Is a college degree more important to your IT career than certifications?
Posted on
April 28, 2015

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Is a college degree more important to your IT career than certifications?

High school registration! Can someone please tell me where the time went? It was only as we sat down facing the advising counselor that I realized just how very much the world has changed over the past 20-something years. My teen was being asked to declare a major in high school and select a career track. Seriously? Are you kidding me? Selecting a major while in high school? I’m obviously behind the times as I was as ill-prepared for the question as was my young teen. Honestly, what 13- or 14-year-old knows for certain what they want to be when they “grow up”?

While not every high school requires its incoming freshmen to declare their career choices upon entry, the question certainly spoke to the changing times. The answers given that day were far-reaching. Would my child pursue a college track enabling them to have the prerequisites necessary for college entrance or would they forgo college for a vocational or non-degreed/certification-only career path?

There was a time when my answer would have been given without consideration — college, of course! As I said, however, times are changing. I personally know more than 20 young adults, sporting shiny new diplomas and shouldering a mountain of student loan debt who struggled to find that first job in their chosen field. There’s nothing like serving up caffé lattes for minimum wage as you attempt to pay off $30,000 in debt!

So the question, while unexpected, was valid. The world has changed and the conclusion to pursue college as a career path is no longer a given. The question looms: Is a college degree still worth the time, effort and cost? I have to say that the possibility that my teen could graduate from high school with a certification already in place and ready to enter the workforce was certainly tempting.

After all, there are some vocational careers (cosmetology, entry level healthcare careers, or welding, for example) where a certificate program or license is all that is required to be successful. What is true for one career, however, may not be universally true for all careers. For purposes of this article, we’ll focus on those interested in pursuing IT careers and whether or not college is still a valid path or if obtaining certifications only is better.

Apples and oranges

Before we proceed further, it’s probably good idea to understand that a college degree and an IT certification are not the same thing. Both have value in the workforce but they are vastly different and each brings a different value to the holder and to the prospective employer.

Certification programs by their nature have a very narrow focus. Often geared to specific IT roles, certification programs validate specific knowledge, technical skills and level of mastery. Certifications are often tied to specific products, with the credential holders required to recertify as new products are released and become available to consumers. Since they’re often tied to product releases, certifications are frequently temporary and only valid until the next new emerging technology hits the marketplace. The credential holder must then recertify, or their skill set becomes obsolete in the workforce.

Those interested in IT careers who are on a degree track typically pursue degrees in programs such as computer science, information technology or management information systems. Unlike some certifications, a college degree (whether at the associate, bachelor, or even master’s level) is a permanent credential with no expiration date. A college degree speaks to the breadth of knowledge which an IT professional possesses. Those with a college degree typically have a much wider general knowledge base of the subject matter than those with certifications only.

Is a college degree more important to your IT career than certifications?

A college degree also demonstrates to a prospective employer that the candidate is teachable and possesses the dedication and commitment necessary to learn new material. A degree also speaks to a certain level of time management skills which are necessary just to gain the degree. The collegiate experience also provides some very valuable intangible benefits.

Students are exposed to a wide range of experiences, opinions and views which they might not otherwise encounter. The opportunity to explore subjects and topics which aren’t necessarily directly related to the day to day tasks performed in an IT career abound.

Permanent networking contacts are established with mentors, fellow alumni, and — most importantly — prospective employers. (Never underestimate the power of contacts gleaned from an alumni association!) In essence, a college degree helps you further down the path to becoming a well-rounded individual with a broader knowledge base outside of your normal world.

Follow the money

Whether pursuing certifications only or a college degree, one of the goals is to ensure that we’re able to make a living wage (or perhaps do quite a bit better than merely a living wage). Hence the question becomes: Does a degree make a difference in earning potential? The answer is yes.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly income in 2013 for a person with a high school diploma was $651. In contrast, those with a bachelor’s degree made $1,108 per week. That’s a difference of $457 each week. The earning gap widens with time. Based on the BLS figures, after the first year (52 weeks), those with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn around $23,764 more than their non-degreed counterparts. Over a 10-year span, this gap widens to more than $237,000.

It should be noted that the figures above are for persons over the age of 25 years and do not include apprenticeships or on-the-job training programs. According to BLS statistics, those employed in on-the-job training programs can expect to earn between approximately $23,000 and $42,000 annually depending on whether or not the training period is long- or short-term.

In the short term, certification programs may seem to be just the ticket. They are less expensive than a college degree and entry level credentials can be obtained fairly quickly. The long-term earning potential, however, still weights heavily in favor of those with a college degree.

Can I get hired?

And that, my dear Watson, is the question, isn’t it? Which one, college degree or certification, will help you land — and keep — a solid full-time job?

Do prospective employers like certifications? Absolutely! Certifications validate technical skill and expertise along with subject matter knowledge. A certification is a very valuable commodity in the workforce.

For all the reasons stated above, however, a college degree is far from obsolete and remains a prize to be sought. Also, a college degree may afford candidates some degree of insulation as it relates to continued employment once a job has been secured. According to the BLS, the 2013 unemployment rate for workers with a 4-year college degree was only 4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for those with a high school diploma only. Please don’t misunderstand: Possessing a college degree is no guarantee of getting a job, nor does it guarantee you won’t get laid off. The odds are better, however, with a degree than without one.

The economy connection

According to a study by the Lumina Foundation and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, not only is higher education linked to greater earning potential but it has a direct impact on our economy. Those with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make up to 84 percent more over their lifetimes than their non-degreed counterparts.

According to the study, absent a bachelor’s degree it is less likely that you’ll obtain status as part of the middle class. The Center at Georgetown also predicts that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require post-secondary education or training. Currently, only 41 percent of Americans possess a college degree.

So, what’s the net?

After reading statistics and “expert” reports on both sides of the argument, we decided to pursue the college track. Call me old-fashioned but I still think that college provides you with life experiences you just don’t get elsewhere (or at least don’t easily obtain elsewhere) and prepares you to live independently. Also, the benefits (at least for certain careers) in terms of employability and long-term earning potential with a diploma in hand appear to outweigh those of entering the workforce with a certification only.

Woman using laptop in outdoor study area

That being said, we also added one twist to the college career path — obtaining certifications while still in school. My personal opinion is that employers want candidates with experience, a degree and certifications. Many vendors now partner with high schools as well as junior colleges and universities enabling students to gain the technical skills necessary to obtain valuable certifications while still attending classes.

This is a double-bang for your buck. Not only are you obtaining your college degree (broad knowledge base) but you’re also obtaining the in-depth, focused technical skills necessary and sought after by employers at the same time. This provides students an advantage entering the job market or perhaps even an avenue to earn an income while attending school. (Also, some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs which assists with college costs.)

It’s a win for employers since they have the best of both worlds: a degreed professional with advanced technical skills already in place. More importantly, it’s a win for the aspiring IT professional, who enters the workforce fully prepared on all fronts.

About the Author

Mary Kyle is a full-time freelance writer, editor and project manager based in Austin, Texas. Formerly employed in various positions at IBM, Mary has more than 10 years of project management experience in IT, software development and IT-related legal issues.

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