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What should you earn: a certificate or a degree?


Chances are, you’ve come across a job posting (or two) that requires a bachelor’s degree, even if the responsibilities don’t align with that kind of education. That’s because employers typically set the standards around credentials. “Jobs do not require four-year degrees,” Harvard Business School summarized in a recent report. “Employers do.”

Part of that preference has to do with the fact that companies with an educated workforce tend to have higher rates of productivity, per the Economic Policy Institute. But when the average job posting receives around 118 applicants, a degree can also be a way to narrow the applicant pool. It becomes a kind of shorthand. Manjari Raman, program director of Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work, told BBC that “many companies [have taken] the easy route of using the four-year college degree as a proxy” for a particular ability or skill set.

However, we’ve started to see things change. Chalk it up to the growth of data-driven business models or the exciting opportunities bound up in AI, but what companies need from their workforce has been shifting—and often, they can’t find the skilled employees they most need. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimated that reskilling and upskilling will be crucial to ensure workers have key skills. And we’re not just talking about technical skills. Workplace skills, like analytical thinking, remain incredibly important.

To address that problem, more employers have chosen to drop bachelor’s degree requirements, according to The Burning Glass Institute, which gets us to a very important question.

When you’re looking to either begin a career or pivot to a new one, what is your best option: a Professional Certificate or a degree?

Let’s be clear about one thing: You can’t go wrong either way. Ultimately, the answer depends on your short-term and long-term career goals.

Understanding what you want now and what you’ll want later is key. There’s education to meet you where you are. You can find short-term programs, like Professional Certificates, to help you acquire skills quickly. But if you eventually want to advance in your career, what will you need in order to do that? Zooming out and looking a few years ahead can be a great thought experiment to help you make your choice.

Here’s where some light research can be really helpful. Once you have some idea about your immediate and eventual career goals, take time to review job postings for job titles associated with each level: entry-level, associate, mid, and senior. What are the education and credential requirements? If you can, dig a bit deeper: Try to find people who are farther along in the same career and look at their education path through their LinkedIn profile. If possible, seek out informational interviews. Typically, these help you understand a particular role, but you can also ask about the person’s educational path to understand if it might make sense for you.

Professional Certificates vs. degrees

When you have a better idea about the overall credentials you’ll need, reflect on what you need right away and what you may need eventually. Compared with degrees, Professional Certificates don’t take as long to complete, often cost much less, and emphasize technical skills development above all else. In fact, they’re pretty much designed to help you pursue specific roles in months rather than years.

When you’re just getting started in the workforce, a Professional Certificate can be a great way to develop key skills to do the job you’re most interested in pursuing. Or when you’ve already earned your bachelor’s degree and come to realize that your heart lies in a different kind of work, a Professional Certificate can be a great opportunity to reskill in a timelier fashion than pursuing a master’s degree.

Both bachelor’s and master’s degrees take more time to earn compared to Professional Certificates, and they’re also significantly more expensive. Yet, degrees can be worth it. They deepen your subject knowledge, add to your skill set, and are often designed to develop well-rounded graduates who are able to think critically and creatively about the world around them—abilities that rank among the most important for workers to have, according to the World Economic Forum.

There’s also a wealth of evidence out there that any kind of degree raises salary levels and lowers unemployment risk compared to high school diplomas. What’s more, even though entry-level roles may be dropping bachelor’s degree requirements, you may eventually need a degree to advance in your career.

Now that we’ve covered some of the fundamental differences between Professional Certificates and degrees, where’s the best starting point for you?

The answer may lie in beginning with a short-term program, like a Professional Certificate, to build the skills you need now, before eventually returning to pursue a longer-term program, like a degree, when you have the time and want to keep advancing your education. On Coursera, you’ll find both options.

“Professional Certificates are perfect for breaking into a new field. You quickly learn job-relevant skills from the best in the industry and earn a meaningful credential that helps one in four completers get a new job,” says Marni Baker Stein, Chief Content Officer at Coursera. “While Professional Certificates are great to get your foot in the door, a degree is what often unlocks opportunities for advancement. Before you take the leap and apply: see if you can get college credit for that prior learning, and take an open degree course so that you can see exactly what the experience is like.”

There are also a growing number of performance-based online master’s degrees on Coursera, which offer admission based on your ability to pass three pathway courses in a relevant subject. These can be a great option if you have significant experience or training in a tech-heavy field. “Getting admitted to the program in that way, it’s really innovative,” said Atahan Ünal, a student at University of Colorado Boulder.

Deciding what kind of education you should pursue is a matter of weighing your short-term goals versus your long-term goals. We’re at a point in time when education is rising to meet you where you are, rather than asking you to fit a predetermined mold. No matter which direction you ultimately go in, education of any sort holds weight. So where will you go next?


More resources

Start making your career moves with a Professional Certificate. Learn from industry leaders like Google, Microsoft, and IBM to prepare for your career in data analysis, cybersecurity, web development, marketing, and more.

Learn more about affordable degrees on Coursera. Learn from world-class faculty and earn a degree for less than $20,000 USD—all completely online, no application required.

Explore open degree courses in business, data science, and computer science to see if an online degree is right for you, and hear from more current degree students working toward their dreams, one course at a time: Stanislav Liashkov, SeungGeon Kim, Kaushik Muthyalu, and Hubert Abiera.

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