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IT certification vs. degree: Which is better for your career?

IT professionals can further their skills through degree programs and certifications. While certifications are a cost-effective option, degrees offer a more well-rounded education.

If you're looking to further your knowledge in IT-related fields, there are two paths to take -- certifications and degrees. Both paths have benefits, but they are certainly not the same.

You must have an end goal in mind and know what each option offers before taking the plunge. Considerations include where you currently are in your career, how much time you have to devote to studies and what field you want to work in.

Explore the difference between IT certifications and degrees, and find out when one is preferable over the other to further your career in IT. Also, delve into the world of certificates, a different animal from both certifications and degrees that occupies a space somewhere in between the two.

IT certification vs. degree: What are the differences?

The main differences between certifications and college degrees are the time it takes to earn them, the cost associated and the amount of knowledge gained during studies. That said, if you choose to take the degree path, learning shouldn't end after earning your degree. Certifications might very well be the next step in keeping your knowledge and skills fresh in your chosen IT field.

View our list of top certifications and degrees to advance your career in IT.

This graphic shows the differences between IT certifications and college degrees.
Here are some of the key differences between IT certifications and college degrees.

Time commitment

It takes four years to earn a bachelor's IT degree through a traditional program. This means a time commitment of eight semesters with four classes each semester. Most classes are three credit hours, meaning, if you take four classes, you will be spending at least 12 hours in the classroom each week -- plus homework, studying and labs. If you want a master's degree -- in, say, cybersecurity -- or other graduate degree, add two or more years to this time frame.

The main differences between certifications and college degrees are the time it takes to earn them, the cost associated and the amount of knowledge gained during studies.

If you're working full time, it may not be possible to take a full course load on top of 40-plus hours of work each week. If you choose the degree path while working full time, you might choose to take one or two classes each semester instead, extending the period of time it will take to earn that degree.

Certifications, on the other hand, offer more specific training in a shorter time frame. Earning a certification can take up to six months, depending on what field you're studying. This makes it much easier to gain knowledge in a given field if you're working full time.

Though certifications take less time to earn, you will gain more knowledge from a degree program. While degree programs offer core coursework for your chosen field of study, you will also take more general classes in the arts and sciences for a more well-rounded education.

Cost and affordability

According to EducationData.org, the average cost of in-state college tuition for one year at a four-year public institution is just over $9,500. One year at four-year private institution is even higher, at just over $13,000. Keep in mind, this is the cost of tuition only. Books, labs, room and meal plans will put these numbers at an even higher price point.

Partnerships

Some technology companies -- such as CRM giant Salesforce -- may choose to partner with universities to bring specialized software training -- and college credit -- to students. Learn about the partnership Salesforce has with Southern New Hampshire University.

Certifications, however, come in at a considerably lower price. The cost of a certification is generally made up of whatever books you need to study the material plus the cost of sitting for the certification exam. Depending on the certification, this can run anywhere from $100 to $2,000.

For example, a CompTIA offers core certifications in IT fundamentals starting at just over $100 per exam. More advanced CompTIA certifications are pricier and can cost upward of $450.

Cisco, as a vendor, offers a slew of certifications -- some with testing and proctoring online -- in five categories: entry level, associate, professional, expert and architect. The price point for entry-level certifications is just over $150 to sit for the exam. Cisco certification exams increase in price as the level of expertise rises, topping out at over $15,000 for the architect exam.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of IT certifications available. Other certifications that IT professionals can look into for vendors, for instance, include VMware, Microsoft, Salesforce and AWS.

When is an IT certification the better option?

If you're seeking a junior-level position and want to quickly enter the workforce, a certification might be the path to take. An entry-level certification will enable you to skill up quickly and cost effectively.

Certifications are also a good option to acquire in-demand job skills after you have earned a degree. These certifications will enable you to demonstrate your knowledge of emerging technology and help you climb the ranks more quickly where you work.

Check out top cybersecurity, IoT training and access management certifications; learn how to evaluate cloud certification training courses.

When is an IT degree the better option?

If you have the time and resources to spare, the degree route is the way to go. While you may spend more time and money studying to earn a college degree, a degree will last forever. A certification may only last a few years before you need to sit for the exam again to recertify. And when you recertify, be prepared to study new information, as tests will change along with technology advancements.

When the cost is high

Cisco has made it easier to maintain certifications, adding continuing education as an option to keep expert-level certifications. However, the cost is high. Learn more about this option.

Many employers also tend to hire people with four-year degrees over certifications only, and senior IT jobs are generally only open to those with degrees. While it is certainly not unheard of to hire people without an IT degree, it is the exception rather than the rule.

A degree may also be a good option if your company offers tuition reimbursement. This will enable you to earn a degree at no cost -- or at the very least, a highly discounted rate.

Certifications vs. certificate programs

While these sound similar, certification and certificate programs are two totally different things. Here are some differences between the two:

Certifications

  • Certifications result from an assessment that tests knowledge on skills in a given area.
  • They typically mean studying on your own and paying to sit for an exam.
  • Certifications usually require professional experience to build on and update skills.
  • They expire, requiring you to update your knowledge and sit for an exam every two or three years.
  • Third parties typically award certifications.

Certificate programs

  • Certificate programs offer a more structured educational process -- much like degree programs; include a series of courses. You can complete these in less time than a traditional degree, however.
  • These programs can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to complete, depending on the field.
  • They are typically more expensive to complete than certifications, but less costly than degrees.
  • Certificate programs are good for both experienced professionals and newcomers to the field.
  • Educational institutions typically award certificates.

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