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Should You Attend University for Web Development?

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We're entering a unique age; an age where a simple Google search has the potential to replace professors. As students across the globe decide whether or not to spend massive sums of money - during a financial recession - to attend University this fall, they might find themselves asking, "Is it worth it?"

Especially in the web development world, it's possible that the latest technologies and trends are being taught on blogs, rather than in the classroom. On a weekly basis, I receive emails from University students informing us that our "little ole'" blog has taught them more than their college professors. Considering the frequency at which these flattering emails occur, it does raise an interesting question: "Is University out-dated?"

Last week on Twitter, I asked our followers if they might be willing to answer some questions about their personal opinions on obtaining a degree in web development. The response was enormous; people of all ages - from students to teachers to seasoned professionals - responded with their firmly held opinions. Let's review what they had to say! *Note - for the sake of anonymity, I've omitted the names.


1. Did you, at any point, consider not going to school for web design/development? If so, what factors caused you to take the plunge? Was the cost of attendance a big issue?

"I always considered going to school for development, Computer Science in particular. I saw the University as a way to bolster the fledgling development and design skills that I had, but also as a way to enrich myself in other studies that were never taught in primary education. A major factor is that piece of paper that they give you when you successfully graduate. While a portfolio is of utmost importance in finding employment, be it with a firm or as a freelancer, I find that the diploma and going to University helps perk up the ears of those that may know nothing about our field."

"The cost of attendance was a big issue. I knew this when searching for the right place to go, and so chose what was within my means. I'm not sure how it works in foreign countries, but in the States, we have residency rates for public schools. I can consider myself lucky that I had a great University, at a very cost-effective rate, right down the road from me."

"Web design and development have always been areas of focus for most of my life; so at no point did I consider not going to school to further my knowledge of the subject. At no time was attendance cost an issue."

"I really didn't have plans to get into web development. I had taken programming courses in high school and knew I wanted to do something with Computer Science. As I progressed in Computer Science studies, I realized that the college curriculum had not kept up with the real world needs of programmers. The future is obviously in web development, as more and more applications move to the cloud. Universities are struggling to keep up with this shift, and continue to teach traditional desktop application development. Of course, the fundamentals apply across both areas, and for those teachings I am thankful. I never considered not going to school. However, I didn't finish :)."


"I attended university on the Gold Coast, Australia. There were no web design related courses, so I studied for a degree majoring in graphic design. I always planned to go to University. Unfortunately, I found that, at the end of my degree, I did not learn as much as I would have hoped -and believe the price of the degree was not worth the cost."

"Still to this day, I feel I can quit web school at any time. I have always felt strongly, believing clients choose a designer without even thinking about his degree. If you have a killer portfolio, and no degree, you have a much better chance over the person with a degree and a portfolio that's garbage. With that in mind, I chose to do both - have a good portfolio and a two year degree."


"Back when I first decided to study, there wasn't any doubt in my mind that I did not want to study a form of web design/development. The first factor was having a degree under my belt - I enjoy learning. The cost for the degree was a little daunting, but I knew that with a degree behind my back and the passion I have for this industry, I would be okay when I graduated."

"I went to University to study Mechanical Engineering with the dream of designing roller coasters. After a year, I wasn't getting along with the course, so I changed to Computer Science. That seemed like the logical choice as I already had a grounding in programming from learning PHP to write a pretty heavy personal website (about roller coasters). I wasn't sure at the time where this new course would take me, but the answer was certainly not a career in web development."

"Actually when I started my first job, I had no drive to go to school as I had self-taught myself so much already. I was also told by my boss that some of his best employees had been self-taught. About a year at this job prompted me to finally look at going to school to further my current knowledge. The business was going downhill, and I figured there was so much more I wanted to learn. It was tough finding my own time to learn stuff after my full-time job, and knew that dedicating a year to learning would only benefit me in the years to come."

"Cost of attendance was definitely a factor in deciding where I was going to go. Funny enough though, I picked the most expensive route. I did this because it earned me a University level diploma over one year, as compared to a college certificate which doesn’t have as much weight to it. The one year time-frame also appealed to me, because of how technology changes rapidly. Taking a two-year course could mean that the first year stuff might be outdated by the time you graduate."

"I graduated in 1999 from RIT. When I was about to enter school, the web hadn't really taken off yet. I went for Computer Science, then eventually switched to Information Technology. By 1996, the web had exploded. I think I learned more on my co-op at the time on web development then I learned in the class room. Only the concepts were relevant in the classroom - the languages and the techniques weren't."

