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Is College Worth the Price? Yes, If Your Major is Geospatial

December 4, 2014  - By 7 Comments

Two weeks ago, CNN had a special airing of the two hour documentary Ivory Tower. The movie, which was released earlier this year, dealt with the growing problem of the increased cost of going to college, growing student debt — now approaching 1.3 trillion dollars, and the inability of students to find employment in their field. The movie raised some important issues and used the plight of the prestigious but small 950-student Cooper Union College in New York City as an example.

The private engineering, architecture and arts college established in 1859 was funded by a very large endowment, and up until last year tuition was free for those lucky students who could get in. However, construction of a $170 million building, high administrative costs (the college president’s salary was reported at $750,000) and some less-than-ideal management decisions resulted in financial disaster and the need to start charging tuition last year. That action prompted a student revolt that is still unresolved.

Original Cooper Union building.

Original Cooper Union building.

New classroom building.

New classroom building.

A Politically Incorrect Omission

This example was used to highlight that perhaps colleges have lost their way by concentrating more on prestige rather than education. The size and cost of administration has risen significantly. Universities seem to be competing for bragging rights with each other through massive and luxurious construction projects while state funding diminishes. More time is spent doing high profile research by the faculty members while part time graduate students or adjunct professors actually teach the classes.

The disappointing thing about the Ivory Tower movie was the hand-wringing and focus on the high cost and poor job opportunities. However, they seemed to avoid the gorilla in the room — the choice of majors. One would think that someone smart enough to go to college would be smart enough to research job opportunities resulting from chosen majors. I had a colleague who lamented that his daughter graduated from a well-known New England college $80,000 in debt and was only able to land a $28,000 a year position — her major, journalism. I heard similar stories for other non-technical graduates.

It’s painful and it may not be politically correct, but some degrees are harder to earn and do pay more. I fault colleges for painting a rosier picture than is deserved for many non-technical majors. My son struggled through engineering school and his friends through computer science, accounting and pharmacy schools, but all got hired quickly and are doing quite well even in this weak economy. The real-life lesson, get a degree in a difficult and needed profession.


So what does this have to do with the geospatial community? This Thanksgiving I was thankful again that in 1989 I made the decision to pursue a master’s degree in GIS. I struggled with some of the course work, programming and learning ArcInfo 3.0 which was especially confusing at the time because it operated on Sun, DEC or Silicon Graphics workstations running UNIX, so one had to mentally separate the AI commands from the equally unfamiliar UNIX commands. For those of us who finished the master’s program it’s been full employment ever since. However, like other professions, the learning can’t stop, and we in the geospatial community are especially lucky, since there are many education opportunities ranging from brick and mortar schools to online and non-traditional education in subjects related to geospatial. Geospatial is also different from some professions in that there are many entry-level positions that don’t require a four-year college degree. Experience in those positions can be leveraged and ultimately expanded with online, college and graduate-level work to higher level positions.

When I started work in GIS in the early ’90s, we were happy just to be able to digitize paper maps and reprint them with needed updates. We did some limited analysis using buffers and overlays but not at the level found today. Today, geospatial technology has evolved to a point of ubiquity. We regularly collect a variety of imagery sources including satellite, aerial, LiDAR, UAV and ground collection with optical/multispectral sensors. Operations and analysis include the use of multiple online data sources, live AVL GPS tracking, advanced statistical methods, social media overlays, interactive 3D models and virtual reality simulations. Delivery has evolved from single thick client workstations to web services and mobile device apps. All of this requires computer programming skills that are evolving daily.


So what does this mean to you? First, if you have the ear of high school students, try to steer them to an education that will actually get them a job. An easy major may facilitate a lot of partying, but they may be living with their parents for years after graduation. On the flip side, not everyone is suited for college and there are many trades that pay extremely well and offer rewarding and secure careers including geospatial technology.

