Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Cost of Education (or Computer Science vs Game Development Part II)

I was going to write a tech post this week, really I was, but I got some interesting responses to my last post, so let's continue with that for a moment. Like last time, this is a long post. If you don't want to read it all, skip to the bottom to get to the conclusion and summary.

Last time I wrote about how to determine whether you should pursue a Game Development degree or a degree in Computer Science or some other field, and I got some interesting feedback (though not in the comments section, put comments there, please!). One comment in particular is that I did not factor in the cost of a school vs. the degree you will be obtaining. This is a very important aspect of choosing not only which degree to pursue, but where to obtain said degree. Alright, cost of education vs. the opportunity the education brings, let's break it down.

As is often mentioned by personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, a college education is one of the largest things we will ever purchase and yet one of the things we shop around the least for. We become dead set on going to that dream school regardless of the cost, because we think that getting a degree from that school will open so many more doors and that the high price means that the education we get will totally make up for the cost. This is completely, utterly, and totally incorrect. College is an investment in yourself, that much is true, but your return on investment is not so much dependent on which college you went to as it is on how willing you are to do whatever work it takes to make yourself successful. The amount of work you will need to do to break even on your college investment, however, is a direct function of how much debt you go into for your education and how much you can realistically expect to make when you leave college.

As a side note: If you have the money to pay cash for whatever school you want to attend, you can pretty much skip this post. There are probably better ways to spend your money than going to the most prestigious big name college for your field, but if you can pay cash for it, do whatever you want. I won't fault you for it at all. For the rest of us, pay close attention here. There exist a few companies that actually care what school you went to, but for the greater majority of companies, no one cares where your degree came from. The average job posting for a programming position requests "A degree in Computer Science or equivalent," not "A degree in Computer Science from Harvard or Yale or we're going to pass you up for the guy who has the degree from Harvard." That's simply just not how it works, but it's what we've been taught to believe. That whole myth of "all other things being equal, a company will choose the person who has the degree from the 'better' school." The problem with that myth is that "all other things" are very rarely equal.

I have been in the position of interviewing people for positions several times throughout my career at a few different companies. It generally goes something like this: The HR department weeds out people who have no degree at all and sends me the resumes of people who have degrees in some computer related field. These resumes then end up on my desk where I toss out the ones that have horrible grammar and spelling. I do a cursory glance to see what their degree was in so that I can come up with a few specific interview questions for them if I like the rest of their resume, then I look at their experience , their website, and any code samples they may have given. The thing to note here is that what got them through the door to my eyes was that they had a degree at all, not that they had a Computer Science degree and not that it was from Georgia Tech or some other fancy school. The thing that will get them past my desk and into an interview is either an impressive list of past experience, or a nice website with interesting projects listed. Preferably both.

When I was interviewed for my current position, a position as a Software Developer for a non-gaming company, my degree in Video Game Development was the topic of conversation for all of about 30 seconds. The position called for a degree in "Computer Science or equivalent," they asked how Game Development compared to Computer Science, I explained the things I had learned, and we moved on. I say all of this to make the point that where you go to school is not nearly as important as what you learn while you are there. More expensive schools do not necessarily teach you more. Most of the knowledge I have I gained outside of the classroom. Wherever you choose to go to school, you should plan on doing lots of outside study and using the time you have in college to its fullest to learn as much as you can and make yourself as impressive as you possibly can within your chosen industry.

That said, shop around for college! Yes, going to a school like Full Sail or DigiPen may be your dream, but truth be told, those schools are expensive. Unless you can pay cash, or you are willing to sacrifice a few years of your life after college repaying your student loans (or you don't mind having a $600/mo loan payment over your head for 30 years), go somewhere else. That's right, I just told you not to go to my alma mater, because if you can't afford it, what you will gain does not justify the cost. This goes for degrees in Computer Science or anything else for that matter. If you can't pay cash for your education and you don't want to lose a few years of your life paying back loans, either choose a cheaper school or stop and work for a while to save up the cash to go to your school of choice. You will thank yourself for it later. Rarely does life go perfectly as planned, and I know many people who have ended up in very stressful positions due to hiccups in life compounded with student loans. Don't forget, student loans are not bankrupt-able and will follow you to the grave, stealing money directly from your paycheck if you do not pay them.

Conclusion / Summary:
Anyhow, this is getting long. Moral of the story: the price of the college you attend should be a major factor in choosing where you go to study. If this means you need to go to a local university and major in Computer Science rather than Game Development, that is okay. As I said before, the industry is much more about what you know and who you know than what degree you hold. That is part of what makes the computer industry so great. An impressive portfolio will trump a degree from a prestigious school any day. Just my two cents. As usual, leave a comment or two in the comment section if you like this or have anything to add to the discussion.


  1. Brief and to the point. You may think these posts are long, but I feel they are the right length and enjoyable to read throughout. Keep em comeing!


  2. Super short summary. Student loans suck. More debt does not mean more success. Good post Rob! Now I need to go make a student loan payment...

  3. Saving would have been nice. So much money can be saved by being patient and planning ahead, rather than plunging forward to have things immediately.

  4. @Aaron - Thanks!

    @Brandon & Seth - If only I knew then what I know now. Hopefully this can inspire someone not to take out more loans...

  5. my son is still in high school. He is interested in programming for the gaming industry. He is a sophomore and taking AP programming. Your posts are very helpful to me, the mom. And no they are not too long.

  6. Awesome, thanks for the input!

  7. I think that reson why so many young people are willing to take massive loans on thier heads, is because they see universities with degree in game development as straightfoward path to the game industry, as easy way to acquire all necessary knowledge to be good game developer. An i fear that this may not be true...

  8. Oh yeah. One for all my homies still paying off their school loans! 4 years later. Not enough raises in the world can cure what should have been house savings!