College vs Certs

TL;DR Going to college as a working adult is … different. College for a working adult in IT is even odder. Most of the students already work in the field. Most are certified. This of course leads into a common question in IT; certifications or college? Having just completed both while continuing to work on more, I am in the camp that would answer both. This however comes with an important caveat. IMHO college is not worth it if you are paying for it ‘out of pocket’. If your employer is paying for it and you can get grants then go for it.

My Experience

I recently graduated with a Bachelors in Cybersecurity and Networking from the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). Their computer courses all line up with a certification. I picked up the cert for each class that I took. UMGC accepts certs as course credit. I took the minimum number of classes required to meet the graduation residency requirements.

I learn best from self study using a combination of books, Google, VMs, and tools like Packet Tracer. Your mileage may vary. This is just my experience.

UMGC requires the following courses or certs to graduate [for simplicities sake I am just listing the cert that corresponds to UMGC’s course]:

Course work in the Major — 33 credit hours:

  • A+
  • Network+
  • Security+
  • CCNA
  • Cloud+
  • Linux+
  • UMGC’s Capstone course [no corresponding cert]

12 supplemental credits in IT [I used CEH and some Microsoft exams for this]

General Electives — 33 credit hours [I used CySA+, CISSP, and GCIH here]

General Education — 41 credit hours [much of this was transfer credit]

Additionally UMGC requires:

  • 30 resident credit hours
  • 17 credits in the major must be with UMGC
  • 17 credits must be upper level [300 series classes or the certification that counts as credit for that course]

All told I ended up with

  • 72 credit hours from UMGC classes
  • 42 credit hours from transfers [UMGC gave me credit for Army courses like ALC]
  • 24 credit hours from certs (https://www.umgc.edu/transfers-and-credits/fast-paths-to-credit/industry-certification-and-courses.cfm)

Yes, this adds up to more than 120 hours. I was not doing the best degree planning when I first started college.

Cost

To UMGC’s credit, they accepted 42 transfer credits from various Army schools like ALC and 24 credits from certs. UMGC undergraduate courses run $250 per credit hour, so the 72 credit hours I took at UMGC cost the Army exactly $18,000. To put this in context the Army pays $250 for a CompTIA Linux+ exam voucher via CA compared to $750 for the UMGC course. Additionally while $18,000 is a serious sum of money, it is cheaper than many other colleges and barely more than two SANS courses.

Pell Grants

Everyone should fill out the FAFSA. I was receiving around $1,800 annually from Pell Grants, which covered the UMGC add ons like TestOut. UMGC uses TestOut in pretty much all their IT courses. If memory serves right that cost between $150 and $250 per class. It is also yet another reason to use CA to pay for as many certs as you can and get your course credit that way.

Credentialing Assistance (CA)

This is still a relatively new program. Essentially you can use your Tuition Assistance (TA) money to pay for an exam voucher. All one has to do is go on ArmyignitED, submit a request, and about a month later you get the voucher. Most exams take at least a month to study for anyway, so done correctly you are ready to go take the exam right after you get the voucher.

I got CASP, Linux+, and Project+ paid for via CA. I also used it to cover SANS renewal fees, including GCIH which was worth course credit at UMGC.

The unit I was in at the time was awesome, valued training, and paid for Net+, Cloud+, CCNA, CISSP, a couple Microsoft certs, and CRTP.

College vs Certs on cost

On cost this isn’t even close. Certs win hands down. For example, the CISSP exam was $700 at the time I took it. Work paid for the voucher. I studied out of the Shon Harris All in One book that our library had and spent about $20 on The 11th Hour. The cert qualified me for a new job role that I subsequently worked in and counted as course credit at UMGC. Win-win, and it was $50 cheaper than the class would have been.

CompTIA certs are even more lopsided vs college. CA only pays $250 for CompTIA vouchers as they buy in bulk. The corresponding college class would be $750, plus an additional $150 — $250 for TestOut. Once you start getting into vendor certs from Microsoft you are looking at $165 for the cert vs $750 for the college class.

College vs Certs on job roles

Admittedly I come at this from the viewpoint of doing IA, but we are talking about one of the largest employers of IT personnel. They are going to want to see a clean background check, clean drug test, and a baseline security certification (https://public.cyber.mil/cw/cwmp/dod-approved-8570-baseline-certifications/). They will also often want to see a ‘Computing Environment’ certification, in other words if they are hiring you to work on SWs and RTRs they will want to see CCNA plus an IATII cert like Sec+ or SSCP. Having college on your resume might help you get hired, after you have the certs. Without the cert you cannot do the job at all.

The Bottom Line

At some point you are going to have to actually do the job. Certs may qualify you for the job role, college may help you land the job, but at some point you will need to do something like pull a list of non-compliant users, disable their accounts, and put a blurb in their account description stating the DTG, your name, and why their account was disabled. There’s a ForEach loop for that, but you can’t use EmployeeID because the people that create accounts screw it up too often, so you are stuck using part of the UPN …

Suffice to say college did not teach me how to solve that one. It didn’t even show me where to start. Home labbing while studying for a cert showed me where to look and Google got me the rest of the way. Ironically the one recent example I have of college helping me was when I had to write a report following the 24 hour hands on portion of the CRTP certification exam. Without home labbing though I probably wouldn’t have made it through the hands on portion.

Summary

Don’t get me wrong. If your work will pay then go to college! There are also much worse uses of 18k. In my humble opinion anyway the best answer to the question college vs certs is “DO BOTH!” Overall I had a good experience at UMGC and if nothing else I practiced grammar and stringing a quasi-coherent paragraph together.

Study well my friends!

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I work various IT jobs & like Windows domain security as a hobby. Most of what’s here is my notes from work or the lab.

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Rich

Rich

I work various IT jobs & like Windows domain security as a hobby. Most of what’s here is my notes from work or the lab.

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