Student dilemma: Make grades -- or big bucks?

So you're 20, sick of school, know about as much as your computer science teachers and someone offers you a $40,000-a-year job.What would you do?

So you're 20, sick of school, know about as much as your computer science teachers and someone offers you a $40,000-a-year job.

What would you do? Probably what Excite's Chris Feaver did - drop out and go to work. Thanks in part to the seemingly endless sea of computer industry openings, it's a choice more young programmers - college students and even high schoolers - are making.

'You're taking a history class when you could be out doing something else, making money'
-- College dropout Chris Feaver

It's the latest trend in the NBA - athletes like the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant skipping college to go pro and rake in millions. Young computer scientists are facing the same decision, and more and more are following Bryant's lead.

Feaver, now 21, left the University of California, Santa Cruz, after one year to take a position at Excite. Why? "My dislike of school - and the money," he said. His current salary (raises have taken it beyond the $40,000 that helped inspire him to make the leap) won't make him a millionaire overnight, but he's been promised plenty of room to grow at the company. For inspiration, he looks to Excite co-founder Mark Van Haren, who at 29 is now a paper millionaire many times over.

There's nothing new about computer geeks quitting school to get rich. But those were traditionally entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who started their own companies. What's different today is young computer experts are leaving school to take well-salaried rank-and-file jobs in the field. And while high schools have found the trend a boon to vocational programs, some college advisers have found themselves in the same spot as college athletic coaches - they're losing their best talent to the pros and struggling to supply good reasons for kids to pick school over big bucks.

Should kids stay in school and earn college degrees? Add your comments to the bottom of this page.

"Age has no monopoly on competency when it comes to computers or networks," says Novell's Daniel Berton. He helps administer a special Novell program that certifies high school graduates as Novell network administrators. These teen-agers now run networks at companies like Amtrak and Electronic Data Systems, making $25,000 to $35,000 a year.

Novell's program is not unique. Cisco offers a similar certification program to 200 schools in 18 states - the company says certificate holders get jobs paying between $35,000 and $45,000.

It would take a lot of hamburger-slinging to pull down cash like that. What's more, Cisco student Bradley Downey, a senior at Antioch High School in Antioch, Calif., says computer work is much easier than fast-food labor. "I've known this stuff for so long I don't look at it as real hard work. Don't find it very challenging."

HS grads in the money
The Department of Labor says 58,000 16- to 19-year-olds held computer jobs in 1996, compared with 4,000 10 years earlier.

So with high school grads making that kind of money, how do you convince a college student to keep taking those mandatory classes and working for $7 an hour in the computer lab? Increasingly, you don't.

"You're taking a history class when you could be out doing something else, making money," Feaver says. What advice would he give another college student in the same spot?

"I asked myself what's the point of going to school, and I don't see one, so I guess that's what I'd say. I'd say just go get a job." Janos Szatmary, 22, is certain he makes more money because he left school.

Janos Szatmary, 22, left Rutgers 1 1/2 years ago after his sophomore year to become a developer for Salomon Bros. Now he makes between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. He's sure he's making more money because he dropped out of school.

"If you get a degree and start looking for a job, they assume you don't have experience and you just want a start-up job," Szatmary said. "I have several friends who know what they're doing who are paid one-half or one-third what I make." Why? In part because the leverage in negotiation shifts. A college graduate needs a job. A college student must be lured from school the same way one company lures talent away from another company. "Headhunters will talk to you when you're in school, but not after you graduate," he said.

Looking at the long term
But college computer science professors are worried that while young computer science professionals can do the job today, leaving college puts a ceiling on their future earnings and their conceptual understanding of information systems.

"Knowing a little bit about how programming works in no way makes you a computer scientist," says Villanova's John Lewis, who ran a recent national conference for college computer science educators where the issue was discussed. Computer science programs are wrestling with the idea of reacting to this trend by changing their curricula to put skills classes earlier in a student's program, thereby making the student "hirable" earlier on.

Feaver scoffs at the notion that his earnings potential is limited, pointing to success stories like Gates. But Stanford's Julie Zelenski says there's a more subtle reason to finish school.

"I really believe in being young when you're young," she said. "They should enjoy the luxury of being a student.... The job will be there two years from now."

Zelenski was one of several professors expressing concern that industry leans on students during internships, trying to lure them away from school. Meanwhile, more students are working part-time as contractors, and internships are coming earlier.

"I did not see freshmen getting internships six years ago when I started. Now they do," she said.

But none of the students interviewed for this column described anything sinister. For Szatmary, the choice was straightforward: "It's the money that attracted me, not the pressure."

Top-rated schools unshaken
Several Stanford professors, and instructors at other top-rated computer science schools, say most of their students complete their degrees. Students who have fought to get into the better schools tend to be more vested in finishing.

Still, not everyone does. Excite founder Mark Van Haren left Stanford in 1991 without finishing, though he didn't quit for a high-paying job. He ran out of money. And even though his net worth now exceeds $10 million, he regrets not finishing.

"I definitely feel like I made a mistake," Van Haren said. He wants to return to school to finish, but "it's too lucrative for me to stop what I'm doing right now."

Despite his millionaire status, he'd give different advice to a student wrestling with the choice to take a job or stay in school from his Excite colleague, Chris Feaver.

"Most likely I would say stay in school. It's not like there's going to be a dearth of job offers six months from now or one year from now," Van Haren said.

Another Stanford student, Andy Kurtzig, spent his 1994 summer internship at Trilogy, an Austin, Texas, software company, and wanted to drop out of school, but didn't after discussing the idea with his mother.

"I just wanted to get my degree, and I figured another year and a half of my life was no big deal," he said. But he did strike a deal with his mother - he satisfied his desire to enter the business by founding a small computer company on the side during his senior year.

John Challenger, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, watches employment trends and says the move to a younger computer work force will continue. "Companies are starving for people to manage their systems," he said. "This is a lot more widespread than people realize."

It's hard to argue that companies are "taking advantage of" 18-year-olds who are making $40,000 a year and gaining entry in the computer science field. While students get the good jobs, the company gets ambitious employees and can pay them a little less.

High schooler Downey doesn't mind the prospect of lower pay: "You just have to bite your lip a little and wait until you move up in the world." High school principal Kenneth Jones, who has seen several graduates from his inner-city Washington, D.C., school go on to jobs running Novell networks, says there are no losers: "Everybody gets a break."

That may be true now, while the unemployment rate in the industry is near zero percent. But if there's a loser in this equation, it's experienced programmers, who are more expensive to hire than high school grads or college dropouts.

"Sure they have something to be concerned about," said one youth program administrator. "Perhaps it will force [experienced programmers] to take a class or get additional training.... Keeps you on your toes, huh?


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