How Important is Formal Education in Web Working?


In my four years of web working, it is rare that people ask for my resume, and even rarer for them to ask about my educational background. Usually, all they want to see is my portfolio or a list of URLs where they can see my previous work.

This raises the question: what does formal education have to do with web working?

Educational attainment statistics

According to a survey conducted by A List Apart, 68.2% of the respondents, who were mostly web designers or developers, have at least a bachelor degree. The remaining 31.8% reported having completed junior college, high school, or have no degree at all. Another teleworking survey showed that 72% of participants were college educated, while another one reports the figure to be at least 60%.

Despite these figures favoring college graduates, public perception is different.  In the same A List Apart report, 46.6% of respondents said that formal education was irrelevant in the field of web design, while 53.4% said it was relevant – closer figures compared to the the actuality depicted above.

Career opportunities

The education vs. experience debate is especially prevalent in freelancing. For writers, although offline positions generally require degrees, blogging tends to be more flexible. Web design is a similarly talent-driven industry, so there’s still debate on the weight of design education. And formal education in SEO is a trickier subject.

However, some companies are known for not discriminating against those who don;t have degrees. 37Signals openly admits that they don’t necessarily require formal education when it comes to their employees. From their website:

Of course we don’t hold a formal education against anyone, we just don’t pay much attention to it. We’re more interested in someone’s experience, real work, and point of view than we are with their diploma, degree, or GPA. Formal education is probably last on our list of qualities we feel make someone qualified to work at 37signals.

It’s also hard to say how the scope of a degree influences a web worker’s career path. Many job titles today, especially for online work, didn’t exist 5 to 10 years ago. It also follows that some college students today might end up in jobs that don’t exist yet.

In addition to that, many web workers, especially among freelancers, are multi-disciplinary. Raise your hand if you’re a blogger/web designer/SEO. The truth is that we can’t make rigid career plans anymore.

What’s the point?

If experience is equally or even more important than formal education, then what’s the point of formal education? I guess that would depend on the student, on what they want to get out of the experience. College students shouldn’t equate a degree with a magical certificate that tells them they know everything about a certain field, nor should they see the degree as a limitation on what careers they will have after graduation. You don’t get a degree so just to say that you have it – you get it because it happens to be a by-product of your learning process.

Of course, this learning process is lifelong and is not limited to a university building. As we’ve noted above, there are opportunities for others to thrive in web work even without formal education. Since web working tends to be more results-oriented, it’s probably not the formal education itself that matters. What matters is how you use it.

Do you think formal education matters in web working? How often do clients ask about your educational background?

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