Learn to Code in College Without Breaking the Bank

Computer programming skills can make students more marketable to employers.

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It's no secret that the online and offline worlds are one and the same these days. More than 1.2 billion people worldwide over the age of 15 regularly access the Internet, and nearly one in every five minutes spent online is dedicated to social networking sites, according to a December 2011 report by comScore.

The growth in a digital-dependent society is reflected in the job market, where the U. S. Department of Labor predicts employment opportunities for computer programmers and software engineers to increase more than 20 percent through 2018.

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While computer programming may not appeal to all, there are benefits to learning the basics, notes Dmitry Grekov, a technology consultant based in Chicago.

"Even in most blue-collar jobs, you are going to be interacting with computers in some shape or form," Grekov says. "Knowing basic programming can make you more efficient [and] more valuable to your employer."

In addition to looking great on a résumé, coding introduces students to a new style of thinking, says Charles Isbell, associate dean for academic affairs at Georgia Tech's College of Computing.

"It goes beyond coding—it's computational thinking," Isbell says. "For the same reason everyone should take some history and political science—it's the style of thinking that's important. The way of thinking about addressing problems [in computer programming] is an important skill to have."

[See why colleges may be failing to prepare students for the workforce.]

Here are a few ways students can attain computer programming skills while in college.

1. Find free tutorials: For many college students, money is in short supply. While expensive computer programming resources are available, there are effective online teaching tools for students interested in learning to code for free.

"Coding is one of the most important skills of the 21st century," says Zach Sims, cofounder and CEO of Codecademy, an interactive programming tutorial site. "And we [at Codecademy] want to teach the world to code."

The site, which launched in mid-2011, already boasts nearly 400,000 users and offers free step-by-step lessons that allow people to learn at their own pace. Sims says that users are simply "learning to code by coding."

"We're breaking it down into really small, bite-size lessons," he notes. "You can consume a small piece of coding in about 10 minutes, but you can also sit down and learn a lot in an hour."

Kenny Smith, a business major who is scheduled to graduate from California State University—Fullerton this year, credits Codecademy for his current job.

"It helped me [land] my job because some knowledge of coding was required," says Smith, who is the chief marketing officer at YesYous.com, a start-up company. "Students should realize that there are resources out there to learn coding. It's not that much work to learn on the side."

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2. Tap into on-campus resources: While free resources can be an effective way "to get your feet wet in computer programming," it should be complemented with in-person interaction, says Michael Crouse, a master's student specializing in computer and network security at Wake Forest University.

"I think if you're working with the type of people who understand programming, [it] makes doing things a lot easier because you get to understand their thought process," Crouse says. "It's cool that these free tutorials exist, but … things can go over your head because you don't have someone to interact with."

Students should explore groups on campus with a coding focus to get a feel for the culture, says Georgia Tech's Isbell, who notes that the school's College of Computing houses 20 student organizations. "Even people who aren't interested in pursuing coding for a profession take part in these groups," he says.

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3. Look for professional opportunities: One way students can gain experience in computer programming is to just start coding, Crouse says.