To Degree or Not to Degree: Is Higher Education Right For Me? / Careers / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

School isn't for everyone. This article helps you determine what makes the most sense for you and your anticipated career trajectory.

There are, of course, many pros and cons to seeking higher education.

The pros generally have to do with advancing careers, and cons surround ROI or if it’s even necessary for your next move.

Dr. David W. Knutsen’s dissertation on motivations for non-traditional learners in higher education reveals that the main factor to consider is professional (and not specifically educational) growth. In Knutsen’s research, “overall the most important extrinsic factor rated was ‘to increase my job opportunities.’”

Not shocking, but the question is: Do you have to obtain a degree to get the professional benefits of higher education, or is it possible to advance your career simply by taking individual college classes or professional development workshops?

Related Article: Never Too Old for College: How Higher Education Can Impact Your Life at All Stages

With this in mind, here are some reasons why you may want to pursue a degree—and several instances where auditing or certification courses may do the trick.

Reasons to Pursue a Degree

Job Security 

A 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows that while the average national unemployment rate is around 5 percent, for people with a master’s degree, the rate was almost halved at 2.8 percent. Unemployment was even lower (around 2 percent) for those with doctoral or professional degrees. Clearly the terminal degree is important to achieve this kind of stability. Not only does the degree on your resume help you get a job, it helps you retain it as well.   


The same study demonstrates that the graduate degree-level employee makes an average of $1,300+ weekly, about $500 more than the national average and $200 more than those who only have Bachelor’s degrees. (The result is even higher for professional and doctoral degrees.) Evidently those little letters after your name may impact your paycheck.


It’s difficult to put a metric on how important it is to meet the right people. But the adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is definitely true. Increasingly, however, it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. A large part of advancing your career is demonstrating your skills to those who have the power to give you opportunities. Making connections in college is about more than class time, it’s also about extracurricular activities and shared experiences that can’t be replicated online.


If you are making a large-scale career shift (from trumpet player to accountant, for instance), a terminal degree may be imperative.

Reasons to Pursue an Alternative Path

With tuition costs skyrocketing, if you are going to school solely to advance your career, a full degree may be prohibitively expensive. has some solid information on how to assess whether your degree will drag you down financially.

Philosophically, if you feel you just need some added skills in order to advance your career (and not the networking or accreditation that a degree can offer), then there is likely no need to go through the effort and expense of a full degree. If you’re looking to advance in a specific area that doesn’t require a broad base of additional knowledge, a certificate program might be for you.

Also, internal moves within a company may not require a full degree. After all, your employers know you already, making networking unnecessary. Then again, if you want to get a new job, you may kick yourself for not grabbing a sheepskin.

Taking Individual Classes

Education-wise, if knowledge is your only goal, you can definitely get a well-rounded education online or by auditing. Increasingly, elite colleges (and professors) are providing online courses. Of course, these classes won’t give you the same networking opportunities or provide you with the same cachet that a degree does on your resume, but again, they can result in the development of core skills you need to excel professionally.

Online, some courses are self-paced while some are released formally and sequentially. Education platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX offer certificates in return for a set level of course completion, but these classes can just as easily be enrolled in for auditing purposes.

There are a few places online to discover the best courses to help advance your career, and most point to classes taught by professors at elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Wharton. Some of the most highly rated classes include:  

Related Article: 6 Successful Entrepreneurs You Might Not Want to Tell Your Kids About

For Programmers

Harvard University’s Introduction to Computer Science, edXThis is one of the largest courses on Harvard’s campus—only you don’t have to get into the Ivy League school to attend, and at only $90 for the edX certificate, you’ll be able to impress on the cheap while learning CSS, HTML, PHP and algorithmic thought. The class is free, but you can add a HarvardX Verified Certificate for $90.

  • Level: Beginner
  • Duration: 180 Hours / 9 Lessons

University of Michigan’s Programming for Everybody (Python), Coursera — Need some coding experience to advance in the workplace? This class is truly for everyone who wants and introduction to the wild world of code.

  • Level: Beginner
  • Duration: 20-40 Hours / 10 Lessons

For Business Majors

The University of Pennsylvania-Wharton’s Gamification, Coursera —Gamification is a buzzword, but its application in enterprise technology may surprise you. It’s not about creating games as much as it is about leveraging the way games engage people to make more efficient user experiences. The course takes what we know about why people play, and transfers that to solving business problems.

  • Level: Intermediate
  • Duration: 40 to 80 Hours / 10 Lessons

Yale’s Financial Markets with Bob Shiller, Coursera — Where else can you expect to get instruction from an Economics Nobel Laureate from the comfort of your couch? Bob Shiller is a financial luminary and offers deep insight into financial markets, their history and the complex interrelationship between banking, insurance, securities and derivative markets. It’s a solid foundation for business people who need to know more about the market as part of their next position. 

  • Level: Beginner
  • Duration: 6-12 hours a week / 23 lectures, 75 minutes each

There are hundreds of similar courses that offer certificates at low costs. It’s amazing to think that you can get the equivalent of an Ivy League education with almost none of the expense. Again, if it’s just education you need, these will do very nicely.

If you want to audit classes on campus, you can also enroll at any post-secondary school: community college, four-year college or university. Appropriate courses for your needs can typically be found in Continuing Education or Community Education programs at colleges. These courses may be offered in the evening and on weekends, and/or online for your convenience. There’s no reason not to look into top schools such as Harvard’s continuing education programs.

Related Article: Why An MBA Degree Isn't As Prestigious As It Once Was

Ultimately, you have to decide what is right for your current situation. It boils down to this: If you need a new job, certificates may not impress a hiring manager, but if you just need a new skill, a degree may be overkill.

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