Which Is Best for IT: Certifications or a University Degree?

College vs Certs concept art

The question as to whether university degrees are superior to industry certifications or vice versa is an old one and there's more than one answer. The IT industry embraces a broad spectrum of disciplines — everything from technical support and web development to data analysis, cybersecurity analysis, and business development — each of which calls for a unique skill set. An aspiring IT professional's choice of role, aptitude, circumstances, and ambition determine whether certifications alone will suffice, or whether a college degree is required.


In an industry where new technologies continuously emerge to replace older ones with amazing rapidity, redundancy is an everyday reality. To remain professionally relevant, IT pros need to reskill frequently. Certifications are a means of doing this, and of retaining one's competitive edge.


Both degrees and certifications have their own value. Whether a degree by itself, or specifically chosen certifications, or a blend of the two, is the most professionally beneficial option hinges on a candidate's aptitude, circumstances, and where he wants to go in his career. Additionally, which one is more relevant really depends on what the job involves, the candidate's career goals and abilities, and whether the person recruiting is more academically or technically inclined. Valid certifications alone may be good enough for people seeking to work as computer support experts or web developers.


Earnings potential is one of the key decision-making factors in the choice between a university degree and certifications. In general, degree-holders with up-to-date certifications tend to earn more than those with certifications alone. Given the better prospects for those who hold bachelor's or master's degrees to move on to management roles, it would appear more advantageous for those with academic aptitude — and whose circumstances permit — to pursue a degree and earn relevant certifications as well.


The ability to keep learning is highly prized in an industry where change is both continual and rapid. Employers invariably look for professionals who are comfortable with learning new technologies and adapting to an ever-changing environment. Current certifications demonstrate not only the ability to develop technical skills, but also the desire to continue learning at every stage of one's career.


Do job seekers with certifications, but no degree lose out to degree-holders?


The vast majority of those in IT management jobs are degree-holders, and statistics show that IT pros with bachelor's or master's degrees often command higher salaries. Those with a professionally effective blend of experience, in-demand certifications, positive work ethic and attitude, however, can progress to become managers or sought-after technology experts.


Because of the costs involved, not everyone can go straight into a university after high school. Also, some are not academically inclined to study for a degree and would rather learn specific computing technologies and get to work as soon as they can. Here, the IT industry, more than many other industries, holds out the promise of fulfilling and high-paying careers to specialized and dedicated individuals — even if they don't hold a college degree.


Many young people with IT career aspirations and the right certifications, but without a relevant degree, enter the industry at a young age. All current certifications, however, don't have the same job value. An IBM Certified Associate certification is a great starting point, but doesn't come close to matching the value of PMI Project Management Professional. Aspirants need to do their own market research before enrolling for certification programs.


IT is a fast-paced industry, and skills that are red hot today, may not be as much in demand next year. Researching trends and identifying the specialties that are currently most marketable and positions for which skill shortages exist can significantly improve one's chances of securing a relatively well-paying and challenging entry-level job.


In India, one of the world's fastest growing IT economies, the industry still tilts heavily in favor of those with degrees in engineering, technology, science, and management. Technical support and test engineer positions are among the few that are open to suitably certified professionals with no university credentials.


The automation of processes, driven especially by increasing adoption of cloud-based services, has resulted in growing demand for digital technology experts in India. According to a Times of India news report dated October 6, 2015, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) has projected that the move to cloud, analytics, and mobile will generate demand for specialists in big data analytics, cyber security, cloud services, social, mobile, and other next-generation technologies. Nasscom is of the view that IT companies would need to hire more professionals "with doctorate degrees and qualifications in graphic design, humanities, sociology and security."


To what extent are universities still preferable to certifications, and why?


College vs Certs classroom with engaged learners

University degrees in computer science are still sought after, but the number of people seeking IT vendor certifications continues to increase. Despite that, many employers still expect job applicants to have earned a degree.


Because a university degree covers the study of a number of subjects, students have the opportunity to develop a well-rounded approach as opposed to the solely technical approach that many technology experts have. Studying for a degree also helps students learn management skills and develop business acumen.


