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Combining certifications and college degrees on the IT career path

A college degree or certification -- which is better? Each has its own merits, but having both can put you on a successful IT career path.

As somebody who's solicited and fielded planning, development and strategy questions for more than a decade about what's the best IT career path to take, one of the most common questions I hear goes something like this:

Which is better: an IT certification or a college degree?

The truth is that prospective employers don't see college degree and IT certification as an either-or proposition. Simply put, their real answer to this question is both. That's because a college degree and an IT certification mean different things and have different perceived values.

What's the value of a college degree?

A college degree -- preferably a bachelor's degree or higher, though an associate's degree does count -- says quite a bit about the person who earns it. It indicates someone is capable of learning something new. It also speaks to someone having a basic understanding of subject matter related to a specific degree program; for IT, this would be something like computer science, information technology or management information systems. Earning a degree shows that a person used time-management skills to study and met the background and subject matter requirements for graduation. Career counselors often talk about college degrees as being as much about learning how to learn as they are about specific subjects and courses.

What's the value of Microsoft and other IT certifications?

Even for the most intermediate certifications like the MCSA, MCSE and MCSD, IT certification is a narrow and focused kind of credential, especially at the entry level. These credentials speak to specific tools or platforms with a set of skills and knowledge defined in exam objectives, taught in the study guides or training materials and then tested to ensure an appropriate level of understanding, retention, skills and knowledge.

A certification is proof of specifically learning something important or essential to filling a particular job role. Employers often rely on this kind of thing to help them select qualified applicants. Microsoft partnering arrangements for training delivery, software development, solutions design and delivery or consulting may even require employers to maintain a cadre of people on staff with current MS certification.

The truth is that prospective employers don't see college degree and IT certification as an either-or proposition. Simply put, their real answer to this question is both.

All of this explains why earning both a college degree and Microsoft certification is good for current and prospective professionals figuring out the best IT career path to follow. It also raises an interesting question for those considering an IT career, those considering earning their first such degree or those considering a return to school to earn another degree: Why not find a program that lets you do both together? There is good news for IT professional asking this question; an increasing number of higher education providers are creating degree programs to include Microsoft certification courses.

How community colleges can offer excellent value to students

Although community colleges primarily offer associate degrees, they also act as feeder schools for students who want a bachelor's degree without absorbing the higher costs of a four-year school.

Community colleges often receive partial funding through local tax revenues to foster workforce development. They've offered adult and continuing education programs for Microsoft and other certifications for two decades, often independently from their two-year degree programs. But an increasing number of these institutions are creating programs that combine these credentials.

In general, earning an associate's degree means completing a course of study that usually consists of 60 or more credits over two years. The commitment level and expenses, which usually run $50 to $75 per credit hour, generally stay the same in programs incorporating Microsoft certification.  

More on potential discounts

Students attending accredited colleges and universities qualify for discounts in Microsoft software and certification exams. Find more information about potential discounts here.

But in other programs, adding Microsoft training to typical degree requirements can add anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 to underlying fees per credit hour for MCSA certification (double that for MCSE or MCSD). This doesn't include costs for labs, books, certification exams or even a computer. Look for relevant "certificate tracks" when you browse their offerings because they often aim at specific certifications.

Combining a degree and certification to improve your career outlook

Colleges and universities aren't always focused on workforce development. You'll have to do more homework to find institutions that offer combined degree and certification programs to set you on the right IT career path.

You'll also have to consider whether you want to absorb the necessary costs to participate in such programs. The range of online coursework and MCSE certification can run between $60,000 and $80,000.

By researching programs that include combined degree and certification offerings with rating services, such as the US News and World Report Best Schools website, you should be able to zero in on the schools that offer the best value.

By finding a program or combining programs that will let you get an associate's or bachelor's degree along with MCSA or MCSE certification, you'll hit the workforce better prepared than most graduates. It may cost a bit more, but the value of not having to consider getting either a degree or a certification may make the extra cost worth it. Employers want both degree and certification -- why not take the necessary steps to give them what they want?

About the author:
Ed Tittel is a long-time computing industry guy who's been in and around the trenches for more than 30 years. He's also the author of HTML For Dummies, which first appeared in 1995 and for which a 14th edition is scheduled for 2013 release. In addition, Ed blogs on IT careers and certifications for TechTarget, Tom's IT Pro and, and on Windows topics for TechTarget as well.

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Neither degrees or certifications guarantee that you'll be an amazing employee. But I agree, having both will look great on paper and will most likely open more doors for you. I personally have a degree but no current certifications. I would only consider adding one or more certs to my resume if I had a specific purpose for obtaining them that would make it worth the time, effort and money.
I agree that earning a degree and getting certified is a good strategy for many people. In the first few years after earning a degree, it may feel like you are competing for jobs you could have gotten without it. As many careers progress, however, the critical thinking and discipline associated with earning a degree become even more important to demonstrate and finding the time to go back to school becomes harder and harder.  I agree with Abuell, that specific opportunities should guide what certifications are the right fit, rather than some general wisdom about what is a "good" certification.
In my opinion, this depends on the person's experience.  If you're straight out of college or you are new to a career, it might be the only way that you can obtain a position.  I experienced the conundrum right after college which goes like this...."I can't get a job because i have no experience, and i can't get any experience because I don't have a job".  I found it very important to land that first job so that my resume would grow to show the experience and work that I had done.

For certain specific roles, it may be a true requirement to get certification in order to be considered for the role (e.g. ITIL, Microsoft Certification, PMP, etc).  I understand this requirement.  However, when i have interviewed and taken in candidates for jobs, I have looked at many other factors.

For one, I have never assumed that everything on the resume was accurate.  I also never assumed that just because someone had a certification, this meant they were qualified to work in that field.  I spend my time interviewing them to determine if their resume IS accurate.  Did they really do what they said they were doing in the roles, can they give me specifics of their role in the projects they worked on, can they tell me the struggles, the risks, the mitigation, and can they tell me the highlights and the roadblocks along the way.

I also try to give them a real life example and examine how they think.  It is more important to me how they derive their answer to my question than the answer itself.

So if you're looking to land that perfect job, you have to determine if certifications are the core needs from the business you're trying to fit into.  If not, then you should be prepared to show growth, experience, and hands on work in the field you're attempting to move into.
"Career counselors often talk about college degrees as being as much about learning how to learn as they are about specific subjects and courses."

This is exactly my view looking back to my university years I began nearly 2 decades ago. We had to learn many things.
To learn about things we were passionate about (of course, computers and
programming), to learn about their scientific foundation (mathematics,
physics), to learn related and not-so-much-related disciplines
(chemistry, biology, history, sociology, economics,.. the list goes on),
and to learn what and why it’s all about (philosophy, systems theory,

Yeah, memorized and / or never used stuff faded away. But I got this kind of "brain stretching" that formed my researcher’s mentality and engineering attitude serving well in testing - and transferable to many other areas.