College Game Plan

Skip college? It can pay off—big time

Lindsay Levine
Source: Lindsay Levine

Lindsay Levine lasted only a year at a traditional four-year college, despite a strong interest in computer science. "I wanted to do more in practice than theory," she said.

After dropping out, Levine found Fullstack Academy, a coding boot camp based in New York, and completed a three-month program, which cost $13,000 at the time. She was hired as a software developer immediately after finishing and now works at Venmo, a digital payment application, making a six-figure salary.

"I feel really excited about the future, which was something I couldn't say for a long time," the 23-year-old Levine said.

In part because of the rapidly rising costs and the ensuing debt burden, many would-be college students are discovering alternative occupational programs in industries with high-growth potential like software engineering.

Nationally, the college completion rate fell to about 52 percent of students from 56 percent over the past three years at public and private four-year institutions, while college enrollment has also declined overall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

"What we are seeing is that there is a growing variety in the kinds of pathways students take," said Jason DeWitt, research manager at the Clearinghouse.

Coding boot camps are increasingly popular. Fullstack, for example, says it gets 300 to 400 applicants per session, which start every two months. A class size of only 35 makes it as competitive as some of the most elite colleges, according to Huntly Mayo-Malasky, Fullstack's director of admissions.

Why does a college degree cost so much?

Jonathan Brown, 27, completed a similar program at the Flatiron School, another New York-based boot camp. He now works as a developer for Sendence. "My parents were disappointed I didn't finish school. Now they are very happy for me," he said.

"There are very many post-secondary vocational certificates, particularly those that are technological in nature, that add significant labor market value," said Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

While neither school is accredited nor is there a degree upon completion, they do boast of having a very high rate of job placement in lucrative positions.

For others considering this route, "pay close attention to the school's record and how successful the graduates have been," Smith said.

An independently audited jobs report on student outcomes at the Flatiron School found that 98 percent of graduates were hired within the first four months of completing the program, earning an average of $74,447. (B.A. degree holders earn $51,505, on average, in their first job after graduation, according to Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.)

"The reality is there are other ways to educate people that are more efficient. Today we live in world where skills change, you have to keep learning and this is so much more cost effective," said Adam Enbar, Flatiron's president.

Aside from coding boot camps, there are many other types of programs that are also increasingly considered as viable alternatives to a four-year degree.

Dylan Greiss, 22, went to college to focus on film editing but was disappointed in the courses. "I wasn't learning the technical details, so I looked around at other programs and I found the Edit Center in Brooklyn," he said.

He left college and completed a six-week certificate program, which cost $6,000 at the time. Shortly after graduation, Greiss started working as an assistant editor on feature films. Now he is employed at HBO earning more than $1,000 a week.

"My graduation year would have been 2015, so I am seeing my classmates starting out and it looks like leaving school and starting my career early really gave me a leg up."

Even some in finance have found an alternative to the traditional route. Instead of getting his college degree, Eric Sajdak, 21, is currently completing a Chartered Financial Consultant, or ChFC, designation.

The two-year program, which costs about $5,000, is mostly online through the American College of Financial Services. Upon completion, Sajdak plans to stay at his current job, where he is the chief information officer at the investment firm Fox River Capital in Appleton, Wisconsin.

In lieu of a bachelor's, Sajdak said, he believes the designation will build clout.

"Especially within the finance industry, I think this will take the place of a college education — at least for me," he said.