Career Advice Tuesday – The Value of College

April 12, 2011

Dear Infosecleaders,

I am currently a Junior in high school and have been looking into the information security field. I am supposed to start looking for colleges soon and applying for them. I live in {a midwest state} and was looking to stay in state to do school–unless I would gain a huge advantage going out of state. I’m not exactly sure what exact position I would like to actually work in, so currently I am open for anything.

My first question is: Is it worth going to college? Is spending that money on college going to good use? I hear about everybody getting all these different certifications and I am not sure if I should waste money on college and certifications. I don’t want to be stuck paying for college for a long time. Do infosec jobs pay well enough that you can say that college was really worth it?

I heard that colleges throw stuff together just to “add” another major to their lists. What colleges actually have good courses that are worth paying for? I would like to go to school in {my state}, but I don’t know how to compare which schools actually are better.


Hey PF,

When I was growing up, all that my parents, teachers and everyone else drilled in to my head was the importance of going to college.  From the time I was young, it was “get a good education and you’ll be successful.”  So, unlike you, I never questioned the value of a college education.

Of course, times are different now.  I know a vast many people with college degrees working in low-paying retail jobs and being a Barrista at Starbucks.  Not exactly the “success” that my parents envisioned when I was growing up.

In fast moving fields like security, it can seem even worse – we see a huge number of people succeed in IT and information security without a college degree.  And, whenever I hear someone mention the importance of college, someone else is there to point out that Bill Gates was a dropout.

So, let’s talk about what a college degree actually gives you so that you can make an informed decision.

First and foremost, college is a networking experience.  If you go to college, you’ll meet a lot of like-minded people who are interested in the same subject as you.  And, for many people, those connections will stay relevant throughout their lives as they enter the professional world.  (Note: this is especially true in graduate programs.  The MBAs that I know will often cite the networking benefits as the key reason for having an MBA).

Additionally, college provides you with a lot of experience in getting things done.  College can act as a buffer between the hand-holding that most of us get in high-school (I still resent my 10th grade teacher for forcing me to show my work) and the “on your own” experience that most of us get in the real world.   You’re forced to learn to live in a somewhat independent world without the “sink or swim” experience that you may get in the “real world”.  (FYI – it’s for this reason that I usually suggest going out of state for college, as you get a little more of that experience when you can’t go home on weekends to have Mom do your laundry.)

Finally (and most importantly), a college degree acts as a signal of those two things.  It says that you are “part of the club”, so to speak – this is especially true if you go to a college with a strong reputation.  Knowing that someone has a Harvard MBA says something about them.   That degree can stand in as a representative for acquiring a certain type of knowledge  from a certain set of people.  And having the degree suggests that they knew how to complete that task.

Note that nowhere here have I said anything about getting a job.  What college does NOT do is prepare you to be a useful worker.  That’s a fallacy that is thrust upon us by an out-dated idea of work.  When we hire people, we spend a lot of time training them – it’s that training that makes them effective at their jobs, not what they learned from the books in college.  So, I urge you not to focus on the course-work beyond the reputation that it has – if a school has a reputation for being solid within an industry (e.g. the Harvard MBAs I keep using), it will most-likely provide the real benefits above effectively.

In some ways, this probably leaves you more confused than a straight answer, but I’ll encourage you thus: all large companies and government agencies still value a college degree as a useful signal.  For that reason alone, college degrees are worth attaining as you’ll probably want to work with them at some point.

-Mike & Lee



Posted by mmurray | Filed Under Career Advice Tuesday 


2 Responses to “Career Advice Tuesday – The Value of College”

  1. John on April 13th, 2011 6:53 am

    FYI.. below is a link I though you might like… It has practical advice on college…. an easy way to determine if it is worth the opportunity costs and “credentialing is primarily social signaling”

  2. Matt on April 14th, 2011 12:31 pm

    A lot of companies these days use automated methods for sorting potential candidates, so if you aren’t networking to find jobs but are applying online, a college degree will help you get further in the process to be set up on an interview.

    A good option is to co-op or intern while in school to start that networking process, that’s how a lot of my friends got their first job. I started out at a wireless technologies start up and was a referral from my now brother in law, though I did already have some experience in the trade.

    I am happy with my decision to get college out of the way (BS IT), my only current certification is the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), and I work as a Security Consultant currently focused on the Engineering side.