"Fast forward to today and I am in charge of hiring interns from RIT for 6 month rotations in our company. I see a lot of resumes. They all look the same. The ones that stand out are the ones that do outside work on their own."

2. Many students have personally emailed me stating that their web dev classes do not cover the latest technologies. Have you found this to be true?


"I find this statement to, unfortunately, be very true. Encounters with current/recent students, along with my own experiences, demonstrate that the education received is not up to date or even on par with the last decade. Changes and standards introduced in the last few years are relatively nonexistent from the curriculum which often leads graduates to either discover current practices on their own or find work where current developments are a radical way of thinking."

"An example is a student who came to me for advice on design and development. When asked about tableless design, accessibility or valid code, this student informed me they had never even heard of such topics let alone covered their basics. Overall it was a disappointing experience to listen to - and unfortunately not a unique experience."

"I feel that the Art Institute of Dallas covers a variety of topics and provides the foundation to learn about the latest technologies. Let's face it, in this career field of web development and design, the information given to you at THAT VERY PRECISE MOMENT is old within a matter of minutes. It helps you to actually develop a PLE and research information on Web Standards as well as what one can expect from the program! I learned to develop my Personal Learning Enviroment and gain RSS Feeds from important areas - as a matter of fact, I found Nettuts+ through researching on my PLE. I am not like most students, I keep my eyes peeled and sharp to current technology! I hope to make many advances in the world wide web in a few years."


"This is extremely true. A class I took in 2007 taught how to create a website with tables. I found out this year that they are finally teaching table free websites. Being a few years behind is definitely not smart, especially when you're paying so much to learn this information."


"I do agree that technological classes may be lacking in being on the forefront; this seemed certainly the case when I was in school. I hated it beyond belief because I couldn't see the point a lot of the time. Now, of course, my school didn't actually have Web Dev courses, but it still felt the same in any engineering course. However, two things to note and not despair! First, as you take more upper courses (beyond the 100s, maybe even 200s), you appear to catch up to the technology. My final years were consumed by Maya, Final Cut, Photoshop, and Cubase. Universities do have way more money than any individual and if you demonstrate enough of a need, they might spring to help out. Second, I now realize that much of what I thought was irrelevant helped me strengthen my foundation. That's what many employers are looking for!"

"Definitely, at least during the first two and a half years. My last quarter, we actually had an iPhone Application Development class which was just fantastic. Not having been taught the most recent technologies is somewhat of a drawback, but if you're willing make sure you catch up on all the emerging technologies outside of class, don't depend on instructors."

"As my course wasn't specifically in web development, I can't provide a detailed answer. However, we did study a module on PHP and MySQL - which was only really an excuse to teach us hard-core database programming. In fact, after we took it, a fair few of my fellow students still couldn't write even the simplest HTML (and no-one used CSS). So in my experience, Computer Science is not the way to go if you want to get into web development. For me, the best classroom is your computer, the view->source menu, a good tutorial or two, and something which deeply interests you to make a website about... even if that something turns out to be your cat."

"I feel that the course that I took did involve the majority of the latest technologies. The nice thing about the course I took was that it offered boot camps that could teach more of the cutting edge material. The course I took did not cover AJAX, but I managed to take a weekend boot camp to get the basic knowledge. Of course I wish the course would have included things such as WordPress, Ruby On Rails, and jQuery, but with a condensed one-year course it would have been tough."

"I've found this to be true with the students I interview. Most come in without any knowledge of standards. None come in with and experience in ASP.NET (though they do have Java experience which closely resembles C#)."

"A lot of students come in without the knowledge of how to learn on their own. They don't know, yet, that they need to be constantly monitoring blogs and twitter for the latest information on the industry. They don't know that they need to keep their tools sharp."

3. Looking back, are you still happy with your decision? Was it the right choice for you?


"I am very happy with my decision and am always wanting to learn more. I feel it was the right choice for me because it lead me to the path I am on. I have my own business, bshdesigns, and I also work for a company doing web design/IT work. I'm in the right place."

"As someone who looks forward rather than backwards it is a bit unnatural to answer such a question. After graduating I found work relatively quickly and have been able to pursue my goals with minimal turbulence. So without a doubt I can say I am happy where I currently am, but am always interested in developing my skills further; be it on my own or formal education. The education I received was beneficial in many other areas but the web portion left little to be learned and was very much another of many outdated courses.

As to whether or not it was the right choice for me, I believe it was the correct choice. The wrong choice would have been to not been to develop my skills on my own at all and change career paths all together. I’m doing what I enjoy and that’s the right choice."

