back to article Compsci degrees aren't returning on investment for coders – research

University in the UK has never been more expensive. But at least doing a computer science degree guarantees a nice fat, well-paid job at the end, right? Wrong. Coders with a bachelor's degree only earn £3,000 more a year than those who don't have one, according to a survey of 4,700 developers in the UK by Stack Overflow, a …

Mushroom

Peak Code Monkey

This just means the market is saturated with wannabe hipster coders, learning web based languages.

Couple that with the UK and the US either offshoring code to places like India, Vietnam, Phillipines etc while also importing masses of H1B type coders.. no wonder the pay scale is in the toilet.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

No. It means (unfortunately) that most software development doesn't need the skills that CS teaches. Although we praise rockstar developers for writing amazing code, most dev just isn't that.

Google may need (a few) algorithm developers, but Tesco needs maybe 10 geniuses. For the rest, most won't need to use spanning tree even once in their careers.

And writing clean code is a practical skill, not a taught one.

As a (former) hiring manager, a degree on the Cv is *only* shorthand for "not as thick as two short planks". And I can pick that up in a coding test at interview.

I actually *prefer* people who aren't going to bore me incessantly with their apparently limitless "knowledge" of secure coding paradigms

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Peak Code Monkey

"It means (unfortunately) that most software development doesn't need the skills that CS teaches."

Indeed, I took a CS degree purely for it to add to my CV.

True I learned some interesting stuff while studying,but only because I chose a CS degree with interesting stuff (AI and Robotics).

How much of my degree have I used in work? Nothing of significance.

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FAIL

Re: Peak Code Monkey

Anyone can write code. My company hires people who have demonstrated they know how to think, and have the skills to do so. That generally has resulted in hiring people with Physics, Math, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering degrees. CS? Not so much, as anyone with those other degrees can, if they don't already know, learn to code very well in a matter of weeks. But teaching a CS grad about math or science? That could take years.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

I don't know where you went to school, but I had to take math and physics courses to get my Comp Sci degree.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

I think it's more a factor of the amount of development that's web-based now than anything else. Front-end web development accounts for a large amount of that JavaScript demand. Combine that with HTML-based mobile app platforms and you're covering most of it. Some people are using JavaScript for server-side scripting too, primarily using Node.JS, but it's not a huge segment at this point.

It's more of a move towards web development than"hipster coders". If you value your future in this industry you need to make sure you web skills are up to date. If you're retiring in 10 years or less you can probably ignore it. I'm too young to ignore it.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

Developers who are working without a degree are often the rare, self-taught individual who can acquire similar knowledge elsewhere. If the study factored in the income of those looking to work as a developer, but have neither skills nor a degree, I think we'd see a bigger difference.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

Anyone can write code, but few people can develop proven correct software. History and law graduates have learned how to think, but few possess math skills. On the other hand, a STEM cell often can't spell very well.

The interesting jobs go to CS majors, the best-paying ones to management.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

It is true that compsci is generally a canonball which is often applied where a fly swatter is better suited. If you're making web pages for a site with 200 unique visitors a day, compsci has little to offer. If you're coding the home page of Amazon or EBay, compsci is critical. One inefficient algorithm can cost millions on hardware and power costs.

Product development... for example when a developer at Google working on Chrome chooses a linked list when a balanced tree would be better has an impact measured in stock markets because faster processors and possibly more memory would be needed on hundreds of millions of PCs. Exabytes of storage would be consumed. Landfills get filled with replaced parts. Power grids get loaded. Millions of barrels of crude are burned, shipping prices increase, etc...

What is written above may sound like an exaggeration, but a telephone which loses a hour of battery life because of bad code may consume another watt per phone per day. Consider that to scale to a billion devices running that software each day. A badly placed if statement which configured a video encoder to perform rectangular vs. diamond pattern motion search could affect 50-100 million users each day.

Consider the cost of a CPU bug.... if Intel or ARM are forced to issue a firmware patch for a multiplication bug, rerouting the function from an optimized pyramid multiplier to a stacked 9-bit multiplier core located in on-chip FPGA will increase power consumption by 1-5 watts on a billion or more devices.

Some of these problems are measured in gigawatts or terawatts of load on power grids driving up commodity prices in markets spanning from power to food.

