There’s no underestimating the value of higher education for a future career or advancement in your current field.
But going to college, as anyone struggling with student loan debt can tell you, isn’t cheap by any means. The average cost of a bachelor’s degree from a public, 4-year university is $22,261 or $43,289 at a private college per year—somewhere between $90,000 and $180,000 all in.
Many advanced degrees are expensive, too. The average cost of a master’s degree from an accredited university is between $30,000 to $120,000. Depending on the field, this presents a dilemma for many people, forcing them to choose between limited advancement in their current careers or cost-prohibitive advanced degrees that may be difficult to pay back.
Pursuing a specialized certification may be the solution to jumpstarting your career without having to return for a full degree and take out more student loans, or abandon your current career. More than one million people earn a postsecondary certificate every year, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And some of the best, most future-proof certifications are those that complement an existing college degree.
Here are some of the best certificates to future-proof your job opportunities and career:
Project Management Professional (PMP)
Average salary: $105,000
A project management certification is so coveted because it isn’t limited to just one industry or vertical. Certified PMP holders have a great deal of responsibility to take charge of projects big and small and bring them to completion, meeting goals on time and under budget, whether it’s managing an IT network or overseeing a construction or engineering project. PMP-certified professionals earn a 20-percent higher salary on average than those without a certification. Certification is through the Project Management Institute, where prerequisites include some background in management (around 4,500 to 7,500 hours), plus a secondary degree ranging from a high school diploma to bachelor’s.
For the certification exam, you’ll be tested on five areas germane to a project from start to finish: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. And to keep your certification active, you’ll need to earn 60 professional development units every three years.
Certification in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT)
Average salary: $131,443
Out of all the certifications in information technology, a CGEIT -- a Certification in the Governance of Enterprise IT -- is the one to get. It’s offered by IT group ISACA, and the tech nonprofit says it may be the certification you need to move to the C-suite if IT is your business. Like a project management certificate for tech, a CGEIT is the highest order of enterprise IT, giving you the credentials to manage small-to-large-scale operations. You’d be responsible for managing IT frameworks and strategies, plus you’d be in charge of risk and resource optimization and benefits realization.
Taking the test to get certified isn’t cheap (around $415 total), but that could be offset by the six-figure salary most CGEIT certified professionals stand to earn.
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
Average salary: $62,123
If you have an existing background or bachelor’s degree in accounting, opportunities include bookkeeping, standard accounting, or a position as an auditing clerk. Yet for most of those positions, the average salary -- just south of $39,000 -- can plateau after a while.
Becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), is a step up, where you’ll be a sought-after commodity for businesses and individuals alike. Obtain the necessary CPA certification, and you could land a job doing anything from running your own firm to getting a CFO gig for a major corporation, to wealth management advising, tax audits and reporting, or even investigating criminal fraud. There are four sections to the CPA certification exam: Auditing and Attestation; Financial Accounting and Reporting; Regulation; and Business Environment and Concepts.
CPAs make up to 15 percent more than their noncertified peers—from $75,000 per year to over six figures with the requisite experience and years in the field. Fees range between $800 to $1,000 to take the CPA exam in most states; once certified, it costs about $30 to $200 per year to renew your license.
Human Resources certification (SHRM-CP®, SHRM-SCP®, PHR® and SPHR®)
Average salary: $63,900
Then there are certifications that can bolster any career path you choose, making your resume more attractive to potential employers and giving you the edge over the competition.
An HR certification signals to potential employers that you take professionalism seriously, you’re skilled and knowledgeable in organizational structure, and you seek to engender respect in the companies where you work.
There are four distinct certifications you can pursue from the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI):
SHRM-CP® (Society of Human Resource Management Certified Professional)
SHRM-SCP® (SHRM Senior Certified Professional)
PHR® (Professional in Human Resources)
SPHR® (Senior Professional in Human Resources)
A typical 10-week HR certification course may cost an average of $1,500 to complete. Which is right for you? The HR Certification Institute has an eligibility requirement questionnaire to determine which of the four certifications may be your best fit, which can range from general certification up to the most experienced HR professional. Candidates with an HR certification in their arsenal can find that the likelihood of better earning potential and career opportunities will increase, and that anyone, from HR to non-HR candidates, can benefit from it.
Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA)
Average salary: $107,740
Math majors, people working in finance, or the statistically inclined may want to explore becoming an actuary. You’ll estimate and predict risks, primarily for insurance companies and brokerages.
An actuary is an analyst. You’d be analyzing the costs and liabilities of taking risks in an uncertain market, projecting the best financial moves for companies, banks, financial institutions, hospitals and healthcare groups. You’d serve an important role for these providers, since they need to project and determine the rates they should realistically be charging their customers, without paying them too much or too little.
To become certified, you’ll need to pass several courses through either the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) or the Society of Actuaries (SOA), which requires seven and five exams, respectively, and several hundred hours of coursework to receive your certification. Not easy stuff, but take the time to follow through on the work and you could find yourself in a rewarding career that’s relatively unsaturated with competition. There aren’t too many actuaries actively working -- not even 25,000 -- but those numbers are expected to grow by about 18 percent within the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to the SOA, the entire panel of actuarial certification exams can cost around $2,100, but the bigger commitment is time. While it can take up to a decade to complete all the exams, many people begin working as actuarial assistants after passing the first two.
There’s no replacing a traditional college education for the access it brings. But the right certification can turbo-boost your career without you having to attend grad school. Some of these certifications -- on their own or in conjunction with a college degree -- can broaden your choices and grow your job prospects exponentially.