How To Avoid College Debt and Still Be Successful as a Data Scientist


2023 has been a year of innovation in the tech world with AI and ChatGPT changing the way we think about work. The world has only continued to innovate and advance in various fields, 3D metal printing is no longer a novelty but an integral part of advanced manufacturing. Augmented Reality (AR) has surpassed the realm of vague promises, with notable improvements in both software and hardware, and is now a commonplace feature in many consumer electronics and industrial applications. The medical field has witnessed the advent of AI tools capable of detecting Alzheimer’s up to a decade before human physicians.

The Stagnation of Higher Education

Yet, one domain that has remained relatively stagnant is higher education. The structure of colleges and universities hasn’t undergone a radical transformation, mirroring their decades-old counterparts, albeit with significantly higher tuition fees and seemingly deteriorating student outcomes. To put it in perspective, if higher education reflected the music industry’s pace, we’d still be adjusting to Walkmans, while the concept of streaming music through wireless headphones would be a distant dream.

Higher education is on the cusp of disruption. The average graduate is overwhelmed with student loans, now reaching over $1.7T in the U.S., with the average graduate bearing a burden of roughly $45,000. Nearly half of today’s graduates leave college underemployed – meaning in jobs they could have gotten without the investment of time and debt in a degree program – and two-thirds of these remain underemployed five years later.

Data Science Careers & Academia

When it comes to tech and data science careers, traditional higher education falls significantly short in equipping students with the required skills. Universities and colleges have been slow in updating their curricula. Part of this issue stems from the lack of incentives for faculty to innovate and align their courses with rapidly evolving industry requirements.

Students are left grappling with obsolete curriculum options, leading to a decline in college enrollment rates. In 2022, only 36% of colleges met their annual enrollment targets. Instead, alternative educational options are burgeoning across the country, offering more relevant programs aligned with the growing “tech” nature of entry-level jobs.

While formal education makes sense for some careers (e.g., surgeons, lawyers), a host of new professions don’t require an expensive degree to be successful. For these professions, college alternatives are crucial to ensuring cost-effective and relevant content is delivered to students.

Alternatives to University for Data Scientists

In the book A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, the increasing relevance of alternative educational options is explored. A New U encourages students and parents to comprehend the financial implications of opting for traditional degree programs, particularly at non-selective institutions that may charge exorbitant tuition fees.

The book showcases various promising faster and cheaper alternatives (over 300 in total), like bootcamps, apprenticeships, and staffing programs featuring Last-Mile Training. These alternatives focus on providing the digital skills, soft skills, and industry knowledge that traditional colleges and universities often overlook.

Bootcamps are a highly popular alternative, with tens of thousands of graduates in 2022. The Data Incubator’s Data Science Fellowship Program, featured in A New U, provides an intense 8-week data science bootcamp in multiple cities across the US. With an extensive and rigorous curriculum, about 82% of job-seeking graduates secure employment within six months of completion.

Apprenticeships, another growing alternative, provide a blend of on-the-job training and formal education. Techtonic, highlighted in A New U, is the first Department of Labor-recognized apprenticeship program for software developers. Learners, who are employed and paid from the onset of their training, gain invaluable early career experience while employers mitigate risks by only hiring proven apprentices.

The shift towards faster and cheaper alternatives is expected to accelerate, particularly in the tech sector, as well as in healthcare, financial services, and other sectors where entry-level jobs are “tech” jobs. Employers seeking tech talent will be rewarded by looking beyond traditional colleges and universities.

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