IT Certifications vs. Degree: Which Is Right for You?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Find out whether you need a degree or certifications to access jobs in the IT sector.

[Featured Image] A woman sits in her kitchen and uses her laptop to research whether she should earn IT certifications or a degree for her career path.

The information technology (IT) industry has seen its fair share of fluctuations over the past few years. Factors, including the pandemic, economic uncertainties, and fluctuations in interest rates, affected consumer demand and the industry at large. However, the industry has proven its resilience and continues to grow and develop, bringing excellent job prospects and high salaries. It remains an excellent career path for professionals with the drive to collaborate and innovate, with opportunities to contribute to various industries.  

Different roles have different entry requirements, with candidates having the relevant technical skills as an essential factor in securing a job. With a high focus on skills, certifications allow you to demonstrate that you’ve mastered specific skills and are valued highly in the IT field. Employers also value a degree as a way of in-depth learning to prepare you for a career in IT. 

Explore whether you need a bachelor’s degree to work in IT or if a certification allows you equal opportunities. Learn about the benefits of both to determine the option that best suits you and your career goals. 

Read more: 7 IT Career Paths and How to Get Started

Do I need a degree to work in IT?

Depending on the role, employers may ask for a degree to access some IT jobs. You’ll likely encounter this more when applying to specialist or senior roles. However, not every IT job requires a degree. Many entry-level jobs are available with the right experience and skills without a degree. 

Similarly, if you have relevant certifications and experience, you may successfully qualify for mid-level IT positions and beyond. A recent study by CompTIA found that 85 percent of HR managers supported removing or reducing the importance of a degree in IT recruitment processes [1]. 

Read more: Do I Need an Information Technology Degree? 4 Things to Consider

Examples of IT degrees 

The IT industry spans a range of disciplines and professions, ranging from design and development to support and security, so when it comes to degrees, you have a wealth of majors to choose from, depending on your career goals. A bachelor’s in computer science or information technology can help you build a broad knowledge base and the opportunity to build a wealth of general IT skills transferable across various positions. You can expect to learn about topics such as understanding computer systems, the basics of information sharing and exchange, data collection, design, development, and analysis. 

If you have a career in mind, choosing a degree that relates closely might be helpful. Other examples of IT degrees include:

  • Software engineering

  • Computer engineering

  • Computer networking

  • Web design

  • Web development

  • Software development

  • Cybersecurity

  • Data science 

Read more: Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: How the Jobs Differ

Which degrees offer the highest salaries?

When choosing your degree, you may want to consider your choice's impact on your salary. Degrees are generally associated with higher-paying jobs and are often essential for career development. However, some degrees can lead to higher wages than others.

In December 2021, Glassdoor published a report on the highest-paid college majors in the US. Of all the majors listed, many were tech-related subjects. The highest-paid tech majors ranked as follows with median salary information [2]:

  • Computer science: $70,000

  • Information technology: $64,008

  • Management information systems: $58,000

  • Biotechnology: $50,000

  • Graphic design: $45,846

What jobs can I apply for with an IT degree?

Getting an IT degree can prepare you for a wide range of positions, including those in data analysis or database management, web and software development, and information security, among others. When you go through degree programs, you can hone relevant IT skills at an advanced level and workplace skills, which you practice during the course. 

The knowledge, skills, and experience you gain through a degree give you a solid foundation, allowing you to access many opportunities in the field of IT, whichever route you choose. With the right experience and the necessary skills, in addition to a relevant degree, you could pursue various jobs, including the following examples, listed with their average annual base salaries according to March 2024 data: 

*All salary information is sourced from Glassdoor as of March 2024.

Benefits of studying for an IT degree

Versatility and career readiness are benefits you may experience while earning a degree. Sometimes, you’ll find it essential to your chosen career, especially at more advanced levels or specialist positions. Advantages of a degree include:

  • Covers a broad range of knowledge and experience: While studying for an IT-related degree, you’ll learn technical and workplace skills and enjoy a mix of academic classroom learning and hands-on, practical experience. The subjects you cover will range from general topics to degree-specific areas of study. 

