From MOOCs to College Degrees: Which Education Options are Worth It?

Taylor Nichols | Published January 4, 2021

Over the last decade, the growing need for technical skills and a rapidly-changing workplace has left employers struggling to find skilled candidates and a workforce continually seeking new skills to stay relevant.

The vast majority of companies reported talent shortages in 2019, and half of HR professionals say the skills gap has gotten worse since 2017. Trade jobs, middle-skilled positions, and highly-skilled STEM roles have been the hardest to fill, partly because there is a lack of reliable credentials to show talent in these areas.

Traditional higher education has been slow to respond to industry needs, leading to a rise in education alternatives and credentials. Employers are increasingly bridging the gap - Google, Amazon, and other companies now offer new certifications and courses to help workers reskill.

With so many new forms of education available, people looking to gain new skills may have difficulty navigating the complicated map of credentials. To help in this process, we’ve created a guide to compare education options and evaluate things like cost, time commitment, and career impact when considering credentials.

Credential MOOCs Professional Certifications Company-designed Certifications Bootcamps College Degrees
Cost
Free to $200, subscription options cost up to $50 per month $200‐$500 to take an exam, on average $100‐$300 to take an exam, on average $1,500‐$20,000 $42,00‐$133,000 for a bachelor's degree, on average
Financial Aid
Sometimes offered based on financial need Rarely available, although employers may cover the cost Scholarships are often available Veterans can use the GI Bill for some coding bootcamps, and there are often scholarships available Often available, few students end up paying full tuition rates on their own
Time Commitment
1-80 hours for individual courses 10-400 hours of study time, but may require experience in the field Self-paced classes can take one week to six months to complete 3-12 weeks, on average Typically four years, full-time
Credential Prestige
Low Generally high due to clear requirements and regulations Generally high due to the specific skills they teach and company names associated with them Relatively high, due to networking opportunities and industry professionals teaching bootcamps High
Career Impact
Usually low, intangible effects Typically high, but will depend on industry and career goals Can have a high impact when applied to specific jobs or roles Can have a high impact and help people break into tech or change careers Usually will have a high impact and is still the most common way to access higher-paying jobs
Best For
Concrete skills you can showcase in a job or work examples Often necessary in healthcare, education, legal, and trade jobs, but can be beneficial in IT, cybersecurity, and other tech sectors Someone who is dedicated to finding a new role but is not interested or able to commit to more intensive education People who want to break into tech but have struggled to teach themselves, or have little prior experience Those with specific career goals that require formal education
Cost
  • MOOCs Free to $200, subscriptions cost up to $50 per month
  • Professional Cerifications $200-$500 to take an exam, on average
  • Company-designed Certifications $100-$300 to take an exam, on average
  • Bootcamps $1,500-$20,000
  • College Degrees $42,00-$133,000 for a bachelor's degree, on average
Financial Aid Options
  • MOOCs Sometimes offered based on financial need
  • Professional Cerifications Rarely available, although employers may cover the cost
  • Company-designed Certifications Scholarships are often available
  • Bootcamps Veterans can use the GI Bill for some coding bootcamps, and there are often scholarships available
  • College Degrees Often available, few students end up paying full tuition rates on their own
Time Commitment
  • MOOCs 1-80 hours for individual courses
  • Professional Cerifications 10-400 hours of study time, but may require experience in the field
  • Company-designed Certifications Self-paced classes can take one week to six months to complete
  • Bootcamps 3-12 weeks, on average
  • College Degrees Typically four years, full-time
Credential Prestige
  • MOOCs Low
  • Professional Cerifications Generally high due to clear requirements and regulations
  • Company-designed Certifications Generally high due to the specific skills they teach and company names associated with them
  • Bootcamps Relatively high, due to networking opportunities and industry professionals teaching bootcamps
  • College Degrees High
Career Impact
  • MOOCs Usually low, intangible effects
  • Professional Cerifications Typically high, but will depend on industry and career goals
  • Company-designed Certifications Can have a high impact when applied to specific jobs or roles
  • Bootcamps Can have a high impact and help people break into tech or change careers
  • College Degrees Usually will have a high impact and is still the most common way to access higher-paying jobs
Best For
  • MOOCs Concrete skills you can showcase in a job or work examples
  • Professional Cerifications Often necessary in healthcare, education, legal, and trade jobs, but can be beneficial in IT, cybersecurity, and other tech sectors
  • Company-designed Certifications Someone who is dedicated to finding a new role but is not interested or able to commit to more intensive education
  • Bootcamps People who want to break into tech but have struggled to teach themselves, or have little prior experience
  • College Degrees Those with specific career goals that require formal education

MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, started as a few free online classes back in 2008. Today, they have evolved into hundreds of thousands of targeted courses in everything from effective time management to essentials for machine learning. Popular MOOC platforms include Coursera and edX, which partner with universities such as Yale, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins to offer free or low-cost online classes. They originally carried little credential weight, but platforms have updated their business model to include paid certificate programs backed by companies like IBM and Google. They also offer full online bachelor’s and master’s degrees from accredited institutions and have created smaller credentials that fulfill partial requirements for a degree.

Cost
    Cost
  • Most platforms have free general classes available with the option to pay for a certificate of completion.
  • Costs range from free to $200 for individual classes, and subscriptions cost $15-$50 per month.
Financial Aid Options
    Financial Aid Options
  • Most MOOC platforms offer financial aid for certificates or professional courses to those who demonstrate financial need.
  • Some employers offer tuition reimbursement for professional development courses.
Time Commitment
    Time Commitment
  • Individual courses can take anywhere from 1 to 80 hours, specializations or certificate programs can take 3-9 months to complete, working about 4-10 hours per week.
Credential Prestige
    Credential Prestige
  • MOOCs are still not widely recognized by employers as a valuable credential.
  • Courses are usually offered by accredited institutions and designed by professors who teach similar courses on campus, which lends credibility to the content.
Career Impact
    Career Impact
  • Classes that teach hard skills students can demonstrate through side-projects or work portfolios are more likely to benefit your career.
  • The strongest benefits come from courses in data, technology, and business, according to Coursera.
  • Participation in MOOCs is unlikely to bolster a resume more than degrees or certifications will.
Who can benefit most from MOOCs?
    Who can benefit most from MOOCs?
  • Those seeking concrete skills they can showcase in their current job or demonstrate through work examples when applying for a new job.
  • Those looking for soft skills such as communication and time management, or to prepare for an interview.

Takeaway: Depending on your personal career goals, MOOCs can be useful. Since they are unlikely to carry much weight on a resume, learners will have to be dedicated and resourceful to effectively use MOOCs to progress their careers. MOOCs are a good way to learn skills needed for a specific role but will not be as beneficial for advancing careers as a degree will.


Professional certifications

Certifications act as an official credential that indicates someone is proficient in a specialty area and are awarded by recognized organizations in an industry. They are usually obtained by taking a test, and often require some experience in the field.

Occupations in healthcare, business and financial operations, management, installation, maintenance, and repairs often require certification. They can also be beneficial in tech, as there are so many programs and other specialty areas in the industry. Positions that require certification, such as nursing or phlebotomy, are likely tied to a formal education program. For business, tech, and other sectors, those seeking certification can take prep courses or have the option to study on their own.

Cost
    Cost
  • $200-$500 to take an exam, on average.
  • Optional prep courses can cost up to $6,000, but are not always necessary for applicants with prior knowledge or experience.
Financial Aid Options
    Financial Aid Options
  • Scholarships are occasionally offered through external programs or organizations.
  • Accredited programs that prepare students for certification are often covered by federal and state aid.
Time Commitment
    Time Commitment
  • Anywhere from 10-400 hours to study and take prep courses.
  • For certifications tied to programs of study, such as those in healthcare, formal education and training can take six months to two years.
Credential Prestige
    Credential Prestige
  • Certifications granted by a recognized leader in the industry carry more weight. Clear requirements for earning certification make it easier for employers to understand what the credential means.
  • Because many certifications require experience in the field, they are often seen as a clear indicator of someone’s abilities.
Career Impact
    Career Impact
  • Certifications are generally respected and can have a notable impact on someone’s career. They qualify people for higher wages and open up more job opportunities.
  • They are often role-specific and are likely only going to be worth it if the credential will be necessary for particular career goals.
Who can benefit most from professional certifications?
    Who can benefit most from professional certifications?
  • Professionals in certain industries seeking a higher-paying position or a more advanced role.
  • People early on in their career with some experience or those applying for entry-level positions where the certification is required.

