How to Save on the High Cost of Getting an IT Certification
In his novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL (regional pronunciations vary; check your locals) which stands for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."
Well, there ain't (sic) no such thing as a free IT certification either. For the most part, anyway. The costs associated with earning an IT certification vary from program to program, but they are usually significant. It takes both time and money to earn a professional certification in any industry, and IT is no exception.
Unfortunately, the cost of getting certified can keep many people from going after an IT credential of their own. But, just like every other product or service, there are a few strategies a candidate can employ to help lower the price tag on a new certification.
Free is the new Free
Free training isn't always the best training, but certification students on a budget shouldn't shy away from seeking out free online courses and other IT education resources.
The best place to start looking for free training is the certification program's home website. Hardware and software manufacturers who run their own certification programs genuinely want people to get certified on their products, which is why they will often offer up free training materials or online courses. Many product vendors also run industry webinars which students can attend for the price of coughing up an email address, and agreeing to receive a few pieces of promotional email from the vendor every month.
Industry organizations like CompTIA and ISACA are the same as product vendors in this regard — they are willing to offer some free training resources and webinars to encourage people to earn their certifications.
When it comes to free training, Microsoft has gone one step further with the creation of the Microsoft Virtual Academy. MVA is a treasure trove of free online courses covering Microsoft's most popular technologies. MVA users can also register to take part in live online events. Everything at MVA is on the house; all that's needed is a Microsoft account to get you in the door.
If you read our recent article on massive open online courses (MOOCs), you'll know about online education portal edX which is chock full of free online courses, including almost 100 computer science-related courses as of this writing. Similar to edX, many colleges and universities have created their own free online education sites. One such site is webcast.berkeley, a site operated by the University of California, Berkeley.
The main disadvantage of MOOCs and university-related online education sites, is that the content is not tied to a specific certification. These high-level overview types of courses are better for people who want to earn a foundation-level IT credential.
Everyone loves a sale
Moving away from free options, students looking for lower-priced training should (as with free training) start with the certification vendor's site. Certification program managers often team up with training material companies so they can offer discounted versions of training manuals, video courseware, and other products.
Certification vendors, just like every other vendor (well, maybe not Apple), offer sales on their training materials and exam vouchers throughout the year. The best way to stay informed on upcoming promotions is to subscribe to the vendor's newsletter or other email publication. Yes, it means getting a few extra sales-related messages every month, but knowing when the exam voucher you need will be offered at a discount is worth the nuisance.
Ask the boss
If you are already working in the IT industry, a great way to mitigate the cost of earning a new certification is to ask your current employer to cover the training and exam fees. This strategy requires some skilful communication on your part, but many candidates are surprised by their employer's positive response to this proposal.
The key is to emphasize the mutual benefit: You will gain by earning a new industry credential, and your employer will gain by having a more educated employee with new knowledge and/or skills they can leverage.
If your manager balks at covering the full cost, try to negotiate down to getting them to split the bill with you. This option will still save you a tidy sum of money, while giving your employer a compromise they will feel better about accepting.
Hey Gov, can you spare a grant?
Finally, candidates looking for financial aid for a certification program should look into government-sponsored assistance programs. These programs, which often take the form of a grant payment to qualifying candidates, can be found at all levels of government from municipal to federal.
To find these programs, visit the relevant government websites for your location and look for items that mention "job stimulus programs" or "IT training grants."