This feature first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In any detailed conversation about the true value of IT certifications, there is a point that stands out: the cost of taking certification exams. The money that candidates must hand over for exam vouchers is one of the primary expense items of pursuing a new certification. And, while sometimes there are lower-cost options for training and study materials, certification exam fees are set once and only change through incremental price raises applied over time.
Things we don't often question, are sometimes the things that most need to be re-evaluated. Which begs the question: Why are IT certification exams so expensive? What goes into the pricing of a certification exam? And what could be done to help mitigate exam costs for candidates with financial challenges?
The price is right?
Given the variety of disciplines and levels of expertise covered by the IT certification industry, it's no surprise that exam pricing varies significantly between different vendors and industry organizations. In fact, this variation in pricing can even be found within a single certifying body's program.
For example, let's look at CompTIA's current exam pricing (as of this writing) for its full slate of IT certifications:
Certification — Exam Price
IT Fundamentals+ — $134
Cloud Essentials+ — $134
Data+ — $246
Network+ — $358
Cloud+ — $358
Linux+ — $358
Server+ — $358
Project+ — $358
Security+ — $392
CySA+ — $392
PenTest+ — $392
A+ — $492 (two exams at $246 apiece)
CASP+ — $494
CTT+ — $740 (two exams at $358 and $392)
There are two basic patterns visible in CompTIA's exam pricing. First, the cost of CompTIA's entry-level certification exams is less than for its mid-to-expert level credentials. This pricing seems reasonable in that an entry-level exam generally requires less time and resources to create and maintain.
This pricing also makes it easier for newcomers to the IT industry to get their start with a relatively inexpensive foundation certification, something a vendor-neutral association like CompTIA should want to encourage, to bring in new individuals and increase the diversity of the tech worker talent pool.
The second exam pricing trend is that cybersecurity exams cost top dollar. CompTIA's highest single-exam costs are for Security+, CySA+, PenTest+, and CASP+, all of them cybersecurity-based certifications.
You can look at this trend with two different perspectives. It is likely that cybersecurity exams are more expensive to create and maintain with regular updates, as they require a higher level of SME expertise. You could also surmise that CompTIA is charging more for these exams because cybersecurity is arguably the most popular — and therefore most lucrative — IT discipline in the workplace.
It is a basic economic tenet that high demand comes with higher prices. This would also explain why CompTIA's most popular certification in history, the A+ credential, still requires two exams to earn (a subject we've discussed previously) making it nearly the most expensive credential in CompTIA's entire inventory.
Microsoft is a major vendor-based certifying body and while its training and certification program has undergone several major changes over the years, its current exam pricing model is surprisingly homogeneous. A quick tour through the Microsoft Learn site shows that most of the company's certification exams cost $99 or $165 each.
The greater consideration is the number of exams required to earn a particular Microsoft credential. This used to be a lot clearer back in the days of MCPs and MCSEs, but Microsoft's program is more granular today, based on job roles rather than tech knowledge domains.
Here is one example. To earn the expert-level Microsoft Certified: Cybersecurity Architect Expert credential, candidates must pass one of the qualifying prerequisite exams (there are four to choose from) and then pass the Microsoft Cybersecurity Architect exam. The final tally for the exam fees is $330, or two exams at $165 each.
Again, this is a far distance from when Microsoft MCSE candidates were required to pass four core exams and two elective exams — a much more expensive proposition than what's found in Microsoft's current program.
For a nominal fee
Then there are the certifying bodies charging exam fees high enough to make candidates’ wallets groan. These industry groups sometimes offer exam discounts if you buy a membership in their organization, but this option does not typically result in much savings for exam takers — especially after you factor in the added cost of the membership itself.
For example, ISACA's Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) exam costs $575 for members, and an eye-watering $760 for non-members. ISACA membership costs $135, plus a $10 new member fee, bringing the total to $720 — a less than generous $40 in savings.
The Project Management Institute charges candidates $555 to take its Project Management Professional (PMP) exam. This price is reduced to $405 for PMI members, but the membership costs $129/per year plus a one-time $10 application fee — adding up an unimpressive net $11 in exam savings.
It’s possible that some organizations feel their certification exams need to be priced high to establish a level of industry prestige, like a luxury watch or handbag. These groups should be reminded that pricing something out of the reach of most people isn’t actually a true measure of that item’s worth.
The high cost of exam creation
There are costs associated with the creation of most products before they go into production, and certification exams are no different. Each exam requires a certain amount of research and development — the exam's knowledge domains must be determined, and industry experts must decide what the relevant content is for each domain.
This content must be worked into a viable test structure by professionals who are trained in exam creation. Exam questions based on different answer formats must be written, often including performance-based simulations that can require additional work by graphic artists or software developers.
From this perspective, it seems fair for IT vendors and industry organizations to price their certification exams high enough to recoup exam research and development costs. Certification exams, however, are not a standalone product like a pair of sneakers or a prescription drug.
Exams exist as part of a broader certification program strategy that generates numerous benefits for vendors and industry organizations. Also, there are other related revenue streams that help offset the cost of certification exam development, such as the income from the sale of training materials and courses.
In the final analysis, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the profit/loss price line for certification exams falls. There are some intangible factors, like the financial arrangement between certification providers and large test center companies like Pearson or Prometric. It’s also possible that some vendors treat their certification exams as loss leaders, using them to encourage more candidates to become certified professionals who act as product experts and brand evangelists in the workplace.
One thing is certain: The higher the cost of a certification exam, the higher the barrier is for candidates with financial challenges to earn certain industry credentials.
Tips for saving on certification exam fees
Thankfully, there are a few things candidates can do to try to mitigate the cost of taking certification exams. Start by subscribing to the appropriate vendor’s or organization’s training and certification e-mail newsletter — practically everyone in the industry offers one. These newsletters are the first place to discover upcoming promotions involving certification training materials, exam preparation products, and yes, even exam vouchers.
Also keep an eye out for vendors and industry groups that offer training and exam prep bundles that include an exam voucher. If you were planning on investing in some self-paced training, you might get some additional savings by going with a bundle that has the exam fee built into the price.
Some certifying bodies provide exam fee discounts for candidates who live in low-income households or who have served in the military. Don’t be shy about contacting an IT vendor or organization directly to ask whether they offer such discounts. You might even consider including some details about your efforts to get retrained and work in the IT industry in your inquiry.
You can often find government grant programs for IT skills training, particularly in areas of the country that have significant tech worker shortages. These grant programs can exist at municipal, state, and federal levels.
The U.S. Department of Labor website is a good starting point for discovering federal government skills training grants. You should also take the opportunity to search city and state government websites.
Where do we go from here?
IT certification programs are meant to benefit three key participants: tech workers, tech employers, and certifying bodies. Tech workers benefit by having a system for validating their industry knowledge and skills; tech employers get the benefit of being better able to identify potential candidates for specific industry job roles.
Certification providers, whether they are IT product vendors or vendor-neutral organizations, benefit by establishing greater industry influence and strengthening their brands with IT businesses and workers.
Hopefully these certifying bodies recognize the greater benefits of operating training and certification programs. Ideally, they will work towards keeping exam costs at a level that enables a steady flow of new candidates from all economic levels to earn credentials and enter the workforce.