Given the current economic situation and the vast amount of competition in the workforce, it has become critical that professionals become highly skilled in their field if they intend to advance in their careers. While many would point to traditional forms of education as a pathway to success, degrees in higher education aren’t necessarily the most effective or affordable way to move your career forward.
In fact, for many, traditional higher education might not be an option. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it takes a median of 52 months (4.33 years) for most students to complete a bachelor’s degree program. Meanwhile, a master’s degree program typically takes between one and a half to two years or longer.
Students with disabilities face additional roadblocks in reaching their education goals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been in effect for 30 years, and nearly 20% of undergraduates reported having a disability in 2016. Yet, each institution of higher education provides different levels of services and accommodations for students with disabilities, adding to the challenge of pursuing higher education for some.
For others, a degree is simply not the ideal career path for their field of interest. Some professions don’t follow a traditional college career path, but can be just as lucrative and rewarding, such as:
- Aesthetics and beauty professions
- Industrial, commercial and home technical services
- Electronics and machine maintenance and repair
- Medical and veterinary assistants
- Coding, programming and computer technology
Finally, some professionals need industry certifications, not an advanced degree, to advance their careers. In some cases, employers may help pay for these industry certifications to ensure their employees are properly trained. Some of the most prominent industry certifications include the following:
- Human Resources (PHR, SPHR, SHRM)
- Project Management (PMP)
- Cloud Computing (Microsoft, AWS, CCSP)
- Information Security and Technology (A+, Network+, CCNA, CCNP, CCIE)
Currently, Americans owe a record $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. According to CollegeBoard, the average student takes on almost $30,000 in debt for undergraduate school. As a result, more adult learners are seeking an education that will provide more immediate benefits to their careers than a liberal arts degree.
Whereas a bachelor’s degree can cost over $26,000, certifications generally cost between just $250 and $4,500, according to the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP). Some coding bootcamps start at about $9,000, but that’s still far less than a traditional degree.
This makes professional certifications and other non-degree programs a much more attainable goal for adult professionals who already have obligations like work and caring for a family.
Many adult learners are unaware there are multiple ways to pay for supplemental education if you can’t afford the costs of courses or certifications out of pocket.
Personal loans are an excellent option for funding your supplemental education because they are immediately accessible and offered by most lenders, including banks and credit unions. A personal loan can be used for almost anything, but it’s best to use them for investments that will further your life or career goals.
You can acquire a personal loan for the exact amount you need for your program. If you qualify based on your credit score and borrower profile, there are no enrollment requirements. You can also apply for flexible terms, so you can pay back your loan over several years if you need to.
If you need more time to strategize a payment plan, then consider applying for student loans. These types of loans typically offer flexible repayment options, as well as deferment or forbearance, if you find yourself in a financial bind.
However, some federal student loan programs — such as those you’d apply for through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — may not be available unless you’re enrolled in a selected degree or certificate program at your college or career school. Most federal student loans are only applicable to expenses associated with a Title IV school, such as a certified college, university or trade school.
If you’re seeking a student loan for a certification or supplemental education program specifically, you may be able to qualify for student loans from a limited number of private banks or other lenders. For example, Wells Fargo offers loans to students attending non-traditional school and career-training programs.
Some certificate and supplemental education programs allow students to complete payments through customized installments. This might be a good option if you are currently employed and you can fit another regular payment into your monthly budget.
However, keep in mind most payment plans will require out-of-pocket payments at the time you are enrolled in the program — you can’t usually defer them.
Some employers choose to invest in their employees by offering to pay for professional programs, including certificate programs. Some employers will cover the full cost of your supplemental education, whereas others will only cover a portion of it. If your employer offers this option, be sure to calculate how much money you’ll have to pay out of pocket after your employer’s share is spent, then work that into your budget.
Some grants and scholarships exist for supplemental education and professional degree programs, but they are highly competitive. Many of these endowments may require you to enroll in a degree program, or may only cover a portion of the cost of your education.
Check with specific programs to learn if there are any grants or scholarships available.
Types of non-degree training programs
There are many different types of non-degree programs that can help you boost your career — more than you’ll find in the list below. However, these are some of the most popular and effective types of supplemental education programs.
Coding boot camps
These programs are called boot camps for a reason: They are intensive learning programs that are meant to teach a substantial number of skills in a short time. Students who enroll in a coding boot camp may focus on a single type of coding or various types, such as web development, data science, cybersecurity or user interface design.
Rather than a traditional degree program, which on average takes more than two years to complete, a coding bootcamp occurs over a matter of months. However, some universities are launching their own coding bootcamp programs, which could open new opportunities.