So... you're right. Compsci isn't so important in most programmer jobs. But in others, the repercussions can be globally disasterous.

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

"I actually *prefer* people who aren't going to bore me incessantly with their apparently limitless "knowledge" of secure coding paradigms"

not to mention functional programming, or being expert in niche

languages with little uptake or support networks *without* being particularly familiar in basics like

C, C++, Python, Java etc...

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Re: Peak Code Monkey

"Anyone can code"

No, not really.

"Not so much, as anyone with those other degrees can, if they don't already know, learn to code very well in a matter of weeks."

Even more, not really.

I'm not too bad as a coder (been employed doing it for the last 30 years with no gaps), and I learn something new almost every day. Although I do have a CS degree, it's hasn't been used to a huge extent, but has come in useful. But compared to how I started out I am SO much better now. And that only comes with doing to job for years. So, no, you cannot learn to code well "in a matter of weeks", unless your bar for decent code is really quite low.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Anyone can learn to code very well in a matter of weeks

Management types and sales people like to imagine anyone can code. In truth, they probably think any simian, and possibly dogs and dolphins, can code. While happily claiming that their own skill is some magical, innate ability that can't be taught. Bullshit. I've worked with more than a few CS graduates who couldn't code well, and simply didn't have the basic mental tools to ever be able to.

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More!

> Average student debt is now more than £50,000, according the Institute of Fiscal Studies

And when you factor in the 3 years the degree course takes, when you could have been earning instead of studying - and gaining experience, so at age 21 you have 3 years experience instead of none, the "loss" is even greater.

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Re: More!

All well and good if you can get a job without the degree but when I went to uni to get my degree it was because no bugger would even invite me to interview without one.

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Re: More!

I believe it's not a new idea to both study and earn money simultaneously.

"Gaining experience" is a problem only for really-blinkered HR departments who don't consider 3 years of intensive, controlled, assessed, study at a registered university as "experience". To be honest, in my experience, having a degree and less years of experience pays more and gets more jobs (and gets them easier) than all the people without a degree but "years of experience". In fact, it often costs those other people their jobs when I turn up and say "Why the hell are you still doing that?"

A degree proves that people can learn, learn fast, learn complicated things, learn boring things, learn things that they don't necessarily have any interest in at all, and then retain them. That's a skill that cannot be assessed in the workplace easily. It barely matters what subject they studied either.

I've known people who've been "in industry for decades" who actually don't have the first clue about what they're doing. It's generally those people who don't WANT to learn. I've been in IT for nearly 20 years and observed that people with that experience or more without the benefit of a degree are very prescriptive in their processes and systems and unwilling to change and unaware of what's possible, and inflexible and unable to do research and change their ways of working to reflect new practices.

It's a generalisation, yes, but it's certainly present.

In terms of career progression, I've never been hindered by my three years "out". In fact, at least two job interviews have explicitly flagged it as an advantage over other contractors / employees / candidates. Even over candidates with industry certifications coming out of their ears (I've actually run into MANY places that hate industry certifications after having relied on them with new staff only to discover they weren't suitable at all - note: I have no industry certifications, just my degree).

Am I a genius with a first from Cambridge? About as far from it as is possible, in fact.

Am I applying to high-end jobs at the top end of academia? No, I manage the IT for schools.

Do I earn above the average for people in my position? Yes. In fact, I refuse to unionise because it would mean all kinds of problems, and one London Borough had to create a salary category just for myself at the insistence of a headmaster.

I've met very few people whose degree was worthless to them. And you don't just get a degree "to get a better job". That's about the worst reasoning EVER. If you go into it expecting that, you'll almost certainly be disappointed but not because of the degree, it's the way of thinking "I have a degree, therefore pay me more" is wrong. It's "I can show you that I can do this better, because I can learn how to, here's proof that I can learn" at best.

I've met orders of magnitude more people that regret not having studied when they were going to have it part-financed, when their expenditure and financial obligations were minimal, when they didn't have families, when they could couch-surf to save money without it feeling wrong. Hands up who has taken 3 years out of their career to go back to uni? Now compare to those who went to uni when the natural opportunity presented itself after school instead?

