IT Certifications vs. Degree: What’s the Difference?
In the dynamic landscape of the tech industry, an ongoing debate surrounds the value of obtaining IT certifications compared to traditional 4-year degrees. Whether you are a prospective technologist launching your IT career or a seasoned professional looking to build on or alter your tech career path, it is important to understand the nuances of each option in order to determine which path best suits your individual needs, goals, interests, and learning style.
In this post, we will explore the pros and cons of obtaining practical technical certifications through bootcamps and courses versus pursuing the comprehensive education provided by a traditional 4-year degree.
Understanding IT Certifications
To prepare for and land a good, well-paying job, it is a common belief that one must attend college and earn, at minimum, a 4-year Bachelor’s degree. However, in the field of tech, there are many alternative and non-traditional ways to start or advance your tech career with no formal degree.
For those looking to enter into the tech field, specific certifications are necessary to take on most roles. While possessing a traditional 4-year college degree can potentially give applicants a leg up in the job search, certifications are often the main requirement for many roles in tech.
IT certifications serve as industry-recognized credentials, validating a professional’s expertise in specific areas and skill sets. Preparing for and passing a certification exam ensures that a candidate has obtained an adequate level of experience in the field and verifies a candidate’s ability to problem solve on the spot and apply their knowledge to examples of real-world situations.
Prominent technical certifications include the CompTIA A+ certification, Network+ certification, CompTIA Security+ certification, and more. Each certification caters to a different subset of the IT field, preparing technologists with the skills necessary to directly take on a position in an area that best suits their professional interests.
Benefits of IT Certifications
Specialization and Expertise
One of the wonderful things about working in tech is that the industry is so broad and multifaceted, with an almost endless array of paths to pursue. Rather than a degree, which covers a broad range of knowledge, certifications empower individuals to become highly specialized in niche areas of interest, making them sought-after professionals in their chosen domains. It is not always easy to decide which certifications to obtain, especially when so many options exist, but the wealth of choice allows you to focus on your individual areas of interest and gain the specific skill sets required for positions of your choice.
Certification options range from beginner to highly advanced levels, allowing technologists to not only get started in IT, but also specialize and steer their career paths in the direction of their choice.
They can also serve as stepping-stones towards higher education once you have determined your specific interests and have the resources to pursue a degree, or can supplement, develop, and specialize the skills of those already in possession of a higher-level degree.
Furthermore, as certifications need to be renewed regularly, they verify that your knowledge and skills are up to date in your area of interest.
Certification programs are often more cost-effective and time-efficient, enabling quicker entry into the workforce by developing specific, practical skills. Unlike a typical 4-year degree program, certifications can be earned rapidly, or at an individual’s own pace.
As previously mentioned, pursuing certifications allows technologists to rapidly gain the skills needed for specific roles, rather than covering a broad array of knowledge over several years. Bootcamp-style training programs, including Per Scholas, prepare technologists to earn certifications within 12 to 15 weeks through intensive training. They can range from cost-free (like Per Scholas) to several thousand dollars, making them much more affordable than a traditional degree, which can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Technologists can also study for certification exams at their own pace through guided self-study, which is highly cost-effective and can be flexibly catered to fit into a busy schedule.
Employers value certifications for their demonstration of hands-on knowledge, providing candidates with a competitive edge and facilitating recognition in the job market. Certifications are not necessarily required for all roles, but obtaining certain certifications indicates to hiring managers that you are proficient with up-to-date knowledge in those areas covered by the certification exam.
Preparing for and earning a technical certification helps translate your training and skills into real-life applications, whichever tech career you choose to take on. Many companies prefer candidates who have certifications, because it validates knowledge of best practices. According to research by the International Data Corporation (IDC), “96% of human resources managers use IT certifications as screening or hiring criteria during recruitment.”
CompTIA is one of the largest issuers of professional certifications in the IT industry, and their array of certifications are recognized industry-wide as confirmation of a candidate’s skills.
Further research by the IDC revealed that once hired, CompTIA-certified professionals typically perform at a higher level than their non-certified peers over time, and were found to possess higher levels of confidence in their own abilities and greater knowledge bases on a variety of topics. They also proved to be more reliable in their work over time and reached job proficiency more rapidly than their non-certified counterparts.
Limitations of Relying Solely on Certifications
There are, of course, some drawbacks that must also be taken into account when considering whether to pursue IT certifications as your path into tech. For example, one disadvantage of taking the certification route is that certifications require continuous updates in order for the knowledge and skills covered to stay up-to-date and relevant in the ever-evolving tech landscape.
CompTIA A+ certifications are valid for 3 years from the date the exam is passed, after which the certification will need to be renewed – through participating in specific training courses or obtaining new, higher level certifications – or retaken. However, this could also be seen as a potential benefit, as it certifies that your skills are up-to-date.
Another drawback is that, despite the efficacy of certifications, some employers may prioritize candidates with degrees over just certifications, potentially affecting job opportunities. Furthermore, candidates with degrees may earn higher salaries than those with certifications, at least initially. This is changing, and the high demand for technologists means that many employers value candidates with certifications, but there are still cases in which a degree may be prioritized for certain positions within the field.
Finally, earning lower-level certifications that allow you to break into the tech field (rather than more advanced ones used to specialize existing careers) will primarily prepare you to take on entry-level positions, while degrees may allow you to land higher-level positions right off the bat. Although you can certainly work your way to higher positions while starting with a certification, you should be aware that you will most likely be entering the field at closer to entry level.