"I'm quite happy I attended University. It's unfair to base your decision on whether to attend college solely on if it's directly professionally beneficial. Attending college is as much a lifestyle choice. I didn't walk away with a degree, but I walked away much more cultured, a more professional attitude toward life, and a better understanding of 'life'.

If someone requires a classroom setting in order to learn, they'll never be truly successful in the web development world. You have to be passionate about it and constantly learning. Many employers are recognizing this and requiring employees to spend 20% of their paid time studying/learning new techniques. But, you run a tutorial you know this :)."


"I strongly feel that this was the right decision for me. I felt a bit overwhelmed trying to learn all of the information on my own! I am a smart individual, but coming to the school, I have learned valuable information in just the FIRST QUARTER that has shaped my views on web development and design!!

"I am happy with my decision to go to University; I met some great friends with similar interests to myself and this will benefit all of us as we constantly work together and keep each other up to date on new technology.

I found out what the quality of work of graduates are and where I would rank myself. This gave me a gauge on how much I should be charging and what I'm competing against when it comes to web design work in my local area.

University was the right choice for me, although I can say I would be in the same position today if I did not attend."

"Simply put, yes. Sure I would probably want to change a few things, probably go to a different school, but I am very happy with my decision to study and finish. I'm now a happy graduate!"

"Absolutely! Going to University was one of the best experiences of my life. But only as a life experience - I use nothing which I learnt academically in my career now. I did however pick up valuable people skills which are great for dealing with clients as well as the ability to write (reasonably) well, which is great for writing specs."

"I am extremely happy with the decision I made to take an Internet Systems Specialist course. It worked out that I could work in the industry right after high school, and then strengthen my existing knowledge after a year at work. Schooling is also a wonderful place to work with programming languages and topics that you would otherwise never touch in your workplace."

To wrap things up, my suggestion to those out there who are unsure about schooling is:

  1. Get some experience in the workplace to make sure this is want you want for a career as well as get some knowledge of business
  2. Get yourself enrolled in a high quality cutting edge school (doesn’t need to be a 4-year computer science degree)
  3. Once you are out of school don’t stop learning! Subscribe to RSS feeds, connect with other web developers on twitter, etc...

"I think if I were given the choice today to go to school or gain experience I would gain experience and go to a community college to gain education in the liberal arts. It's amazing how when I was in school I hated Liberal Arts, but I feel that I use more of the skills I learned in those classes then I do in my technical classes."

A Unique Perspective From a High School Web Design Teacher

There are few quality higher education opportunities for students wishing to pursue web design and development, however, this does not mean that they should not necessarily attend college.

First of all, college is not for everyone. Some people aren't built for that kind of an environment, don't have the resources, or lack the desire, all of which are more than adequate reasons to not attend. And it should be mentioned that a college degree does not mean any higher esteem than a knowledgeable professional. Nearly all of the web professionals whose blogs I read regularly don't have degrees in web design and development and I'm sure many don't even have college degrees.

Even if you cannot study in your desired field, college can still be worthwhile for you.

I have yet to meet the high school student in our program who I felt was strong enough to go directly into the workforce, so I have only suggested college to students.

When I do meet that student I will not hesitate to suggest the workforce. I think that there is much to gain from students choosing a line of best fit for their college experience. If they prefer design I suggest Interactive Art majors and if they lean towards development I recommend Computer Science degrees. These majors don't offer exactly what the student is looking for but a "line of best fit". I do this for several reasons but the largest being that there are so many core concepts to gain from these fields that apply to the web. It's these concepts that can be so hard to gain on your own from reading a book or shadowing colleagues. Also, the socialization of attending college is also an excellent experience, independent schedule management, working with teams, and meeting others are all benefits of attending. Please understand that I am not saying that it is worth paying all that money simply to learn socialization, but it is an added benefit.

My strongest recommendation to students is to discuss this decision with their parents, family, teachers, and guidance counselors and to make the right decision for them and their family.

I have never regretted attending college, I have a degree in CS and then reformed to teaching. My college degree trained me extensively in my area of expertise and even parlayed nicely into web design and development skills.

So Should You Go?

The answer to this question can't be answered by anyone but you. When preparing this article, I spent a great deal of time deciding whether or not to offer my own opinion. As Nettuts+ has grown and grown, I've had the honor of holding a small bit of influence over some of our younger readers. With that influence comes responsibility. I ultimately determined that the smartest move is to stay in the shadows on this subject.

Having said that, I'll leave you with this: Under no circumstances should you let anyone else decide what's best for you. Ask questions, do research, and then make up your mind. The choice you make will be the correct one...for you.

What's your opinion?

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