Why I’m still getting a degree even though it’s useless

After spending my twenties in a creative field and working jobs to support my “art,” I hit one wall called “the pandemic” and another one called “my thirties” at the same time, which made me consider changing careers.

One coding class and data analysis boot camp later, I’m probing the job market to see that 80% of employers look for a degree or equivalent experience.

Elon Musk says you don’t need to go to college if you’re a genius. Google recruiters follow the trend, saying that college is not essential, but then go ahead and hire only cream of the crop Ivy League graduates. Mixed message much?

Sure, if you build an app or discover a breakthrough technology, people will overlook whether or not you went to college. But if you don’t have any evidence of exceptional achievements, college is the next best thing.

So here I am, 31 years old, thinking about the possibility of getting an online degree.

Online degrees used to be looked down upon by their on-campus counterparts until COVID hit, and respected institutions were forced to adopt the same methods.

I admit it was funny watching those institutions serve their special students the same soup they’d been looking down on for so long. But, of course, the students were disappointed at first:

“I’m going to Harvard. What do you mean I have to take online classes? That’s for veterans and single moms! I am a future leader of this country!”

But then, suddenly, one day, everyone looked around and asked, “Wait, why didn’t we go online sooner?”

My answer is simple: lack of prestige.

When I took cs50, the online Harvard introduction to computer science, last year, I thought, “Wow, I’m getting the same education as these students for free!” What if the whole curriculum were available for free, and I was dedicated to following through with all of it? The only difference would be I wouldn’t get a degree in the end, but our skills would be the same. Would employers care?

They shouldn’t, but they do.

If education’s value is intrinsic and we would all benefit from more education, then degrees should not derive their value from scarcity.

That’s not value — that’s hype. But that doesn’t make them much different than a Supreme hoodie — not really different from a regular hoodie except for the price and there not being many of them out there.

There’s a second aspect that gives on-campus college value — the social experience of it. College is where young people leave home and claim their independence. But I’ve already done my drinking and met my people. So I just want the skills.

When you go to a restaurant, you don’t just pay for the food. The atmosphere, the people — it all makes up the final bill. Sometimes the more “gourmet” a restaurant is, the hungrier you leave. And people are so enamored with the architecture and ambiance that they forget a restaurant is a place to get food. If I pay one-hundredth of what you pay, you might have more fun, but in the end, we get the same nutrition out of it — and it’s the same thing with knowledge.

I want to make sure before I commit four years of my life that college is useful. Truly useful. But I’m afraid that the only reason it makes a difference is that employers who went to college themselves might feel embittered for having undertaken such an expensive feat. Thanks to the free information era, kids these days have a much easier go at it.

If you reject me just because I didn’t go to college, is it because you truly think college makes you a better employee or because I’m not part of your “exclusive” club?

Is getting a job about how well you perform? Then it shouldn’t make a difference.

You could say:

“Stefano, you’re just jealous and bitter ’cause you didn’t go.”

Maybe.

Or maybe our minds are so polluted with the laws of the market and economics that we internalize something scarce as automatically being valuable. But the air is precious. And there’s a lot of air out there — at least, at the time of me writing this.

Education is like air. But a degree is more like gold, in the sense that we all agree it has value because it’s had value for a long time, but nobody really knows why anymore.

Still, I’m getting one. Because if we all agree something has value, it just does. Simple as that. I’ll get an online degree because of the flexibility and the cost. I don’t want to be tied to one place for years. I want in on the remote work revolution. I went into the arts in the first place because I could never imagine my life in an office. But if you can choose where to be, data analysis can be fascinating. It turns out I don’t hate math. I just hated math class. It turns out I can study for hours when I’m at home. It turns out most jobs aren’t bad. It’s the fluorescent light of an office building that’s suffocating, and the dress code. And you can make the office as techy and new wave as you want, with bottomless coffee and bagels — but you can’t fool me. It’s still an office. And an office will never be better than my home. I know that for many people, the office is the only place they socialize. And to those people, I say, I’m sorry. Maybe if you didn’t go to the office, you’d be able to choose your friends.

Comedian studying CS. At the intersection of art and data.