Delving into Traditional IT Degrees
Traditional IT degrees, such as a Bachelor’s in Computer Science or Information Systems, provide a comprehensive education spanning various aspects of technology. A degree may also help individuals develop a range of skills applicable beyond the IT sector, including leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication. These additional skills may give you a further leg up in the job search, as they are attractive to potential employers.
Furthermore, on average, individuals with degrees earn more than those with certifications (at least initially – this gap tends to close over time as technologists with certifications advance their careers), and are more likely to land at higher-level positions when entering the workforce.
As with certifications, there are a number of different IT degrees that you can choose from in order to pursue your specific interests and career goals. According to employment website, Indeed, the most popular tech Bachelor’s degrees are in Information Technology, Information Systems, and Computer Science. These are both broad fields, which typically allow students to take electives that allow them to concentrate in their specific areas of interest.
Bachelor’s degree programs in the following sub-fields are slightly more rare and may also present as elective concentrations within the larger majors of Information Technology, Information Systems, and Computer Science:
- Web Development
- Web Design
- Computer Networking
- System Administration
- Database Management
- Software Development
Master’s Degrees do exist in each of the above-mentioned sub-fields, allowing you to further explore your specific interests. Master’s Degrees can be an excellent way to stand out to employers as they display an advanced knowledge in specialized areas. They can also prepare you to take on more advanced and higher-level roles within the tech field.
Advantages of Holding an IT Degree
Bachelor’s degree programs offer a broad understanding of foundational concepts, shaping well-rounded professionals ready for diverse roles. Furthermore, as many topics are covered, Bachelor’s degree programs may be a great way to determine your specific areas of interest, while Master’s degree programs can help you deepen your knowledge and hone your skills in that chosen area of interest.
Broader Career Opportunities
Possessing a degree opens doors to an array of career opportunities and positions in the tech industry. Some employers place a greater value on applicants who possess degrees, giving those candidates a leg up in the job search and making it easier for them to land more advanced positions right off the bat, and potentially earn higher salaries.
Degree programs emphasize the development of strong foundational skills applicable across various technology domains. Unlike certifications, they do not need to be regularly renewed, and can serve as a widely-recognized, lifelong confirmation of knowledge; however, this can also be seen as a detriment as a lack of renewal means skills and knowledge may not be up-to-date with the latest technologies.
Potential Drawbacks of IT Degrees
As with earning certifications, there are a number of drawbacks to earning a 4-year IT degree. Firstly, there is a significant time commitment associated with this path, as the average Bachelor’s degree consists of 4 years of study, and the average Master’s degree lasts at least 2 years. This investment of time delays entry into the workforce and can also be difficult to fit into a daily schedule.
There is also a great financial burden that comes with earning a degree, significantly larger than that of becoming certified. Depending on the institution, Bachelor’s degrees can cost from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Master’s degrees can cost even more. Pursuing a higher education degree is a significant financial investment – one you should be sure of before committing to if cost is a deciding factor.
Another setback is that, in some cases, while degree programs provide a great deal of knowledge, they can contain less focus on hands-on experience and practical job-readiness training, whereas certifications prepare you directly to take on specific, real-world roles.
Finally, many tech roles do not require degrees, and more and more employers are now accepting certifications as an adequate requirement for hiring. There is always the risk that, after investing the time and money into earning a degree, you will be just as qualified in the eyes of employers as those with certifications. It also may be the case that you will appear overqualified for certain positions, potentially making it more difficult to land entry-level jobs after graduation.
Certifications vs Degrees: Which Path is Right for You?
Now armed with insights into the advantages and limitations of both paths, it’s time to make a choice that aligns with your career goals, interests, and resources. There are pros and cons associated with both certifications and degrees, and you should weigh these carefully when determining the best option for yourself.
Certifications can rapidly prepare people to directly take on specific roles in tech, are much more cost effective, and can be chosen and stacked to cater to individual interests and career goals. However, they need to be renewed regularly in order to be officially recognized – unlike degrees, which are good for life – and provide a more narrow and less comprehensive education.
Degrees provide a broad education, may be prioritized by some employers in the hiring process, and may allow you to take on higher-level roles when first starting out in the field. However, degrees can be extremely expensive, take a significant amount of time to complete, may offer less hands-on, job-specific training, and may not be necessary for many roles in the tech workforce.
Consider individual career aspirations and choose a path that best suits goals: certifications may be preferable for quick, cost-effective entry into specialized roles, while degrees offer a broader foundation for diverse career trajectories.
Per Scholas’ Role in Your Journey
Per Scholas plays a crucial role in supporting those who choose to pursue IT certifications. There are many prohibitive factors that can prevent people from pursuing degrees in IT, including cost, time constraints, and unequal access to resources and education.
At Per Scholas, we are committed to helping break down those barriers that may prevent people from entering the tech field by providing training that allows individuals to earn certifications in tech at no individual cost. Certifications can be an excellent launching pad for a rapidly growing number of positions in tech, and can help guide and shape career paths to success.
Our commitment to diversity bridges the tech skills gap and provides opportunities for underserved communities, creating on-ramps and achievable paths to enter the tech workforce for those typically underrepresented in the field.
Conclusion: Carving Your Unique Path in Tech
In conclusion, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the certifications vs. degrees debate. It is important to assess your goals, resources, interests, and learning style in order to make an informed decision that carves your unique path in the ever-evolving world of technology.
If you think certifications are right for you, are you ready to take the next step? Sign up for Per Scholas courses and embark on your journey to a successful IT career!
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