Takeaway: Certifications awarded by recognized organizations can significantly benefit someone’s career, but how valuable they are depends on the field and type of employment. Most groups that grant certifications have clearly defined requirements that lend credibility and make them easy to understand for employers.

For those seeking general positions in their industry or who are not actively following a clearly-defined career path, earning a certification is less likely to get them where they want to go. They are not typically a replacement for a degree or formal education but are more suitable than degrees for some careers.


Company-sponsored or designed certifications

To address the growing skills gap, employers in tech, business, and other industries are increasingly designing their own certifications for specific programs or capabilities. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM all have a range of certifications designed to teach targeted skills necessary for roles in the field. Some of these include optional prep courses for an exam while others offer full educational programs online. In recent months, Google announced that it will view its own certifications in data analytics, project management, UX design, and IT support as equivalent to a degree when hiring. As these grow in popularity, it’s likely that they will become more widely accepted as a degree alternative in the industry.

Cost
    Cost
  • Exam fees range from $100-$300, on average.
  • Recommended prep courses range from free, self-taught classes online to $6,000 for instructor-led courses.
  • Google and IBM offer full programs for $50 per month through Coursera.
Financial Aid Options
    Financial Aid Options
  • Most big companies offer scholarships or financial aid, but it can be limited to certain programs.
  • New scholarships are available to help workers reskill and find jobs during COVID-19.
Time Commitment
    Time Commitment
  • Online classes are usually self-paced and can last anywhere from a week to up to 6 months. Most tech companies offer in-person or virtual classes in one or two-day blocks.
Credential Prestige
    Credential Prestige
  • The prestige of these credentials is somewhat higher because of the recognizable names associated with them.
  • As they are created by leading employers and target specific skills or competencies, it’s easy for employers to understand what the certification translates to in terms of proficiencies.
Career Impact
    Career Impact
  • They are designed to help workers reskill and upskill mainly in the tech industry and are more likely to have an impact when paired with hands-on experience.
  • For other fields, such as communications or graphic design, they will have less of an impact over work examples that showcase an applicant’s skills.
  • Because they are designed around specific programs, they won’t be as useful when seeking a position with a company that doesn’t use the program or technology.
Who can benefit most from company-designed certifications?
    Who can benefit most from company-designed certifications?
  • Someone looking to gain new skills for a job in the field who is not ready or able to commit to a more intensive option. Since Google views their certificates as equal to degrees, this could be a more affordable alternative to bootcamps or degrees.
  • Employers seek certifications for hard skills and competencies that aren’t often taught in degree programs. These will be most beneficial for positions that don’t line up well with formal education.

Takeaway: Company-designed certifications are informed by industry needs and teach specific skills in high demand. While they are a good option for career-specific training, a bootcamp or degree program may be a better choice for those who struggle with accountability or have limited experience in the field. Certain skills needed in tech-related roles may be worth getting certified in, but hard skills you’re able to showcase through portfolios are less likely to require certification.

The perception of these certifications will change in coming years as Google and other big tech companies increase their educational opportunities and continue to back them as legitimate credentials.


Bootcamps:

Bootcamps are widely offered and recognized in the tech industry, but are also available for project management, leadership, accounting, and even professional skills. They are usually intensive programs designed to teach hard or soft skills necessary for a more advanced role, such as a software developer or manager. People often use bootcamps to change careers or break into a new industry, and the immersive, hands-on aspects make them beneficial for those with limited experience in a field.

