Do you need a degree? Consider other educational options

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College degrees are coveted by students and valued by employers. But they’re not your only ticket to achieving your goals.

Take the example of my partner. She graduated with a degree in communications and found a job in human resources that made good use of her soft skills. She knew she needed more hard skills to advance in her career. She got on-the-job experience as well as a project management certificate, which propelled her to a senior-level position.

A college degree may or may not be in your future. Either way, don’t discount these and other nondegree options that could boost your career without requiring as much time or money.

Certificates. Like my partner, you can earn a certificate that shows employers you have learned a desired skill set. Certificates are awarded by community colleges, four-year institutions and other entities. Certificates vary in price but can be worth the investment. Check out the 50+ certificates available from UW–Madison at pdc.wisc.edu. Remember, certificates often count toward a future degree!

headshot of Ace Hilliard
Ace Hilliard, student services coordinator

Trade certifications. In technical, medical and other fields, you can complete a trade certification that qualifies you to perform a specific job, such as dental hygienist or electrician. Community colleges are a good place to learn more about the trades, which often offer plenty of employment opportunities with less of a budget outlay. Along the same lines, many people opt for apprenticeships in the trades – learning on the job while getting paid.

Free or low-cost education. If it’s not in your budget to spend on education right now, but you need to add skills or knowledge, you still have options. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are free online courses available for anyone to enroll. They provide an affordable and flexible way to learn something new. Find MOOCs at mooc.org or edx.org. Don’t forget to take advantage of free or low-cost education from your employer. Many offer LinkedIn trainings or other options.

Volunteer opportunities. Gaining experience is often just as valuable as getting a formal education. Performing public service through AmeriCorps and other governmental organizations or nonprofits can be a great way to get on-the-job training and learn about yourself. You’ll gain hard and soft skills and build your resume while serving your community. Check for opportunities at city or library websites or through organizations like United Way. You can even find volunteer opportunities through LinkedIn.

How do you choose among these and other options? Talk to as many people as you can – from your employer and people in your chosen field to educational advisors. Human connection can be the perfect way to help you understand what you need to do to get where you want to go.

If you still desire a degree but can’t attend college in person, remember that an increasing number of organizations offer flexible options – online or hybrid programs. Just make sure you’re attending a fully accredited institution that will make your investment pay off in the end.

Whatever you do, be excited to be on an educational journey! But remember that the journey is typically a winding road and not a straight path. Be patient, flexible, willing to work and open to options.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Ace Hilliard, student services coordinator, can be reached at ace.hilliard@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on April 11, 2021.