Which is More Valuable: College Degree or Certification?

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Earlier today I came across an article, Certification—Is it worth it?  This topic comes up in my discussion circles periodically and I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Coming from the perspective of a hiring manager, I can say there are clearly cases where a certification can have equal, or greater, standing than a diploma.

jtpedersen_degree_certification_diplomaWhen hiring software developers, you may find someone with a degree in Computer Science, or, with a Microsoft Certification, such as a MS Certified Software Engineer. There are many, specific certs from MS and other reputable entities.

With reputable, recognized, certifications there are some key benefits. First, since the certifications are well-defined, you -know- what the individual is certified to know. Frequently the certifications are multi-day evaluations, involving written tests as well as practical application (diagnose why a network isn’t working, or write some code).
The other big positive with many certifications: They require periodic (e.g. annual) re-certification with continuing education in order to remain current.

The problem with a degree, is that they’re typically ‘mushy.’ Basically a Computer Science degree tells me the person *went to a 4 year college (and maybe not the same one all the way through); *spent about half their time (e.g. discounting general studies) actually doing something involving software; and, *the school said they know something.

2013 - University of Michigan - Ann ArborSince every college has their own variation on otherwise accredited programs, you don’t -really- know what you’re buying (hiring). In many cases, newly minted software engineers (degreed, not certified) have zero work experience and can be rather immature. Degrees also do not require continuing education to remain valid.

From a purely personal perspective, my eldest daughter has recently started college. With the costs of a degree skyrocketing, and the specific value of the degree being questionable, it is very hard to determine a real-world ROI.

How can I explain to my 19 year old daughter what it might be like to acquire $150-190,000 in debt? That she may need 20 years to pay it off. And, that she might -still- end up serving food after 4 years?

Having been a ‘purchaser’ of goods, I can tell you, I’d rather hire a lightly experienced—certified—developer, than a degreed student with no meaningful work experience. This can also come into play for folks looking to do career path changes when considering yet another degree vs. certification.

Of course, my narrative only works in fields where meaningful certifications can be obtained.

I am very curious on your perspectives. How do you feel about the value of degrees versus certifications (where applicable) in today’s reality?

Image credit(s):
Diploma – Mary Gober
Arch & Student – Torben Photography
Glassroom – Ann-Kathrin Rehse

1 Comment

  1. JT – Great article and a worthwhile conversation. I manage three certification companies and have given lectures on this exact topic. When asked which is a better option a certification or college degree the answer is “it depends.” As you point out some certifications are better than others. Conversely some college degrees (majors) are better than others. From a purely financial standpoint it is challenging to rationalize four years away from the work force and piling up over $100k in debt. It’s even more challenging when you factor in that some students will take more than four years to graduate or even worse – drop out altogether.
    It is important to note that a certification does not mean the holder is an expert. It signifies that the holder meets the minimum qualifications to do a job or task. It takes much more to be an expert.
    Full disclosure – I have a college degree (actually two) and both of my children are going to college. The first one is in ROTC which tilts the financial equation and the second needs the time to figure out a career path.
    -Brad Crump

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