Why a College Degree is No Longer Necessary for IT Success

Who needs student debt? A growing number of employers are hiring IT pros with little or no college experience.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

March 29, 2023

4 Min Read
graduation cap surrounded by question marks
bdavid32 via Alamy Stock

In a field like IT, where talent, creativity, and teamwork are prized attributes, a college degree is increasingly viewed as unnecessary by a growing number of hiring managers.

James Stanger, chief technology evangelist with CompTIA, a non-profit trade association that issues professional IT certifications, claims that it's rare for any IT job to actually require a college degree. “Organizations as large as Google, and governments from Japan to the United States and elsewhere have started dropping the four-year degree requirement for many technical job roles,” he notes.

The last thing any organization should do is limit the pools of talented workers in consideration due to the lack of degree, says Kirsten Renner, senior recruiting lead, national security portfolio, at consulting firm Accenture Federal Services. “That's an archaic way of thinking.”

Going Degree-less

Stanger says he's seen “terrific workers” transition into job roles in cloud management, data analytics, technical support, security analytics, and security governance without first earning a degree. “High-end data science job roles warrant a college degree, but in most cases, a college degree is largely unnecessary,” he notes.

Renner agrees. “Some the most talented, brilliant technical professionals I know … who are currently leading top tech research roles and holding executive positions at prestigious organizations, do not have degrees,” she says. “Smart organizations recognized their talent; their success speaks for itself.”

With many IT skills, including software development and data science, it’s important for learners to gain hands-on experiences where they're practicing and applying their skills in real-time, observes Mike Hendrickson, vice president of tech and dev products at educational technology firm Skillsoft. “Many online learning platforms provide interactive, flexible training solutions that meet people where they are, whether they're learning independently or within their organization.”

Hendrickson believes that online training can be far more efficient than a four-year college program. “Another benefit is this training can be tailored to company-specific or industry-focused content and solutions, so learners can practice and apply their skills to real work environments and scenarios,” he explains.

Building Inclusiveness

Businesses, non-profit organizations, and government agencies worldwide are re-defining what it means to build a diverse workplace. “Part of that re-definition involves investigating how to best verify the skills that a human being has,” Stanger says. “As organizations work on a more nuanced, sophisticated dialogue with their workforces, they’re realizing that certifications are a more inclusive way to upskill people.”

With IT skills training growing increasingly accessible and affordable, the door is opening for individuals from various backgrounds to equip themselves with software development, infrastructure, data science, cybersecurity, and other sought-after talents, Hendrickson says. “Many organizations are moving toward skill-based hiring and placing less emphasis on college degrees when evaluating candidates, opening the door for job applicants with non-traditional backgrounds to launch and grow their careers.” He notes that the World Economic Forum is supporting this concept, predicting that skills, not degrees, will shape the future of work.

Marissa Lara, senior vice president for human resources at consumer financial services firm Synchrony, reports that her firm has removed a college degree requirement from 90% of its positions. “We are increasingly finding ways to support our internal employees who want to grow their careers in lieu of going back to school,” she explains. “Apprenticeship and career exchange programs are proving to be invaluable tools to upskill our employees in-house.”

Learning Paths

There are many ways to acquire IT skills, Lara says. Leading options include certification programs as well as the tech bootcamps offered by many local colleges and universities -- without the commitment or expense of a degree program.

Renner, meanwhile, is a strong believer in learning while working. “Many leaders in our industry find that apprenticeships, fellowships, and internships aren't just great ways to learn hands-on, but often offer more relevant knowledge than most collegiate programs,” she says.

Confidence Counts

The most crippling obstacle for people entering IT is the confidence gap, Stanger says. “That gap exists for potential employees as well as the folks hiring them,” he explains. Hiring managers are experiencing a confidence gap because tech is evolving rapidly while becoming increasingly integrated into everyday business activities. “It’s difficult for them to keep their technologies mapped to business needs.”

Many IT newcomers, meanwhile, lack confidence because they often don't know where to begin learning. “It’s hard to start experimenting with tech when you're overwhelmed by all the possibilities,” Stanger says. His advice: Narrow down the options and seek hands-on experience.

The Commitment

Anyone who decides to work in a technology role implicitly agrees to become a lifelong learner, given the constant and rapid pace of tech innovation, Hendrickson says. “So, organizations need to make a similar commitment to their tech staff and provide the learning opportunities necessary for a successful career.”

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About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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