Certificate or Degree? The Eternal Question SolvedKevin Currie | Special Advisor to the Dean of the College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University
One question that often comes up for adults trying to decide about going back to school to finish their degree is “Would I be better off getting a noncredit certification in a few weeks or taking a few years to complete my degree?” The answer is more complicated than it seems and depends whether you have a short-term need or a long-term goal.
The 1980s and 1990s were times of great transition in many industries, and the technical field was one of the most dynamically changing. As software development changed from the legacy languages (Fortran, COBOL and Assembly language) into things like C, C++, and Object Oriented programming, companies were in dire need of people trained in these new languages. The same thing was true of in-office networking, as organizations implemented Novell and Microsoft products. With a ten-week training program (50 days full-time) that resulted in a noncredit certificate, one could come in with little or no technical background and graduate into a $60,000 annual salary. Government training funds were readily available, job placement rates for graduates were very high, and these training organizations (some of which were housed in higher education units) expanded operations yearly. This all came to a crashing halt with the bursting of the “dot-com” bubble and other negative economic events that followed throughout the early 2000s.
As the technology companies downsized (or closed), other industries had access to a greatly increased number of well-trained (and now experienced and unemployed) job applicants. These organizations could be more selective and require a much higher standard for employment than when the applicant pool was smaller.
This is where the “Would I be better off …” questions come into play.
Technical managers handed over the hiring process to human resources along with a “wish list description” for a job candidate. That wish list included experience and academic credentials. Candidates may have had years of experience and the appropriate certifications, but if they did not meet the academic degree threshold, they did not even make the interview cut. The constant variation within the non-credit certification supply and demand employment market (versus licensure for electricians, plumbers, etc.) will most probably always exist.
Most degrees are created to educate students in discipline areas and are developed to provide individuals with skills they can use across systems and programs. Some degrees do incorporate vendor-specific certifications (i.e., Microsoft, Cisco, etc.). One has to wonder if the employment demand for and currency of a specific vendor certification will be there upon graduation and if that class time might not have been better invested in increased knowledge of the field in general. Other degrees are developed with third-party certifications (vs. vendor certification) such as Project Management Professional or CompTIA for technical professionals.
If you already have a degree, a certification (either credit or non-credit) will make you more attractive to an employer and can assist in career transition efforts. If you do not have a degree, certification may solve your short-term employment issues, but to improve your long-term employment and income prospects a degree is the right choice.
Author Perspective: Administrator