IT Certifications vs. College Degrees

Which is more valuable, an IT certification or a college degree?  While the answer to that question depends upon many factors, we can learn a great deal by examining the specifics. Obviously, not all IT certifications are the same and not all college degrees are the same. The most common IT certificate is the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert), so we will use that as the “mode” for our comparative analysis. For college degrees we will compare both the “average” baccalaureate degree and the “average” computer science degree. Obviously the results of our analysis would differ if we chose the A+ or CISSP certifications or if we chose to compare with associates or masters degrees.

By The Numbers

graduation-capThere is no single authoritative source to determine the value of an MCSE certification. SimplyHired lists the average salary of an MCSE at $61,000, while Indeed.com lists it at $76,000. If we combine the two, the resulting average is $68.5k.

For college degrees, the National Association of Colleges and Employers is normally considered the most authoritative source for starting salary data. The average salary for a new graduate with a baccalaureate degree is $44,455. However, the average starting salary for a new graduate with a baccalaureate degree in computer science is $59,221. This must be disappointing news for those students who choose to take student loans to pursue degrees in Womyn’s Studies.

The $68.5k average salary for holders of the MCSE certification beats not only the $44.5k average starting salary of  baccalaureate degree holders — it even beats the $59k average starting salary of computer science majors — and by significant margins. This is a major “win” for IT certification.

Comparing Acorns and Oaks

It is possible to criticize this comparison by pointing out that we are comparing “average” MCSE salaries with “starting” baccalaureate salaries. This is true, but it is justifiable because of the time commitments involved in each option.  A “boot camp” can get most candidates MCSE certified in 12 days. It takes the average student 5 years to complete a baccalaureate degree. By the time the graduate finishes college, the MCSE already has five years of experience. Because of this, the most reasonable analysis is to compare a fresh college graduate with no experience to a certificate holder with five years of experience.

It’s Not Fair!

If your parents never explained to you that life is not fair, I will now have to be the one to let you in on this major secret of the Universe. Employers in profit-seeking businesses do not hire for “fairness”, they hire based upon the skills they need to earn a profit. Unfortunately, most colleges do not teach the skills needed by businesses. Colleges and universities teach classes like “Complementary Therapies” and “Queer Musicology” which provide no actual value to potential employers. That may not be “fair” to their students, but we must remember that college students are adults who should have the common sense to refuse to attend schools that provide sub-standard curriculum.

Career Advancement

Some will argue that a traditional degree has advantages in longer-term career advancement. The obvious answer to that is that the MCSE is not the end of the certification path. Microsoft offers the MCSM (Microsoft Certified Solutions Master) upgrade path for MCSE holders, as well as many other certification paths depending upon your specialty. Alternatively, you might choose certification paths from CompTIA, ISC2, SANS, PMI, Cisco, or many other vendors. SimpleHired reports that the average salary for the holder of a PMP (Project Management Professional) certificate is $108,000.

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  • larsd4

    This is a fair comparison between two credentials in the IT field. What’s not written here is how awful these kind of jobs are to the average person. Only a sliver of the population would enjoy spending their careers coding or fixing network issues ten hours a day. And even a smaller portion are bright enough to do it well. That’s why IT jobs pay so well. No one wants to do them.

    • Will Spencer

      I can’t quite convince myself to be interested in what “the average person” thinks about anything.

      • rmsData

        I’m assuming you consider yourself better…

        • WillSpencer

          I’m just not interested in “average people” — I’ve had quite enough of them. I write for smart people these days, it gives my life more meaning.