Traditional degree programs, such as liberal arts degrees, typically begin with general education requirements. Almost like an extension of high school, students are required to take classes in several subjects before declaring a major, including history, math, science and literature. Only after they declare a major can students begin focusing on the subject that will define their career.
Conversely, vocational training schools (sometimes called “trade schools”) are designed to prepare students to work as technicians in a specific trade, such as welding, cosmetology, plumbing or carpentry. It is often easier to acquire funding for vocational training from government sources than it is for other non-degree programs. You may also be able to apply for grants and scholarships.
Vocational training typically lasts about two years. Vocational training schools may include technical schools, such as North Central Kansas Technical College, and vocational schools devoted to specific industries, such as the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics.
Certificates are awarded to students by educational institutions just like degrees. However, certificates are credentials that apply to a very narrow area of study. It is possible to acquire a certificate as an undergraduate or graduate student, or as a non-enrolled student at an educational institution.
Three of the most common types of certificate programs are secondary school certificate programs, trade school certificate programs and postgraduate studies programs. For example, you could acquire a certificate in culinary arts from The Culinary Institute of America, or you could acquire a graduate certificate in business from a public institution like Salem State University.
Many vocational training schools, community colleges, online schools and traditional colleges and universities offer certificate programs.
Unlike a certificate program, a certification program provides students with a professional designation. It is usually offered by an independent body like a trade or industry association, not an educational institution.
For example, you could acquire a certification from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) in cybersecurity or cloud computing, or you could acquire a Journey Level Plumber certification from the National Inspection Testing and Certification Corporation (NITC). Both groups are third-party providers of certification programs, but they serve vastly different industries.
Resources for special groups
If you are part of a special or protected group, you may qualify for additional financial resources for obtaining supplemental education. For example, veterans and people with disabilities may have access to certain grants and scholarships.
Here are a few resources that can help:
- The Post-9/11 GI Bill: Educational financial assistance to help Veterans pay for college, graduate school and training programs.
- Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance: Educational financial assistance to help children or spouses of a veteran or service member who has died, been captured, gone missing or has disabilities.
- The Yellow Ribbon Program: Educational financial assistance to help veterans pay for higher out-of-state private school or graduate school tuition that the Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t cover.
- The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant: Educational financial assistance for college or career school students who are eligible for a Federal Pell Grant and whose parent or guardian died as a result of military service performed in Iraq or Afghanistan after the events of 9/11.
- VA Vocational Rehabilitation: Vocational training and employment assistance for Veterans with service-related disabilities.
- Sallie Mae Minority Scholarships: A list of special scholarships that help minority students pay for college and vocational school.
- UNCF Scholarships: A wide range of scholarship and grant opportunities for under-represented and minority students.
- American Indian College Fund: Scholarships for American Indian and Alaska Native college students.
- The National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN): Scholarships awarded annually to active NAHN members enrolled in accredited vocational, associate, diploma, baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs.
- The Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Scholarships: Scholarship funds for the Hispanic community of Pittsburgh.
Students with disabilities
- Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: A list of rights and responsibilities for people with disabilities pursuing further education.
- Organization for Autism Research Scholarship: A $3,000 scholarship for students with autism.
- The Jackson-Stricks Scholarship: Financial aid for students with physical challenges to pursue academic study or vocational training.
- The Microsoft Disability Scholarship: A $5,000 scholarship to promising high school students with a WHO-recognized disability who plan to attend vocational or academic college.
- The Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship: A one-time $2,500 scholarship for high school seniors with learning disabilities who plan to enroll in a vocational tech program.
- The Jeannette Ranking Women’s Scholarship Fund: Offers scholarships to women ages 35 and older and come from a low-income situation.
- The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): A grant for low-income undergraduate students, awarding between $100 and $4,000 a year to recipients, depending on financial need.
- The Federal Work-Study Program: Part-time job assistance for professional students based on financial need.
- Federal Pell Grants: Funds awarded to undergraduate students and students in some certification programs based on need.
- Cal Grant Programs: Vocational education grants for low-income students in California.
The bottom line
Advancing your professional path isn’t easy, but it should start by identifying your goals. From there, look at the time and money you’ll be able to dedicate to those goals. It also helps to take stock of your strengths and preferences — are you a hands-on learner or do you thrive in a traditional classroom setting?
Ultimately, the best program is one that’s in line with your abilities and goals — avoid taking on unnecessary debt and seek out the appropriate credentials. That way, you’ll maximize the value of your investment and your career.