P.S. My degree is in mathematics. I've literally never needed to use the subject. It comes in handy knowing the subject, for everything from binary to programming, path-finding to balancing a department budget. But I've never NEEDED to have use of the subject. That's NOT why you get a degree. And a career in any kind of finance, etc. would be my worst nightmare, I'm afraid. I studied maths because I had a massive interest in it and it came easy, but it's a purely academic pursuit. I work in IT because I have a massive interest in it and it came easy, and can be used to earn me money.

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Re: More!

@ Cronus

Bob on. I ended up doing my full time degree while working for free developing for a small business. When we left uni it took my friends months up to a year to get various jobs (not all IT) while I was luckier.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: More!

I didn't get a degree.

I can apportion blame between poor teacher and poor student - both were to blame. In the end though, it's focused me to work damn hard at what I do. I'm good at what I do, and in the end I don't feel that not having the degree has held me up.

To tell you the truth, I'm considering going back to do it part-time. That's only because I want to prove to myself that I can than any employment difficulty or disadvantage.

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Re: More!

"All well and good if you can get a job without the degree but when I went to uni to get my degree it was because no bugger would even invite me to interview without one."

It's all about planning, isn't it?

Work hard at school, identify your strengths. If one of them is engineering, start making stuff at home because when you go to interview for an apprenticeship at RR or Quinetic, there's a lot of competition.

Or be like our neighbour's son who is good at business studies and maths and has gone straight to a job on the career path at a bank. He's been preparing the ground for 2 years.

This is the secret middle class advantage - telling their kids why they need to work at school, encouraging them, and then watching them either going to U to do the best paying jobs - law, engineering, dentistry, medicine, maths, physics - or getting onto the career ladder early.

If people think of comp sci as a bit like doing a degree in botany, they might be more realistic. Very few farmers have degrees in botany, important as it is for farming.

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Re: More!

@Lee D

Spot on. the old man worked for BT for 30+ years as a developer. He was involved in interviewing new hires.

BT cared not what your degree was in, just that you had one (as it proves you can learn, as you said). they then showed you how they wanted things done.

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Re: More!

"bugger would even invite"

And there is the rub - the more people have degrees the more mandatory and worthless they become.

About half the population are doomed to wasting most of 3 years the 30k quid because stupid (mostly politician) twats think everyone deserves and will benefit from degree level education.

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Re: More!

"it proves you can learn"

3 years and 30k quid to prove you can learn - bargain.

Personally I think someone mostly wasting 3 years and 30k quid just to prove they can learn has proved themselves to be an idiot lacking aspiration and imagination.

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Re: More!

3 years? What kind of half assed comp sci degree is that? It's no wonder I run in to new grads that don't actually know how a computer works.

Back in the stone age when I did my degree we had to cover everything from programming on bare metal in assembler, all your typical data structures and algorithms, CPU architecture, write an OS almost from scratch including virtual memory, shell, file system etc. and on to the fun stuff like 3D graphics.

And no, Unity and Blender did not exist then, everything had to be implemented from the ground up starting with drawing a point and designing and implementing your own scene graph. And the results could be near photorealistic if you could get 8 hours of time free on the shared mini-computer to render at maximum quality. That's 8 hours for ONE image, not video, and at only 640x480 resolution.

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Re: More!

You were lucky!

When I was at University , we had to get up at 5am, build us own mini computer out of peanuts and shoeboxes , code our own OS every day because there was no storage ,then render our own 8x8 images on the slide tile display and midnight the tutor would beat us to sleep in our dorms.

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Re: More!

3 years is the standard length of an undergraduate degree in the UK. Note that all of that time is spent studying comp sci (or history, or whatever the degree is in) - we don't have minors, electives, general ed or anything like that, you only study your subject.

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Re: More!

"If people think of comp sci as a bit like doing a degree in botany, they might be more realistic."

Cough. My degree is in botany.

When I finally moved into IT after a good deal of lab computing and "if you want a program to do that, write it yourself" I ended up on a team consisting or a botanist, a zoologist, a geologist and a recent comp sci grad. The latter actually wanted to be an astronomer.

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Re: More!

Yes we do. I did Computing Science with a subsidiary in Japanese Language and a minor in Education, Stirling University, 1987-1990.

