John McDonald: Let’s change our frame of mind about college degrees

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John McDonaldI’d like to invite you to look at the world slightly differently.

You’ve been told that, if your children don’t attend a four-year college and get a degree, indebting them by $29,000 or more (the average in Indiana), you or they are somehow a “loser.”

That’s a lie.

Bill Gates from Microsoft, Michael Dell from Dell Computer and Steve Jobs from Apple. None of them earned a college degree.

They are not alone. Famous founders Jan Koum (WhatsApp), Travis Kalanick (Uber), both Dustin Moskovitz and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), both Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey (Twitter), and even Hiroshi Yamauchi—who transformed Nintendo from a card-making company into a video game giant—don’t have college degrees, either. A college degree never was and still isn’t required to be a technologist.

There are many professions where a college degree is really needed (doctors, lawyers, etc.). And, I can’t think of a single profession that isn’t enhanced by a college degree. But to require it? Not in my line of work. Software development, cybersecurity—indeed a whole range of job roles in technology—are now more like technical trades than they are degree programs, something like the plumbers and electricians of the digital economy.

As parents, we need to demand of our high schools that all the pathways to success are arrayed in front of our children, especially technical trades.

Look to Eleven Fifty Academy, driven by technology pioneer Scott Jones, as a fast and low-cost way to a paying job in coding or cybersecurity. Look to Kenzie Academy, led by repatriated Hoosier Chok Ooi, as a way into the tech industry by financing your skills through a rebate to the academy after you’ve landed a job at a high salary through the program that helped you get there.

Look to innovators like Kevin Berkopes at Crossroads Education, innovators who are changing how companies get access to skills like machine learning through employing students to tackle the meatiest analytics problems of our age. Look to Don Wettrick at the StartEdUp Foundation, who has taught many waves of students how to survive and thrive in the economy of personal initiative, where everyone is an entrepreneur. Look to Mike Langellier and the team at TechPoint, who are recruiting and placing high school students in important internship roles across our state to drive technology forward.

Change has come even to our traditional universities. Look to fantastic programs like the Cybersecurity Academy offered by Ivy Tech Community College Columbus at the Muscatatuck Urban Warfare Center. Look to Bryan Ritchie at the IDEA Center at the University of Notre Dame for how Hoosier students can be enabled to take their ideas to market. Look to Purdue Polytechnic, enabled by Head of School Scott Bess, Dean Gary Bertoline and President Mitch Daniels, who are renovating the idea of a technology education by opening their program to self-direction—to involvement with companies like mine, ClearObject, to directly hire and engage students.

These efforts not only are the future of technology education, but also will ensure that Indiana businesses survive and thrive in the digital economy. These people “get it.”

I realize these words are challenging and threatening to the status quo. But our children know already that the skills they are being taught are no longer relevant for the digital economy. Skills of the future are learned on demand, in the context of students’ daily lives, and applied directly to “moving the needle” at organizations that can connect their abilities to customer needs without delay.

We can become a “brain engine” that fuels the future of our state, the Midwest and our country. But we must shed the idea that the only way to succeed is a four-year degree and return to placing value on technical trade education as a valid, parallel, even preferred career path.•


McDonald is the CEO of Fishers-based ClearObject and chairman of the Indiana Technology and Innovation Policy Committee. Send comments to

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