What is a free certification worth?
Posted on
October 14, 2016
The best things in IT certification aren't free.

I spend a fair amount of time on various certification forums, LinkedIn groups, and Quora answering questions from individuals who are either pursuing IT certifications or considering doing so. Recently I responded to a couple of questions from individuals who were looking for Information Technology (IT) certifications to benefit their careers that could be obtained for free.

Griping about the expense involved in obtaining certifications is a time-honored tradition, as I discussed in an earlier CertMag article: Counting the cost: Why are certifications so expensive? Until recently, however, I have seldom encountered individuals who expected (or hoped) to be able to earn a certification without paying any money at all. Empirical evidence demonstrates that it is a subject some people are interested in, so I decided to create an article to explore the concept.

It is easy to understand the desire to get something of value without having to give up something of equal or greater value.  There are very few individuals in the world who have an effectively unlimited budget, and I doubt that people with fortunes in the class of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet are planning to pursue any IT certifications in the near future.

Frankly, the people for whom IT certifications would have the greatest potential career impact are the ones who are least likely to have lots of money available to spend. A disproportionate percentage of the people interested in earning certifications are those who are just starting their careers.

Unfortunately, in real life people will seldom give you something of value for free (beyond gifts from family and friends). If you are offered something of value for free ... it would be wise to check the fine print. The giver almost assuredly wants something from you in return. This rule specifically includes that "free" iPad that you can receive just for attending the "free" seminar on how to make a fortune in real estate. There is a catch ... always.

It might seem more likely for an organization to provide people with a SQL or Java certification without charging any money than it would be for an organization to provide people with a physical product like a computer. In one sense this is certainly true — there are no raw materials and labor costs involved in developing credentials to be granted to certification candidates on a per-person basis.

There are still, however, a number of expenses involved, among them:

  • Creating a test for certification candidates
  • Marketing that test (because it is pretty useless to create one if no one knows about it)
  • Making the test available to candidates
  • Providing a way for employers to verify that individuals have earned the credential

There is no reason for an organization to go to this level of trouble and expense simply to provide the results at no charge. Beyond that, if such a certification were available and free, there's an applicable phrase: "It`s free, and worth every penny."

If such a certification did exist, and if employers considered it valuable, then huge numbers of people would obtain it. Why wouldn't they if the credential was both free and marketable? Once huge numbers of people had earned the credential, the certification would no longer be a differentiating factor for employers. At this point it would lose most of its value. A significant part of the value in certifications is that not everyone has them.

The final nail in the coffin is that any organization that might create a completely free credential is very unlikely to be a well-known certifying authority. For example, Oracle would never decide to give their certifications away for free. This is not simply because certifying authorities view certifications as a profit generator. They want their certifications to have value.

Providing them for free carries the implication that the credentials have little or no value. A reputable certifying authority might offer deals on a newly-created credential while it is either in beta or being test-marketed, but eventually would charge for it.

You are more likely to be given the opportunity to earn a free credential from an authority no one has ever heard of. What use, however, would such a credential be? Just as one example, I actually create and sell practice tests for people planning to take Oracle certification exams. People who pass one of the practice tests gain access to a certificate indicating that they passed Practice Test X.

The certificates are never even mentioned in marketing for the tests, because my company is not a known certifying authority. The test engine I used had the ability built-in to grant certificates to people who passed the tests, so I made use of it. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which certificates of this type would have any measurable impact on someone's career.

The best things in IT certification aren't free.

If you are currently on a quest to locate a free certification in order to advance your career, then I highly recommend that you abandon that approach. There are dozens of reputable certifications for which the exam fee is less than $150, and hundreds for $250 or less. The costs for the same exams in countries outside the U.S. are often lower. While these amounts are not trivial, they are a tiny fraction of the cost of even a two-year college degree.

Many people spend more on preparation materials than they do on the exams themselves, but this expense is seldom required to earn the credential. Many certifications related to software vendors are based on their documentation, which can often be downloaded free of charge. The topics covered on the exams may also be set forth at length in whitepapers and articles that can be found online. Also, you can often find books on IT certifications available for use in public libraries. There are many, many ways to save.

There is nothing wrong with seeking to minimize the amount of money you spend for obtaining a certification. Deciding at the outset that you are unwilling to pay any money at all, however, will drastically reduce your chances of finding something to advance your career. It may not eliminate all possible paths, but it will certainly restrict your choices to a very narrow set of options.

About the Author

Matthew Morris is an experienced DBA and developer. He holds Oracle DBA Certifications for every Oracle release from 7 through 12c; Expert certifications for SQL, SQL Tuning, and Application Express; and is an Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Professional. He is the author of more than 20 study guides for Oracle certification exams, as well as a suite of Oracle practice tests that are available at ocpexam.com.

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