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The Difference Between an IT Certification and an IT Degree

Tech is a dynamic industry with growing employment. If you’re looking for a place to start (or restart) your career, it’s a great choice.

To be competitive for jobs in this field, however, you’ll need preparation and training. So what’s the best way to acquire them?

Most people think of college degrees first. They are, after all, the traditional way to get equipped for many career paths. But if you’ve been exploring your options, you’ve probably also heard about certifications. 

If this has left you wondering whether you need an IT certification or an IT degree, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll explain the differences between these two options and help you think through which might be the best choice for you.


Certificates, certifications, and degrees

Let’s start with some clarification. As if the question about whether it’s best to pursue a certification or a degree isn’t complicated enough, you’ll also come across a third kind of preparation: certificates. To clarify the difference, it would help to briefly describe each of these options.

IT Certificate

A certificate is a credential you receive after completing a course of training or instruction. It indicates that you have been taught something. Coursera is a popular source for certificate courses. 

IT Certification

A key problem with a certificate is that it indicates what you have been taught, but it doesn’t indicate what you have learned. In other words, you could have completed course materials but failed to understand or retain any of the information.

Certifications are designed to solve this problem. Instead of indicating that you have covered certain materials, they demonstrate what you have actually learned and can do. If a certificate shows you’ve taken a class, a certification shows you’ve passed an exam.

For this reason, certifications are not linked to any particular course of study. To receive a certification, it doesn’t matter how you’ve learned what you need to know. It only matters that you know it.

IT Degree

In its structure, a college degree is a combination of the first two types of credentials. It’s a course of study, usually lasting two to four years, and it also includes exams and other means of assessing how well the information has been learned. 

It’s also much more comprehensive than the other two. Certificates and certifications are usually focused on a very specific area of knowledge.


IT certifications vs. IT degrees

Now that you know the basic differences between certificates, certifications, and degrees, let’s go into more detail about IT certifications and degrees. For most people who are interested in IT, these are the two options that really matter.

For each, we’ll give an overview of how they work, what they cost, some popular options in each category, and which jobs they can help you qualify for.


IT Degrees 

How they work: You can receive IT degrees from a college or university on several levels, ranging from an associate degree, which usually takes two years of full-time study, to a doctoral degree, which can take an additional five years after you complete your bachelor’s. 

In the U.S., most college programs combine general education courses in areas like history, literature, and science with a set of courses focused on your major.

What they cost: The range is broad and is affected by factors like institution type and whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student. Many programs also offer financial aid, which can offset some of the costs. That means the actual price you pay could be significantly less than the “sticker price” listed below. 

The average cost for tuition and fees covering one year is:

  • $39,400 at a private college

  • $28,240 for an out-of-state student at a public university

  • $10,950 for an in-state student at a public university

  • $3,860 for a two-year college

Popular degrees: You’ll find programs that offer a broad preparation for jobs in many areas of IT as well as ones that are more focused on a particular career path. 

Some common majors that fit in the first category are computer science and computer and information technology. Computer science focuses on the software side of things and involves plenty of math and programming languages. Computer and information technology, on the other hand, is more applied and will cover topics like hardware, networking, and IT administration.

You can find more focused degrees in areas like cybersecurity or software engineering.

What jobs can you get? A college degree, particularly a bachelor’s, will give you many options when it comes to finding a job. The right major will qualify you for positions like software developer or information security analyst, two of the top 10 jobs in U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of the 100 best jobs.


IT Certifications

How they work: Certifications are awarded when you achieve the required score on a certification exam. Some ways to prepare for an exam are by self-directed study, enrolling in a boot camp, or taking a training course.

Certifications come in two broad categories: vendor-specific and vendor-neutral. The first kind certifies knowledge about software or systems made by a specific company, like Cisco or Microsoft. The second tests for knowledge that applies to an area of interest instead of a particular product, like networking or cloud computing.

They can be offered by companies like Amazon or organizations like CompTIA.

What they cost: Compared to college degrees, the cost of taking a certification exam is minimal. One of the most popular certifications, the CompTIA A+, costs $246. Most certification exams in IT cost less than $500 each. 

However, this doesn’t include any costs that might be associated with getting ready for the exam. If you’re thinking about enrolling in some form of training, you’ll want to keep that cost in mind as well.

Popular certifications: According to Udemy’s Workplace Learning Trends Report, cybersecurity and cloud computing are two areas in IT that are seeing especially strong interest. Accordingly, some of the most popular certifications are in these areas, including AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner and CompTIA Security+.

Another key area in IT is technical support. The CompTIA A+ is a standard qualification for this role and more broadly for entry-level positions in IT.

What jobs can you get? This is a somewhat complicated question because certifications can play an important role in various stages of your IT career.

For those just starting out, a certification like CompTIA A+ can help you get equipped for an entry-level position in technical support. It’s a great first step on a career pathway in tech. 

Other certifications are designed for those who have a year or two of experience and want to demonstrate their expertise in an area of specialization, like networking. Earning a certification at this level can help qualify you to take the next step forward in your career and land a job with greater responsibility and pay.


Should I get an IT degree or certification?

Both of these can be great options, depending on your goals, your constraints, and where you are in your career.  

Here are some key questions to ask yourself:

Are you in a hurry? If you are already in the workforce and looking to switch careers, a faster option will be more attractive. Earning a certification is a much quicker route into a job than a degree.

How important are financial considerations? A college degree is a significant investment of both time and money and you may not be earning much while you complete your degree. On the other hand, you can earn a certification for relatively little cost while you keep your full-time job.

What are your career goals? There are some jobs in IT for which you’ll probably need a college degree. For instance, if you want to go into AI and machine learning, a bachelor’s degree is required. 

Want a bit more help thinking through the pros and cons of each option? Have a look at another post we wrote on deciding between an IT degree or an IT certification.


Thinking of pursuing a certification? We can help.

Maybe this article has helped you gain some clarity about which path forward is best for you. If you’re considering getting started in IT with a certification, we can help.

We’ve created an online program specifically designed for people like you who want to get started in an IT career and want to do so quickly and affordably. 

Here’s how it works: You’ll receive 16 weeks of live, online, instructor-led training by industry experts. They’ll teach you everything you need to know to succeed on the CompTIA A+ exam, the most popular certification for those beginning a career in IT.

You get much more than just exam prep, however. You get career prep. We’ll help you get ready for the job market with services like career coaching, professional resume help, and interview preparation. You’ll even get assistance in networking and connecting with employers who are looking for candidates with your skills and training. 

Intrigued? Find out more about how to launch your career with the IT-Ready Technical Support (online) program from CompTIA Tech Career Academy.