Second, if you are in the geospatial field, don’t rest on your initial training. We all need to stay relevant, and there is a growing list of non-traditional online education that can build the skills and capabilities of new and existing geospatial professionals. When I was the GIS manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission in the ’90s. we needed someone who was an expert in dynamic segmentation, routes and linear referencing for our transportation planning and modeling. We didn’t have that talent in-house, and I would have hired anyone with that specific skill set — degree or no degree. We were fortunate in finding a graduate student with both the needed skills and broad GIS experience.

Emerging Education Opportunities

There has been a growing list of online education opportunities. For years Esri has been offering GIS classroom and online software courses, Microsoft programming courses and the Kahn Academy expanded online education with MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) in many subject areas. More recently, edX, Coursera and the well-publicized Udacity, co-founded by Sebastian Thrun inventor of Google Glass. Udacity offers many technical online classes including a Georgia Tech Massive Online Master’s Degree in Computer Science. Add to this UnCollege, a social movement aiming to change the notion that “going to college is the only path to success,” and you can see that traditional colleges are in a potentially disruptive environment. Just like Uber and transportation.


GEOINT Education Success Story

For many years, Pennsylvania State University has been a leader in online geospatial education. Penn State offers both a United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) accredited post-baccalaureate certificate in GEOINT applications and a graduate certificate in GEOINT analytics. Continuing the tradition of providing open educational resources, recently Penn State began to provide free geospatial MOOCs through Coursera.

The joint effort of Dr. Max Baber of USGIF and Dr. Todd Bacastow of Penn State puts Penn State among the eight universities that have achieved USGIF academic accreditation including Northeastern University, University of Redlands, the University of Utah, West Point, U.S. Air Force Academy, the University of Texas at Dallas, George Mason University and the University of Missouri.

According to Bacastow, a West Point graduate and retired Army major, Penn State’s for-credit program has served more than 5,000 students with about 2,500 of these students having already completed. The mapping MOOC has served more than 70,000 students. The GEOINT MOOC will open on January 14, 2015. You can view a video of Dr. Bacastow explaining the GEOINT MOOC here.

He cited numerous success stories including: a wife of a deployed sailor who earned her certificate and is now a lead geospatial architect at a three-letter agency; a severely injured Iraq Army vet who is now a contractor for NGA; a former infantry officer who now fills a key geospatial position at CENTCOM; and the stories continue with NGA currently trying to fill more than 1,000 positions.

Bottom line — don’t stop learning.  The opportunities are there, especially geospatial.

P.S. Lest you think that I don’t take my own medicine, I felt that I was behind the power curve regarding social media and just getting by, so I signed up for a comprehensive online social media course so I could do a deep dive into the systems.


This article is tagged with , , , and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider
Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

7 Comments on "Is College Worth the Price? Yes, If Your Major is Geospatial"

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  1. Nashon Adero says:

    The arena for decision making in this century is growing predominantly geospatial and will require highly qualified geospatial experts who can execute high-level quality assurance and control in all areas dealing with spatial thinking – including spatial econometrics. Think of the future including the Internet of Things (IoT) and e-citizenship. Such emerging trends call for geospatial expertise to ensure fool-proof location-based analytics for sound governance and decision support. Let’s go geospatial in our training focus to produce the critical mass required to manage these data-intensive spatial challenges.

  2. Michael Mueller says:

    Who paid you to write this article and specifically what facts are presented within the article to substantiate job demand. With 262 positions available on Careerbuilder and numerous copies/identical positions appearing in GIS trade journals, is this really the hot job in a total US job market that is hiring about 200,000 monthly? Come on, I challenge you to address the facts and provide direct evidence of this “significant” career opportunity. Cough it up.

  3. Anthony Robinson says:

    Michael – since we are highlighted here I wanted to make it clear that we did not pay anyone to write this article. Geospatial Solutions reached out to us for comment, which we provided.

    A good resource regarding the employment potential for the geospatial industry is the US Dept. of Labor’s O*Net site:

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