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Megaphone

inDIA churns

out more grads in a year than we do in 20 years , admittedly not all their degrees are great, but ..

When google etc decied where to have r+D they look for a highly skilled workforce who can speak english, a low tax rate and a good rule of law. Thats why we need so many grads , its to have the spare capacity to keep wage rates down to attract worlwide comapnys like BLockFACE Apull Gargle SPitter and their like....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: More!

"..beat us to sleep..."

You got to sleep?

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Re: More!

All well and good if you can get a job without the degree

That is why they offer degrees in football boot lacing and cake decoration. Or, do like Dr Paisley, Sr and buy one off the Internet.

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Re: More!

I did assembler too, on 320 x 240, in the snow, with no shoes, and it was uphill both ways.

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Re: More!

Indeed, and the degree thing can put people on rails to a certain degree. I bailed from my degree after the 2nd year (Combined Physics and Computing) got on an AS/400 operators course, and got a job. Got more jobs, in the middle of that was 14 years at IBM, so the career did OK, whereas some of the guys on my course didn't secure relevant jobs as graduates, and ended up retraining as teachers, so had to do yet another year of study.

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Well, in UK if you are searching for a job most of the companies require at least an undergrad degree. The ones without having one needs to prove themselves with Portfolios or something I guess. You just cannot apply for roles based on online courses. Both require effort and hardwork in the end.

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Not necessarily

There are a few who are trying the apprentice-ship route to pick up people who can code before university. I personally found that quite entertaining - sure, you get a good code monkey, but without the knowledge of fundamentals like functional analysis, fsms, graph theory, probability and stats, etc. Not that the recent crop of "industry oriented" CS degrees do that anyway.

I decided that instead of explaining this to junior, I will simply buy "The Profession" by Isaac Asimov and let him read it to figure out the explanation himself. Pity there have been no reprints since the 70-es (I had to shell out 20 quid to an antique book seller).

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Re: Not necessarily

" you get a good code monkey, but without the knowledge of fundamentals like functional analysis, fsms, graph theory, probability and stats, etc. Not that the recent crop of "industry oriented" CS degrees do that anyway. "

AKA mortgaging the future for short-term profit.

Why did we give in to the companies and turn a degree into a 3 or 4 year training course for the first few years of employment, at the cost that now our grads don't have the skills to innovate?

A CS grad should be able to innovate and apply principles -- the goal of CS isn't to create infinite code monkeys.

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Don't bother

Unless you love coding lots, don't bother looking for a dev job as the pay is dismal for hours / mental difficulty of the job and often unrealistic timescales .

Plenty of jobs requiring shorter hours, far less brain taxing and pay huge amounts more.

And for all those JS "coders", quick hint, when a user visits your over scripted web site with JavaScript disabled, they should still see content and be able to see and follow links: website JS should be for nice optional extra improvement, basic web site display / links should work with JS disabled (I don't want malware so my default for a new (so non white-listed site) is JS disabled)

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Unhappy

Re: Don't bother

Amen.

Programming sucks, enjoy your burn out in the late 20s.. (*scans through the gray hairs on my colleagues noggins*) Only interesting thing I could imagine being some kind of academic data analysis related job and that wont be easy to find.

And those salaries numbers are useless unless they say the 'where'. Game dev in Hull you might be on <=30k but live like a king.

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Re: Don't bother - Programming sucks...

Scripting sucks, programming is still interesting. Working on IoT stuff (for example), the interesting bit is programming the microcontrollers, RF stacks, embedded Linux data consolidators and debugging the I2C humidity sensor that won't work because the pull up resistors are too small. That's programming.

There is also a (PWA) front end based on Angular 2/4/Bootstrap with a Node/Redis back end. That's scripting. Tedious and error prone due to the imbecility of the shoddily typed language (even with TypeScript) and the embarrassingly bad tooling (yes, I'm looking at you Webpack).

I wrote all of it and only the first half was fun, the second half was: "I remember this! (async event queue in Node). Win16 co-op multi-tasking with. What? Nested callbacks? Wow! Blast from the past. What's next? Punched cards?".

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Re: Don't bother

"Game dev in Hull you might be on <=30k but live like a king."

