Certification or College Degree: Which Should You Choose? (Hint: both) By Ken Rosen
Posted by Rubel Khan on October 9, 2009
Brian Reinholz wrote an interesting article for Windows IT Pro Magazine about how virtual labs are making college a more realistic continuing education option for busy IT Pros. But while I’m definitely a proponent of virtual labs and a strong believer in the ability of v-labs to make training more streamlined and affordable, I’m actually more intrigued by Brian’s lead-in:
“As a lowly liberal arts alumnus, I’ve developed a growing cynicism for the importance of a college degree. It’s not uncommon for me to advise friends to pursue a skills-based degree or certification, such as for the variety of medical specialist positions out there, over a traditional academic degree… Certifications demonstrate specific expertise in specific technology, preparing you for the real world, right? So what do you need a college degree for? You might think I sound silly by now, but this is how most of us liberal arts majors feel.”
However, Brian goes on to note that IT Pros without a degree feel like they are at a competitive disadvantage:
“After speaking with a few people in the IT industry though, I see that college degrees are still a very big deal, and many IT pros that don’t have a degree feel at a disadvantage compared to young professionals coming out of the gate with one.”
So to sum up, if you accept Brian’s generalizations (and I do in fact hear these views expressed often), IT Pros with college degrees or an online IT degree aren’t sure the return is worth the investment, but IT Pros without degrees are pretty sure it is. During our recent bus tour across the U.S., we heard this question raised a lot: which is better to pursue, a college degree or a technical certification?
My answers then were the same as they are now:
My cop-out answer? Both.
My forced-to-choose answer? Both. (I’ll explain that one in a bit)
Looking back over my career from IT consultant to technical instructor to courseware developer to product manager to marketer to team manager, I can’t mentally subtract either my college degree or my certifications and think for a minute that I’d have enjoyed anywhere near the same level of professional success and satisfaction.
Now that might not seem like such a provocative statement until I add: I graduated from a liberal arts college with a history degree.
How did a history degree prepare me for a twelve-years-and-counting career at Microsoft? By requiring me to prove my ability to research, write, analyze and present—skills that my job requires on a daily basis. For me, college was never about receiving information but rather acquiring skill. I could have majored in computer science, economics, theology, sociology, pretty much anything, and I would have entered the job market with the same valuable skill set.
But that skill set was unfocused—I graduated college in the middle of a recession, and it wasn’t until I acquired my first Microsoft certification that my career took off. When I was able to add a set of skills on a very specific (and very successful) vendor’s software platform to the broader skill set I acquired in college, a world of opportunity was opened for me, because I had proven myself in both general and specific arenas.
And that’s important—because, let’s face it: vendor certifications are essentially a gamble on the long-term success of that company, and even if Microsoft is still a strong player twenty years down the road, I suspect that nobody’s going to remember what an MCSE was by then—but your college degree will probably still hold its worth.
Sounds like I have a bias towards college degrees over certifications, doesn’t it? Truthfully, I do. I think they hold their value longer and they attest to your versatility. But at some point, your company or client is going to place a bet on a vendor, and they’ll place a lot of value on you if you’ve made the same bet.
So do you need to choose after all? No, and here’s why:
If you can afford a college degree—both in time and money—you can afford a technical certification. Instructor-led training is typically the fastest and therefore most expensive way to get certified, but it’s not the only way. You can study at your own pace using e-learning or a self-paced training kit, or take a middle-ground hybrid approach. With the self-discipline to study and practice, you can acquire an MCTS certification—including the prep and the actual exams–for under $200 US. Compared to the cost of a typical four-year college degree, that’s barely even a measureable fraction.
You don’t have to choose between a college degree and a technical certification—and you shouldn’t. Get both, and position yourself for short-term and long-term success.