A university degree holder retains an edge over a certified professional when it comes to management, system analysis, data analysis, and business development roles. A degree has much broader application than a certification, which typically validates the holder's skill, knowledge, and level of proficiency in a specific technology. Certifications are, therefore, applicable only in specific technical roles, which often are product-centric.


Industry certifications also have limited validity because they are relevant only as long as a particular tool or technology is in use. To stay relevant, IT pros need to continuously upgrade their skills through recertification, as well as obtaining certifications for new technologies.


To what extent can integrating or developing certifications at the university level change that equation?


Traditionally, universities didn't offer a combination of degrees, which are universal in scope, and industry certifications, which validate specific technical skills. The market has changed all that: Employers increasingly seek graduates who don't need in-house training and who can begin work right away. So graduates with relevant technical certifications are increasingly deemed more employable than graduates without skill validation.


While some universities are partnering with IT vendors to offer industry certifications in combination with degrees, others are also developing their own certifications. Integrating or developing certifications is a positive move toward enhancing the employability of graduates.


Are university-created certs as rigorous and thorough as IT industry certifications?


The quality of certifications created by universities differs from university to university. The University of Stanford, for example, offers the Stanford Advanced Computer Security Certificate, which requires students to complete six courses, all of which are available online. These courses are taught by faculty members of Stanford University as well as industry professionals. The university claims to offer course material in a summarized format specially designed for working professionals for whom time is scarce.


The University of Cincinnati's School of Information Technology offers a number of certificate programs. To earn a certificate, students are required to complete a specific number of credit hours of prescribed course work with a minimum grade-point average of 2.0 within two years.


University-created certifications normally cover specific areas within the IT space, such as computer security, database management, networking, mobile application development, software development, and so on, whereas industry certifications validate product or particular technology-based skills.


Essentially, certificates created by universities are of a different type from those created by vendors. Depending on the depth and breadth as well as relevance of the course material, the quality of instruction, real-world application, and rigour of the qualification process, both types of certifications can be comprehensive and rigorous.


Can switching over to certification as a major element of computer science curricula keep universities relevant to IT education?


Though the demand for industry certifications is growing, university degrees will continue to hold value because they normally involve an in-depth study of the fundamentals of computer science, thereby offering a solid foundation for the future application and learning of different technologies. However, more often than not, employers still prefer degree holders when it comes to IT management positions.


Certifications can, and generally do, enhance the value of university degrees in information technology. Ideally, a candidate with a degree and current certifications will likely find a broader range of roles, including management, and system and security analyst positions, open to him.


In India, Nasscom has recently developed Qualification Packs (QPs) for a number of roles, ranging from entry-level to senior-level, and has asked their member companies to recruit staff who have certified QPs. Nasscom has encouraged engineering students to earn QPs in order to better their chances of employment.


These QPs comprise standardized course material, the successful study of which would earn students a degree as well as a certificate validating subject-matter expertise. Nasscom is in the process of getting universities to offer QPs. Anna University in Tamil Nadu has already begun QP enrollments. According to Hindu Business Line, Nasscom aims to achieve 10 percent recruitment of QPs in 2015.


Given the fact that degrees that integrate certifications benefit students by making them job-ready, and that earning certifications and a degree at one go is convenient for many, universities that offer such degree programs help fulfil the IT industry's need for graduates who already have the skills required to work with new tools and technologies.


College vs Certs student with laptop on lawn

Degrees and certifications alone are not enough, however, to convince employers that a candidate is the right fit. Experience is very important as are work ethic and the ability to perform as part of a team. For some roles, including most management positions, experience will always be crucial.


Though most management roles usually go to degree holders, it is possible for someone who has performed consistently over several years in the same company, and has the right attitude, to be promoted to a senior position in management even if he has only certifications and no degree. Ultimately, what counts is a mix of education, certifications, experience, demonstrable real-world application, the ability to learn and utilize new technologies, work ethic, and as always, attitude.


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About the Author
Reena Ghosh

Reena Ghosh is an independent ghostwriter who writes promotional, developmental and explanatory content for individuals and businesses. She came to professional writing with work experience in financial services operations and corporate communication. Reena speaks three languages and hopes to learn Sanskrit.