Ummm, 'ull? given the choice between being king there (granted 30k would buy you a mansion, but you'll need security guards) and doing minimum wage somewhere more desirable ..... not that I left for a reason, you understand.

How much of this comes down to the fact CS degrees are no guarantee whatsoever of actual ability to work in this industry, particularly coding? I've worked with many excellent and many awful coders, I never found having a degree to be that good a correlation. In fact, I'd say, most of the competent (and better) coders I've been with have had degrees, but not in CS.

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Re: Don't bother

Tell that to Tom Francis. Who had no coding experience but was teaching himself Game Maker. Left his job as a Games Journalist and concentrated on Gunpoint full time. Release it and it became a big success.

So it's not all bad.

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@tiggity re. all those JS coders

You should know the JS boom today is largely about the server side development (node.js) and your condescending attitude tells more about you than the level of expertise found in that field today.

Not that I'd touch JavaScript with a 10-foot pole myself.

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Re: Don't bother

"Left his job as a Games Journalist and concentrated on Gunpoint full time. Release it and it became a big success."

Yes, but for every example like that there's 20,000 failed projects rusting in a bin, or which make it to completion and then sell <1000 copies. From which the publisher takes 70%+ for the profit margin.

Games development is a shitty job. You have all the downsides of a regular programming gig, get paid about a third less, and there's even less job security. It's one of the most exploitative industries out there.

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Re: @tiggity re. all those JS coders

"your condescending attitude"

I don't find it condescending at all. In fact I find the attitude that I have to open up my browser to any Tom Dick and Harry's code that the site developer wants, simply in order to view the visual marvels that he (thinks) he's provided. Well, I'm not playing that game. NoScript is part of my security set-up and if anybody thinks they're important enough for me turn that off then I have to disagree.

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Re: @tiggity re. all those JS coders

Hmm, I've been coding for over 35 years, still enjoy it, now earn in the top 10% (countrywide) working for the third biggest computer company (by sales) worldwide on really interesting stuff.

So being a dev isn't all bad. You just need to be good at it and find a decent job!

We have interns in who are VERY bright, even at age 18 they are well worth paying well. They could walk in to a job here no problem - and have. Helps being in Cambridge I suppose, with a good catchment.

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Re: Don't bother

I agree with the OP. I want my kids to be able to program and to understand what is involved and how to go about solving problems but in no way do I want them to be programmers. Programming is a means to an end. Make sure you are on the value adding solution providing side of the equation as someone who gets things done and not the rapidly commoditised code to a spec segment. Your pay packet will be a lot fuller and you will be perceived as being of greater worth, for better or worse.

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Apprenticeship

IT seems like an obvious choice for the new apprenticeship schemes.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Apprenticeship

I saw a poster outside the local Jobcentre the other day saying over a lifetime a skilled apprentice will earn MORE than a Uni grad.

Times have change a lot since I was young, but I left school at 16 and earned around the modern equivalent of about £100,000 by they time they finished Uni. That's a lot to catch up.

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Selection bias

The survey presumably doesn't include all the people who work in Greggs* because their CVs went in the bin of employers who demanded graduates. That would leave a cohort of non-graduates whose skills/aptitudes are good enough to get them through the door.

Hang on, it's more confusing than that:

"It found that 48 per cent of developers with less than four years of professional experience currently hold a Computer Science-related undergraduate degree, while 49 per cent had completed an online course instead."

What about the people who had a degree not-in-Compsci and not-online? Is that really only 3%?

Smells fishy to me.

* I've nothing against people working in Greggs, I'm just being flippant.

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Still seems worth it

£3k extra a year on £50k debt means a little over 16 years to break even. The average person will work for something like 40 years, so it's simply not true that a compsci degree doesn't return on the investment. It may take longer to pay off than it used to, and some may not consider the up-front debt to be worth the eventual payoff, but that doesn't make it correct to claim the payoff doesn't exist at all.

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Re: Still seems worth it

Also, it may be that grads are more likely than non-grads to get higher up the food chain rather than staying as a coder all their life, but the survey doesn't investigate that.

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Re: Still seems worth it

Aye - it would be useful to know if the people with the "online course instead" had English degrees or something. They may well still have the university debt, just not in a Comp-sci degree.

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