Do College Degrees Matter for Software Engineers? Maybe

Do College Degrees Matter for Software Engineers? Maybe

This post is an excerpt from my 2020 software developer pay analysis. Read the rest of the analysis here.

Coding bootcamps say the traditional model of education is broken and that anyone can become a software developer with the proper effort.

Further, they claim that traditional institutions aren’t incentivized to ensure their graduates get hired post-school.

Regardless of your views, these claims ignore an important question: let’s say you get the job — will you earn less as a software developer without a college degree?

Yes, but it’s not as bad as you might think

Developers with college degrees earn 7.5% more than developers with no college education.

As in previous analyses, I additionally control for various observable factors like age, experience, hours worked, size of employer, programming languages and more. Interestingly, accounting for these factors doesn’t change the college wage premium.

Advanced degrees carry greater benefits — master’s degree holders earn 13.3% more than college degree holders, while those with doctoral degrees (i.e. PhDs) earn 20.5% more. These numbers decrease meaningfully though once I add in the controls I mentioned above, falling to 4.1% and 7.8% respectively.

Is this a big deal?

Now, a 7.5% college degree advantage is nothing to scoff at.

But 7.5% is tiny relative to the college wage premium earned by the public at large.

A review of the evidence around higher education shows that the college wage premium is much higher for the overall population. In my favorite study on this topic, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show that, controlling for age and level of degree (college vs. graduate), college graduates earn ~50% more than non-graduates (the data is similar for other ethnicities):

So the college degree wage premium for software developers is much smaller than the broader population benefit. This is not that surprising — income variation within careers is typically much narrower than across careers.

Getting the gig

Of course, this all assumes you get the job in the first place.

It doesn’t matter how much a college degree impacts one’s earnings as a software developer if not having one effectively locks you out of the career.

It’s hard to judge how true this is. If you believe the hype around Lambda School and other bootcamp programs, a college degree is not necessarily a barrier to becoming a software developer. Realistically, few people without a college degree bother to pursue software engineering, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t if they put their mind to it.

If bootcamps and other alternative forms of education can successfully train and place students in legitimate software engineering roles, then a college degree might not be required.

I think the jury is still out. Recent media reports have not been kind to coding bootcamps like Lambda. Then again, anecdotes may not represent the full story. For now, only the schools themselves have the data to prove their own efficacy.

That said, we can finally put some numbers behind the claim that college degrees don’t matter for software engineers. They matter, but not much, assuming you can get hired as a developer. Once in the seat, your degree matters much less than other factors, like on the job performance, competence, etc.