  • Career flexibility: The format of a degree and the amount of topics you cover gives flexibility regarding career options, making you more valuable to employers in many cases. If you are still determining the area of IT you want to work in, consider an option like computer science, which can help you access a range of careers, from systems administrator to security analyst. 

  • Access to senior or specialist positions: Many positions state a degree as essential, particularly with senior and specialist positions. While you can access some positions without a degree, a degree is often necessary if you want to move into management positions or work in areas such as internet security and analyst positions. 

  • Higher salaries: If you have a degree in IT, it generally leads to higher wages than if you don’t. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the salary if you hold a bachelor’s degree is significantly more than if you just have a high school diploma [3]. 

Examples of IT certifications

You can earn a certification in a wide range of IT disciplines covering anything from network security to programming to cybersecurity, to name a few. Certifications are usually very specific in nature, so you can use them to learn a skill tailored to the IT job you want to do. As certifications require a relatively shorter time commitment compared to a degree program, you can take several certifications to bolster your resume. 

Examples of IT certifications include:

Read more: 10 Essential IT Certifications

Which certifications offer the highest salaries?

Getting certified can help you boost your earning potential. Since certifications are relevant to different job roles, each can help yield an excellent return on your investment, particularly if it validates in-demand skills. 

Some certifications that are associated with high salaries include:

What jobs can I apply for with an IT certification?

Certification combined with experience and relevant skills can open the door to various IT jobs. Examples, along with the average base salary of each, include:

  • App developer: $84,361

  • Help desk technician: $53,913

  • Security engineer: $128,780

  • Cybersecurity analyst: $97,243

  • IT project manager: $116,690

  • IT auditor: $97,754

  • Systems administrator: $92,645

Read more: How to Get a Job in IT: 7 Steps

Benefits of getting an IT certification

Pursuing a certification requires less financial or time commitment while allowing you to remain up-to-date on the latest in the industry. The advantages of getting certified include the following: 

  • Time and cost: Certifications are generally much quicker to complete than a bachelor’s degree and cost less. A certification takes anything from a few months to a year, so you can move ahead in your career quicker than you would if you enrolled in a four-year degree program. 

  • Industry-specific skills: You will pursue certifications based on a specific skill (or set of skills), program, or language. Therefore, you can choose certifications tailored to the job you are applying for. IT certifications are also an excellent way to upskill when you are already working in an industry and looking to progress in your career or change from a different field to IT. Taking more than one certification or stacking them by taking a series that builds progressively can help add to your credibility.

  • Validating existing skills: An IT certification documents that you have the skills an employer asks for, proving that you can handle the role's requirements.  

IT certification vs. degree

Choosing an IT-related bachelor's degree or an IT certification depends on many factors, including:

  • The job you’re applying for

  • Your other skills

  • Qualifications

  • Experience

  • Future career advancement plan

  • Your budget

  • Time considerations

Notably, it is possible and favorable to have both. 

Having both can attest to your industry-specific skills and allow you to reap the benefits of a broad knowledge base in a degree program. In turn, this background demonstrates that you can work at a high level and have the skills for senior roles, potentially giving you a competitive edge over other candidates who only have one or the other. 

Getting started with Coursera

The IT field is vast and varied, with no single path to get you where you want to go. This exciting industry offers many opportunities for those with the passion and skills necessary. Whether you decide on a degree or certifications, building your resume with credible credentials can help you enter the IT job you want. 

On Coursera, various courses and other programs are designed to support your goals. For example, you might want to check out the Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity Technology from the University of Maryland or the IBM Introduction to Technical Support, which is part of the IBM IT Support Professional Certificate

Article sources


CompTIA. “Workforce and Learning Trends 2022,” Accessed March 7, 2024. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.