a scholarship in one of the best schools in my country and I rarely study. But what the hell, if I’m not into this study/job thing why should I spend my time pursuing it. Don’t let social norms confine you.

    And it’s not like college is the only place you get to experience fun being stupid. I completely disconnect from the business/logical side of things and do stupid shit all the time when I’m out with others. BUT I still think I’m missing out quite a bit without the random school activities and clubs and events.

    Oh and one of my goals is to make a million before I turn 18… so that might be one of the big reasons why I feel my decision was the best decision of my life.

    ….btw, I have no idea how I ended up in this blog. Just realized you’re more on the SEO rather than business side. I guess if you’re planning to SEO for other companies you -might- need a degree. If you’re going to do it by yourself (turn this specialized knowledge into your own business) make sure you’re dedicated to educate yourself in terms of the business/lead flow side (or partner with someone who’s good in that), because that’s WAYYY more important than what you know in SEO if you’re talking money. Re-read that again, it’s super important. Also make sure you can afford basic survival / not worry about money for about 2 years, just to be on the safe side. Should be fairly easy since you still have your parents around.

    Just my 2c from my experience.

    Reply
  • Glen Allsopp

    Which one is more exciting to you when you wake up?

    Do that.

    I dropped out two years into a three year course, and have never regretted it.

    Reply
  • Richard Petersen

    Why bother with the debt. You can go when you are older. Will SEO be around in a few years time. Take a year out try it out and see what you think after that period!

    Reply
  • A college student

    Several things about your blog: 1) entrepreneurial books encourage a do it yourself kind of thought and focus more on what your starting vs. how to get there. They also revolve around business, which people can argue it doesn’t require a college degree to start one up from scratch and people give the token to the select few who are so famous they can actually get a book deal to boast about themselves and sell you the idea that you can do it that it leaves out the importance of college. 2) computer programming is math, thus you need college. If you want to just know computer programming for computer programming then it’s not your passion. I’m going to school for mass communications and I’m exposed to classes like contemporary social problems, critical thinking, intro into philosphy, all of which not only compliment several aspects of my major but enhance my overall knowledge so I can apply it to my major 3) you JUST entered college, you have to take the same core group of classes that we all do. Wait two years and you can go into your respective college to learn to your hearts desire 4) you are already taking the initiative to learn outside of the classroom anyways, which is something that someone should do with their passion anyways 5) in regards to 4, the college offers outside opportunities as well 6) universities partner up with tech programs and you can even do research as well which would definitely help in your field 7) there are universities that are always looking for people who can use computer software and program because they are online too 8) you clearly admitted that dropping out of college is a huge risk, especially to money and opportunity as colleges offer plenty of opportunities both internally and externally with internships to add to your resume. If you get started way to early then you run a super huge risk of joining a company that will crash and good luck trying to get back into college. You just started college, there’s no way you can tell me that you have already have everything figured out because what you are introducing is risk taking concepts of business and let me tell you: business is not a science AT ALL. You should stay in school and take classes where you can actually learn stuff instead of trying to get it all from people who are only trying to sell you a book. Oh and one more thing: don’t continue your college (even if you just got there) and complain about it. College is what YOU make of it. you paid for it, you do it. There are alot of hungry kids out there who can’t go to college and would make the most of it.

    Reply

Leave a Comment