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Kid wizards raking it in sans degrees

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ATLANTA — It's a tenet of American culture: Earn decent grades, get into a respectable college, land a good job and live happily ever after.

So what happens when a promising career — not to mention a big paycheck — precedes a college degree?

Plenty of teenagers with highly sought computer skills are skipping school, or at least deferring it for a few years.

And the argument of "You should have something to fall back on" doesn't hold much sway against stock options and fat salaries.

While computer-savvy kids have been lured for years by a market that needs their talents, the proliferation of Web sites and Internet start-ups has made the demand far more widespread since the early 1990s. Plus, "New Economy" salaries come with a lot more zeros.

"I can put my resume on a job-listing site and get 200 calls a day," says Joe Ingersoll, 22, a programmer in Marina del Rey, Calif., who left high school five years ago and has been working full time since.

"And I can say, 'I don't want to talk for less than $120,000, and these are the languages I want to work in.' It's really crazy for someone with no degree. But I have an extensive resume. People look at that and they salivate."

As a result, "I'm really not nervous at all about my position."

But while some kids have found decent incomes without college, most never will, said Tom Mortenson, a higher education analyst and publisher of the monthly Postsecondary Education Opportunity newsletter.

High school graduates earned a median of $30,868 in 1998, the last year for which census data are available, compared with $60,168 for men with a master's degree.

Young tech wizards are an anomaly, of course.

"I suspect that if you look at who these kids are, they would have been clearly college caliber," he said.

Christopher Klaus left Georgia Tech his junior year to develop an idea he had for making Internet transactions more secure. The ensuing company, Internet Security Services Inc., posted revenues of $116 million last year, and Klaus donated $15 million four months ago to his almost-alma mater for a new computer center.

"If I go back to school, it's just to be educated, it's not to get the degree," said Klaus, who has enrolled in a two-week business course this summer at Stanford.

But even with a market crazed to recruit skilled computer whizzes, college provides a foundation for learning and ought to be pursued, even by the brightest kids, said Paul Ohme, director of the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing at Georgia Tech.

Mike Robbins, 14, of Philadelphia, who handles the Web duties for a doctor's office and manages an online arcade, is also developing a new online game, Lands of Mystica, and had to end a telephone interview to conduct a "developer's meeting."

Still, he said, college is integral to his long-term business plans. MIT is his first choice.

"You have to broaden your horizons and get a grasp of everything," said Robbins.

But what about that important meeting?

"Well, it's me and a couple of friends. That's all it is, really," he said sheepishly.