Is a College Degree Necessary for an IT Career?

By Robert Half on March 24, 2016 at 3:00pm

Getting a diploma has long been typical for those in the IT industry, but is a college degree necessary for all tech jobs today?

Movies, books and TV often depict IT professionals as self-taught whiz kids who, growing up with technology, become experts by the time they graduate high school.

Add to that the stunning growth of companies founded by college dropouts, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, which may reinforce the idea that college is an optional step on the IT career path.

So is a college degree necessary to be successful in the IT industry, and what alternatives are available?

Get a college degree if you want to be an IT manager

“College degrees are necessary for any position in management or director-level tech positions," says David Sheehan, Robert Half Technology Atlanta Branch Manager. "The higher up you get, the more important they become.”If your goal is to reach a management level, business knowledge that can be backed by a college degree such as an MBA is vital. In addition, with business graduates starting to head to IT, competition for the top spots often requires having a comparable degree.”

Many jobs accept "equivalent experience" in lieu of a college degree, but it may be an uphill battle to prove that you have the experience needed, especially early in your career. And some companies specifically require a degree in computer engineering or computer science.

However, Sheehan says tech jobs in help desk and desktop support often do not require a four-year degree, especially for entry-level positions.

He says that he places people in many contract IT jobs that don’t require college degrees: "Hiring managers care more about certifications and experience,” says Sheehan. “When we’re placing an IT pro in a full-time position, a college degree is far more important.”

Sheehan adds that while the hiring manager might not deem a college degree necessary for a tech job, the HR representative often has a job description with a particular requirement for a degree.

Check out our Salary Guide to find salary information for IT jobs in your area.

Alternatives to a college degree

There are many benefits to obtaining a four-year degree, but given the rising cost of getting one, non-college alternatives may make more sense for many IT pros.

One option is certifications from companies like Microsoft, Cisco or Oracle. There also are a variety of "boot camp" style training programs such as General Assembly that train students in a few weeks or months in a specific IT skill.

Here’s an account of how one IT pro broke into the field without a college degree. The piece provides some great advice for others looking to do the same thing, including doing some research into the IT job you want. It’s important to figure out what's required to get the job — and the job after that.

Are fewer companies requiring college degrees?

The word college isn't even mentioned in Google's hiring manual. Are more firms following Google's lead and not always requiring a college degree? It depends, according to Sheehan: “Experience always trumps having a certification or graduating from a boot camp.”

However, he says that certifications are becoming more important to many hiring managers. For example, an IT services company might have to hire someone with a specific certification to maintain their Microsoft Gold Certification.

In the end, a college degree can improve your chances of getting hired, boost your salary or help you get a top spot on the career ladder. But for many potential IT workers, the rising cost to obtain a college degree and the loss of four or more years of full-time income to attend school may warrant pursuing an alternative to a college degree.

The timing may be good for those not planning on a four-year degree: According to Sheehan, in a highly competitive market for IT pros, more companies are willing to hire candidates without a college degree.

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