Cost
Financial Aid Options
    Financial Aid Options
  • Many people qualify for federal financial aid, and most students do not end up paying the full tuition amount out of pocket. Accredited institutions are the easiest credential to obtain financial aid for.
  • Financial aid is often need-based, but there are lots of scholarships and grants available for students.
Time Commitment
    Time Commitment
  • 2-6 years full-time, depending on the degree.
Credential Prestige
    Credential Prestige
  • A college degree is the most prestigious credential one can obtain besides licensure, and master’s degrees or doctorates are often the most respected.
  • Degrees from accredited institutions remain the most trusted educational endeavor but are adding to the skills gap by lagging in adapting curriculums.
Job Guarantee
    Job Guarantee
  • Not necessarily, but college degrees have become increasingly necessary to land most higher-paying positions.
  • They qualify people for many more jobs, but it won’t guarantee a position in your field of interest.
Career Impact
    Career Impact
  • Earning a college degree will likely have a high impact on your career and is required for many positions. In general, a degree will increase employability overall, and qualify you for higher pay.
  • A degree will be more effective for specific career goals that require formal education than for other career tracks.
Who can benefit most from a college degree?
    Who can benefit most from a college degree?
  • Most people will benefit from a college degree due to the sheer number of higher-paying jobs that require them.
  • People who have specific career goals that require formal education, such as becoming a social worker, mental health professional, doctor, or teacher.
  • Those who aren’t sure what type of work they would like to do. If you can afford it, earning a two or four-year degree can give you an opportunity to explore different subjects and career options.

Takeaway: Bootcamps largely operate in the tech industry, and are instrumental in helping people pivot into tech. Whether or not it’s worth it will depend on the career services available, how serious you are about landing a position, and the connections you’re able to make through your program. For industries outside of tech, they are likely less effective.

While they may be a more significant investment, bootcamps are probably the best bet and the most surefire way to enter the tech industry other than earning a college degree. People who already work in tech or have a degree can also use bootcamps to further their careers or help them in their current role.


College degrees:

Earning a college degree continues to be the most reliable way to open job opportunities and higher wages. Undergraduate studies teach students a wide range of soft skills that are necessary to succeed in many roles. While earning a college degree is still necessary for many career tracks and will qualify graduates for more positions overall, they may not be required in certain industries.

Cost
Financial Aid Options
    Financial Aid Options
  • Many people qualify for federal financial aid, and most students do not end up paying the full tuition amount out of pocket. Accredited institutions are the easiest credential to obtain financial aid for.
  • Financial aid is often need-based, but there are lots of scholarships and grants available for students.
Time Commitment
    Time Commitment
  • 2-6 years full-time, depending on the degree.
Credential Prestige
    Credential Prestige
  • A college degree is the most prestigious credential one can obtain besides licensure, and master’s degrees or doctorates are often the most respected.
  • Degrees from accredited institutions remain the most trusted educational endeavor but are adding to the skills gap by lagging in adapting curriculums.
Job Guarantee
    Job Guarantee
  • Not necessarily, but college degrees have become increasingly necessary to land most higher-paying positions.
  • They qualify people for many more jobs, but it won’t guarantee a position in your field of interest.
Career Impact
    Career Impact
  • Earning a college degree will likely have a high impact on your career and is required for many positions. In general, a degree will increase employability overall, and qualify you for higher pay.
  • A degree will be more effective for specific career goals that require formal education than for other career tracks.
Who can benefit most from a college degree?
    Who can benefit most from a college degree?
  • Most people will benefit from a college degree due to the sheer number of higher-paying jobs that require them.
  • People who have specific career goals that require formal education, such as becoming a social worker, mental health professional, doctor, or teacher.
  • Those who aren’t sure what type of work they would like to do. If you can afford it, earning a two or four-year degree can give you an opportunity to explore different subjects and career options.

Takeaway: While certifications, MOOCs, and other skills-based credentials are teaching people the actual tools they need for specific career goals and roles in their field, degrees are still more beneficial for those seeking employment. However, the tech industry is increasingly hiring people without degrees, and hands-on experience and certifications are giving them a competitive edge. None of these credentials are replacements for a college degree, however. Many soft skills necessary for professional roles are developed in college, and companies have come to see liberal arts degrees in a new light as industries realize employees and applicants are often lacking these critical skills.

In the coming years, it’s likely that alternative forms of education, especially company designed or role-specific programs, will become more widely accepted. As guidelines for evaluating non-degree credentials emerge and become clearer to employers and workers, they are likely to grow in popularity and become increasingly competitive against traditional degrees. However, credential-seekers should research and evaluate whether or not the education they seek is worth it for their career goals and industry, and should evaluate the time commitment and financial investment they are able to make.