IT Degree or Certification: What’s the Best Path for High School Students Interested in Information Technology?
As you get closer to graduation, you’re probably giving a lot of thought to which path makes the most sense for your future. Maybe you’re interested in IT because you have enjoyed the experience you’ve had with computers and are wondering what it looks like to make a career out of your interest. Or maybe you’ve just heard it is a field with lots of opportunity.
In either case, this question is probably at the front of your mind: Is an IT degree or certification the best way to get started? We’ll help you start thinking through the options.
We’ll begin with an overview of the two options, take a deeper dive into certifications, and end with some questions you can ask yourself to help guide your choice.
IT Degree vs. Certification: An Overview of Each Option
A College Degree
How It Works:
If you want to land a job in IT after you graduate from college, there are two common bachelor’s degrees to pursue. The first is in computer science. This degree has a theoretical focus and will involve the study of mathematics, engineering, and logic. It is a great choice if your primary interest is in things like machine learning, software design, and artificial intelligence.
The second is in computer and information technology (also just called “information technology”). Though there is overlap between the two, this has a more applied focus and is best for those interested in computer systems, networking, security, or mobile devices.
There are many options when it comes to getting your degree, from traditional four-year colleges to online programs. The standard model, however, will require around four years of study.
Maximum opportunity: Though companies are increasingly open to hiring employees without a four-year degree, there are still many positions that require it. This is particularly true in certain areas. If you would like a position in machine learning, for instance, your employer will probably want a college degree.
Depth & Breadth: When you complete a BS in computer science or information technology, you will have taken courses in many areas. You’ll also have completed advanced work in one or more areas, giving you a combination of breadth and depth.
Cost: Total costs (including tuition, books, room and board) for a bachelor’s degree at a public university average a minimum of $101,948 for in-state tuition. Even if you receive generous financial aid, college is a major expense.
- Time: This is another cost we don’t usually think about. Four years is a lot of your life. By the time you graduate you could have already been several years into your career.
How It Works:
A certification is a credential you receive upon the successful completion of an examination in a specific area. Some of these can be very focused, for instance on a single programming language, while others cover broad areas within IT. There are various organizations that develop and award these certifications, from Amazon to Google to CompTIA.
In a university setting, your degree is really a kind of certification, and the same institution both teaches you and certifies that you have successfully learned the material. In contrast, when you test for a certification, you are responsible to learn the material on your own in preparation for the exam. There are lots of ways you can do that, including self-study and online courses.
Once you have a certification, this gives employers a way to know the skills you possess and the jobs you’re prepared to do.
Clarity: Employers usually have a practical focus. They need a certain set of skills for a certain job function. While a degree may tell them you are broadly trained in an area, a certification lets them know you have the specific skills and knowledge they’re looking for.
Up-to-Date: Professors at a university are not always at the cutting edge of their fields. This is particularly true in an area like IT, which changes rapidly. Certifications are developed in consultation with those working in the field and are designed to reflect the latest developments.
- Cost: The only cost you have to pay for a certification is the fee for the exam itself. This varies by certification, but is usually only in the hundreds of dollars. Amazon’s AWS Cloud Practitioner foundational-level exam, for example, costs just $100. You may incur other costs, depending upon how you choose to prepare for the exam. Still, any training course is going to cost dramatically less than a college degree.
Some Limits: As we mentioned above, some jobs still require a four-year degree. Depending upon your area of interest, you may need a degree instead of (or in addition to) your certificate.
For most people, the university path is pretty familiar. However, you’re likely to have more questions about certification. Let’s look at some of the most common.
Is a Certificate Really Enough to Get a Job?
Many assume that if you want a real job that pays well in an industry like IT, you need a college degree. This assumption is understandable since this used to be true. In some industries, it still is.
Yet tech has been a leader in de-emphasizing a college degree as a job requirement. This isn’t surprising for an industry that is used to disrupting the settled ways of doing things. Prominent corporations like Microsoft are “shifting to skills candidates possess as opposed to how they acquired them,” according to Lauren Gardner, vice president of global talent acquisition for the company. In other words, it isn’t the degree that matters, but the abilities you possess.
Glass Door, a huge repository of insider data about workplaces, notes that some of the biggest names in tech, including Google, Apple, and IBM, have dropped a college degree requirement from hiring for many positions.
This attitude appears to be widespread. Robert Half, a recruiting agency, reports that 89% of tech leaders are willing to hire candidates that have technical training but no college degree. Technical training programs are often connected with a specific certification.
In short, the tech sector is one in which it is increasingly possible to find a job without the traditional four-year college degree. All you need is the certification to show a potential employer you have the skills needed.
But If I Only Have a Certificate, Will that Limit My Career Growth?
While it may be true that advancing into certain positions will require more than a certificate, beginning with one does not limit your future growth. Why not?
The most obvious reason is that you can always earn a college degree later if you find that you need one. Moreover, you may well discover that your employer will help make this possible by subsidizing your costs.
Amazon, for example, created its Career Choice Program to help employees earn certifications and college degrees in high-demand fields in tech. The Robert Half research mentioned above also found tech managers are actively subsidizing costs for certifications and training for entry- and junior-level employees.
So a certificate can often function as just the first step on a path of further training, which can happen while you’re also earning money and working on your career at the same time.
If I’m Interested in Certification, Where Should I Start?
Many certifications out there are designed to build upon some foundation of knowledge or experience one already has in the field. Those aren’t going to be the best choice for someone just out of high school.
On the other hand, others are intended to establish the basic skills and knowledge needed for any career in IT. This kind of certification is perfect for those just starting out.
The CompTIA A+ is probably the most widely known and trusted. It assesses the areas of security, networking, operating systems, cloud computing, hardware management, and technical support. Earning this certificate will prepare you for help desk jobs and other positions in tech support.
In that role, you’ll get hands-on experience with many areas of IT, which will help you identify those domains that most interest you. As we discussed above, you’re likely to also have opportunities for further training, which will prepare you for advancement into more specialized roles in areas like network administration or security.
IT Degree or Certification? Questions to Ask Yourself
As you continue to discern which path might be best for you, here are some questions that can help to guide you:
How important are costs? The difference between the two options is significant. If you want to minimize upfront costs, a certification is your best option.
Are you in a hurry? Some people are eager to jump into a career and start earning money, while others don’t mind taking longer to get there. Preparing for and earning a certification is possible in just a few months.
Do you want breadth or focus? A college degree will give you time and space to explore a lot of areas. A certification is more focused on a set of practical skills.
How important is the “college experience”? There’s no question that a traditional college experience on campus is rewarding and enriches your education with many other opportunities. If that is a high value for you, a degree may make the most sense.
What is your area of interest? As we noted earlier, some jobs in IT will require a degree (in some cases, even a graduate degree). If you are passionate about a specific area, do your homework to see what is required.
Next Steps Toward Certification
Are you interested in exploring the path of certification in more depth?
CompTIA Tech Career Academy offers a program that will train you in the most important areas of IT and prepare you to take the CompTIA A+ exam. You can be ready for the job market in as little as 16 weeks.
Plus, you’ll receive expert support in building your resume, finding a position, and preparing for interviews.