Published on 2013/11/19

Certificate or Degree? The Eternal Question Solved

Certificate or Degree? The Eternal Question Solved
Degrees and noncredit certificates and certifications have their own benefits and values, but the best option depends on the individual’s situation.

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.

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Readers Comments

Jeff P 2013/11/10 at 5:39 pm

There was an article not too long ago about blending certificates into degree programs and for the life of me I can’t figure out why this isn’t more commonly done! Is it an accreditor issue, where they don’t want to see degree program curricula mashed up with certificate learning? It seems to me that this would be beneficial for students.

Zandra Thomas 2013/11/19 at 10:58 am

THANK YOU! I have been trying to explain this very binary to students, counselors and fellow admins alike the differing benefits of these two credentials but there still seems to be so much confusion. Certificates are for proving you have competence. Degrees are for advancing through the ranks.


Kevin 2013/11/20 at 6:35 pm

Jeff P –

Thanks for reading and commenting.

I do not think that it is so much an accreditation issue as it is an internal departmental issue 1. making sure that the certification courses are combined (if offered internally) to meet the usual Carnegie Unit and Student Hour issue and 2. align with/meets an institution’s degree curriculum requirements. That being said, many training organizations (non-higher education entities) have gone through an ACE evaluation for their programs and colleges can award credit based on that.

Hope that helps,

Kevin 2013/11/20 at 6:36 pm

Zandra –

Thanks for the comment. Glad that I could help.


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