College vs Certification - Which is better?

As of the beginning of this month, I have officially completed my four years of trying to balance working full time and going back to school. I finished up my last college classes and now I can sit back and appreciate having some free time to myself again. I’ve never been really into the concept of school, but ultimately I went back because I was being pushed to by my previous employer. So I figured that now is just as good a time as any to tackle the topic of which is better – certs or college degrees?

I talked about this briefly in my initial background story posts, but I went straight from Cisco Networking Academy in high school out to working a full time job at a local IT consulting company. By the time I finished high school, I had already passed the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exams and become certified. Having that certification is what got me in the door for a number of interviews, and eventually got me the job at the consulting company. At that point, I really didn’t have much else going for me – I didn’t have a college education nor any real-world experience. In my time working at this company, I spent a significant amount of time doing self-study and labs for my certification goals. When I got my CCNP certification, I used it along with the experience I had gathered to get my next job. This new employer was heavily focused on their IT staff needing to have a college education – so they pressured me for a while to go back until I eventually gave in.

I spent a while reviewing many colleges in the area and online, trying to figure out what would meet my needs. I ended up picking out a four-year degree in network security, and opted to go the online-only route because it benefited my schedule better. I packed my classes up to a full-time schedule, because I didn’t want a four-year degree to take any longer than four years. At this point, I also had the benefit that my employer was willing to reimburse 100% of the costs – which certainly helped convince me to go back.

Over the course of the past four years, I have taken many classes that include general IT, development, networking, and security (not including the normal required materials). I found that a significant portion of these classes didn’t directly benefit me. A lot of the material was much more focused toward beginners who haven’t already been working in the field for six years – which is completely understandable. The most I really got out of this was improving my abilities to push myself through work that I didn’t want to do. I did have a few interesting classes, like an Android development course, which I found to be extremely fun even if I probably won’t use the knowledge much.

Four years later and I’m done – did I benefit from it? On some level yes, I think I did. At the time of my degree completion, I have now been Cisco certified for ten years and I’ve been working in networking nearly the same amount of time. I’m already further in my career than I thought I would be at this point, and I’m happy with my position and pay (the degree isn’t going to change either of these things). At this point in time, finishing the degree is not much more than an accomplishment that I can add to my resume. Sure, having the degree on my resume may get me past HR screening for new jobs and opportunities – but it likely won’t actually play much into a company’s decision to hire me.

In the end I think that both certifications and college education are useful – they can both be great indications to an employer that you’ve been trained on certain technologies or fields. However, I think that the actual on-the-job experience is what really matters – and I experienced a direct benefit from getting in the field early and working while all of my friends were still in college. I would not be as far in my career as I am today if I had waited four more years to start working.  Unfortunately, I think that we place a little too much importance on completing a formalized degree program, when equivalent experience and certifications may benefit a company more.

I understand that I had a bit of a unique situation, but I figured it would be worth sharing my experiences and how they have affected my view of college education. I’m still happy that I went through with it and completed the degree, but you won’t see me throwing a big celebration – except that I’m just super glad it’s all finished. At this point, I will take a few months to relax and spend time on hobbies – but I do plan on going back to certification studies (Juniper stuff and likely begin working on a CCIE).

Any thoughts? Comment below with your experiences – I’m interested to see if there are many people who have had similar experiences to me, or possibly even the complete opposite.