With some of the top tech entrepreneurs in the U.S. either dropping out of college or not attending, there is some debate about whether college is the right choice or not. This post will focus on college for data science. However, for college in general, if you know what you want to study, then college or graduate school is a great option. If you are going to college because you do not know what else to do, I would say college is too expensive for that.
Most would agree that an undergraduate degree in some highly analytical field (math, CS, economics, physics) is definitely beneficial. Plus college has a strict set of guidelines and a specific order for the learning. A formal degree program often provides the necessary motivation for a person to continue learning. The U.S. college education system is not perfect, but if it keeps a person from quitting, it will help to reach the goal of becoming a data scientist.
All this leads to a second point. Only a few colleges offer undergraduate degree programs for data science. Thus, graduate school or more learning will still be required. College should provide the necessary prerequisites and many employers will pay for the continued learning.
A highly motivated person could probably learn most if not all the data science skills on the internet for free or very low cost. The key is being a highly motivated person. That person must have the drive to not quit when the learning becomes difficult. Also, there are no classmates or professors to help with difficult concepts. Sure, the internet can help there, but it requires a bit more work to find the help. Plus, knowing what topics to learn and in what order can be challenging. Already, this blog has much helpful content, but it is not organized based upon a sequence of learning. Not attending college presents some obstacles that only the most highly motivated students will overcome. As more and more learning resources appear online, the no college option may become more popular.
What is the Answer?
Strictly speaking, I would say the answer is NO. However, many people will not succeed without the rigor of school, and some companies will not hire a person without a degree. So, college is not 100% essential to being a data scientist, but for many it is probably the best option.