I have been an active professional software developer (mostly utilizing .NET) for the past five years and, without being too full of myself, I would say I'm a very competent developer. I stay intimately up to date with the latest tools, the industry, and modern standards/practices. I work for a fairly high-level IT company and I swing just fine with the rest of them. I am even up to date on the latest team dynamic methodologies and feel like I have good leadership/management/people skills.

However, I never got my degree. I learned and am learning everything I know on my own from hundreds of books and experiences. I ran my own software company for a while until it took a big hit from the economy a year or so ago. It took a LONG time and A LOT of applications, but I finally found the job I have now.

Like an idiot I dropped out of college to forgo paying more tuition and I started my company and as life goes, I now wish I had stayed and got the degree. I have student loans that are in default and I'm working my hind end off to pay off those debts now that I am making a fair amount of money again.

I have hit too many ceilings without this degree. For one, I will never make as much as someone with the same level of knowledge and experience, but also has a degree. Also, the amount of effort it took to get a job in the industry without a degree was exhausting and depressing.

Now I am wondering what the best way for me to go about getting my degree is?

  1. Are there online schools that would offer this degree?
  2. Would an online school even be a good choice?
  3. Would my knowledge and experience in the industry help me finish schooling faster/cheaper?
  4. Have any of you ever found yourself in a similar position? If so, how did you overcome all the barriers put in front of you?
  5. Have any of you ever had student loans in default and tried to go back to school later? How did you deal with that and how did it affect you?
  • What does your original school suggest you do? – user1249 Jun 3 '11 at 23:49
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    I am in nearly identical situation. I have been programming since early youth, I speak fluently in Python, JavaScript and C++, and am literate in Scheme, OCaml, PHP and PERL (etc). I dropped out of college because of health problems. Just today I had to decline job offer (as a html coder...) for pay comparable to that of unskilled manual worker... I was starting to think that I will have to work as one. However, as I read your question, I resolved that I won't give up that easily. Thanks. – cji Jun 4 '11 at 22:01
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    This question would be best suited for Professional Matters which is now in the commitment phase. – Jim G. Dec 28 '11 at 8:40
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    @Jake117 you've omitted a key piece of information: which country are you in? – MattDavey Jan 17 '12 at 10:06
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    I believe you first need to get those loans out of default, I'd doubt anyone will give you another until they are. – HLGEM Jan 17 '12 at 18:35
  1. There are several, but you will want to check their accreditation first. Also look at local schools to see if they offer correspondence or a flex-student program (one near my some colleagues have done where they can attend class or do it online depending on schedules that week).

  2. I got my BS from an online school (already had an associates'), with my experience it seemed a good fit, and I have not had issues with it. Online is also a very independent study, it is often much harder to get help (though email/phone is usually an option) and you do need to be honest with yourself that you will be self-motivated enough to get stuff done since most of the classes will be more self-paced week to week and is easy for some people to behind (my brother-in-law struggled with this, though he had a 4.0 in his onsite classes), it is not for everyone.

  3. I am not sure about cheaper/faster, but you may be able to test out of some classes, though that is rare. I did find that I could handle more programming classes at once because they were a lot easier for me than those that were just being introduced to the subjects.

  4. I was able to complete my 4-year with the birth of 2 kids, my mother-in-law dying and a full-time job. If you are committed, you can do it. I was amazed how much better focused I was than I had been when I was younger.

  5. Sorry, cannot answer that.

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It sounds like you are concerned about increasing income. That is, the purpose of having the degree is to have a piece of paper that will help you get past perceived ceilings (the existence of which I don't accept, but that's a whole 'nother issue). If that's the case, a degree may not be the best route. You may be completely missing the forest for the diploma tree. You are focused on increasing salary from a single job when instead you should focus on increasing your total income. Besides, the biggest benefit of having that degree - getting you to your first job - has already passed you by since you have been there/done that. So the bang for the buck you'd get is already diminished.

Alternatively, consider taking all that time and effort you would have spent getting a degree and instead focusing on additional income streams. Create a side business, buy some rental property, investing, etc. You are obviously entrepreneurial, so I think that's probably your best route.

There are significant downsides to going back to college for a undergrad degree when you are already an established professional:

  • you don't know if you will complete it this time (you obviously didn't like it the first go around, so what makes you think you will this time?). If you don't, you just flushed away all that tuition.
  • it costs a lot of money
  • the increase in salary you'd see given that you are already an experienced developer would be minimal, if it exists. IMO, you've already taken the difficult route.
  • You might be able to get that same increase in salary by simply switching jobs. Not every employer cares about your degree, especially when you have a lot of experience. It might simply be easier and quicker to find one that values a person more for their skills than for their paper trail.

I'm not saying don't go back to school, but rather consider what your actual end goal is here and then consider your broader options.

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    Very good points. I agree with you wholeheartedly about a lot of what you said, including your distaste for the degree-centric world. However, despite how much I hate it, the fact of the matter is that I need the degree to even get phone calls from potential employers 99% of the time. I can only say that I'm a lot more disciplined than I was 5 or 6 years ago when I went to school. I feel that I would complete it this time around if I did it. But you might be right. Diversifying my income is probably the best route to go down. – Jake117 Jun 3 '11 at 22:14
  • I guess I just have such a bad taste in my mouth after my last foray into the entrepreneurial lifestyle. But then again, that experience would definitely only serve to help me the second time around. Try try again right? This is something to consider. In the long run starting another company would be far cheaper than school and I could do it on the side. – Jake117 Jun 3 '11 at 22:15
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    Yeah, this is actually a good point. How else could you expend the same energy (and maybe less $$) to advance your tech career? Could you contribute to an open source, popular, project? Could you create one from scratch? That's a great way to establish a strong reputation among programmers. Instead of saying "I have a B.S. from so-so-so-state-university", your resume says "I'm the principal author of LibTurtleExtreme, the popular javascript e-commerce engine!". That could advance your career much more. – Stephen Gross Jan 17 '12 at 21:07

Here in Belgium and the Netherlands we have something called the open university. It's a collaboration between different universities and certain grades, like computer science, can be obtained from it.

You get your curriculum, information about the courses and the books you need to know for them and every time you learned a course, you just call to make an appointment to make the exam (two weeks beforehand). So in that way, you can do it as fast or as slow as you like. There aren't a lot of people doing this, most are just going to the "real" university, but it's a perfect solution if you're in your situation.

It's specially designed for adults who still want to obtain a degree and I think it's a great initiative.

I don't know where you live exactly, but maybe there are other initiatives like these where you are from? Over here the cost is really reasonable, I don"t think they charge more than normal students ($900 dollars a year if you include books, tuition, ...) but I'm afraid that it's a lot more expensive where you are from.

Apparently its origin lies in the UK and can be followed and is accredited by the United States. I don't know how expensive it is, but you can find more info on the wikipedia page or the official homepage.

It's something that I might do later too. I do business engineering now, but I really would like a computer science degree too.

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  • $900 per year? Wow, I want to move to Brussels! – Stephen Gross Jan 17 '12 at 21:08

First, understand that the old-fashioned in-residence degree, involving in-person lectures and labs and tests, is going to carry more weight than almost any "online" degree. If you actually suck it up and go back to school full-time to finish it, that will carry a LOT of weight with recruiters down the road.

Second, understand that you've learned some things about maturity and meeting schedule that the other undergraduates may not have learned yet. This will put you ahead of the curve on schoolwork.

Start by talking with the college/university you left. Find out whether you are eligible for readmission. Find out whether you can get any kind of credit for work experience and independent learning since you left school. (It never hurts to ask. If they say "no", you've lost at most a few minutes. If they say "yes", you've won.)

Figure out what you still have to do to graduate under your old degree plan, or under the current plan. Write a pro forma plan.

Look at other degree options at the same university. I once met a girl who'd changed her undergraduate major 13 times, and wound up a Hindi major, because, at that point, that carried the shortest path to graduation. Check with other departments, and see if they'll give credit for independent learning or life experience.

If you're talking to a private college or university, it can't hurt to ask about direct admission into a Masters program, or a dual Bachelor's/Masters's unified program, if they have one. You may find that the professors enjoy having someone around who has Been There And Done That.

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Get a degree outside of the computer science realm. Do something you enjoy so that you have a future in that market. If you really enjoy software, then go there. If you want to be management, logistics, or whatever, get a degree there.

Take a real serious look into whether you want to be a coder and/or what kind of coder you want to be. If you're happy with web-apps/whatever, latest trends, then that's where to put your effort.

I agree with the sentiment that if all you want is a piece of paper, then go to the cheapest accredited institute you can find. But remember, my wife who has a degree from an Ivory League school has more open doors than I do with my basic (smaller/unknown) state school degree

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