A Guide to Financing Your Certifications

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Most experts in the IT industry will agree that there is no greater area in which self-improvement can directly affect your earning potential than technical certification. Improving your technical skills and knowledge through certifications goes hand in hand with increasing your economic status and enhancing your marketability to employers.

In times when the market is recovering from economic setbacks, garnering an edge over your competition is paramount. And while growth in salary still plays a vital role in assessing your personal success, now more than ever achieving technical certification can provide an advantage that distinguishes you from other qualified applicants.

According to Certification Magazine’s Annual Salary Survey (December 2002), more than two-thirds of the professionals who participated in the study feel that technical certifications play a major role in maintaining their job security. The study also noted that 31 percent of the participants received a job promotion within the first year after receiving their primary technical certification, and 92 percent credit the certification as playing a significant role in their advancement.

While you are probably already convinced that seeking a certification is in your immediate future, you may be less certain about how you are going to pay for this large investment. Whether you are seeking your first primary certification or you are attaining additional credentials, the costs can be quite substantial. In some cases, the investment can be more than $15,000. For this reason, personally financing the expenses associated with achieving a certification may not be a viable option for the majority of candidates. This is especially true for recent graduates just entering the IT field or for individuals in the midst of a career change.

However, all is not lost. There are plenty of financing options available to those wanting to pursue higher education and improve their skill sets. This article is designed to provide you with a realistic view of the options to consider as you begin to search for a means to finance your certification. Although this is not intended to be a step-by-step road map, the article offers a starting point for researching your financing alternatives.

Which Certification Is Best?
Investing in your professional education is an important step in charting your career path. Selecting a certification that will best support your career goals and open additional employment opportunities is an individual decision.

For anyone pursuing additional certifications in the industry, the outlook is very promising. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, nine out of the top 10 jobs experiencing significant growth are IT-related. In reviewing the computer industry in its 2002-03 Occupational Outlook Handbook, computer software engineers for both applications and systems, as well as computer systems administrators ranked among the top jobs in the IT industry. If your career path is headed in this direction, there are certifications that can prepare you for these job roles, including CompTIA’s A+ and Network+ as well as Microsoft’s Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certifications.

Another area of growing interest for IT professionals is in the information security and wireless industries. Don Boucher, vice president of sales and marketing at Prometric, forecast significant growth potential for those with certifications supporting the innovative technologies emerging in these arenas.

“Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, there has been a profound new sense of urgency relating to the protection and security of vital corporate information,” Boucher said. “In addition, there is an immediacy for technology services needed to support emerging wireless environments. Those possessing the certifications to manage these innovative technology fields will be in a prime position to leverage their skills and knowledge.”

Understanding Your Costs
All costs related to your certification can be classified into two categories: tangible and intangible. The tangible costs, also known as “hard” costs, are established expenses for tangible industry products such as books, practice tests, certification exams and your certification training. The amount you will spend on these items is directly related to the requirements for the type of certification you are pursuing. Costs will also vary depending on the delivery method you use.

Intangible or “soft” costs are those that you may not have considered when figuring the total investment you will need to make to get certified. These not-so-obvious expenses can include the cost of living, lost salary (if you have decided to quit your current job and pursue your training full-time), computer hardware and software needs, as well as the cost of the financing itself (interest).

Table 1 provides an accurate assessment of the hard costs related to some of the more popular certifications from Microsoft, CompTIA and Cisco. The amounts presented in the chart are to be used as averages and are not intended to serve as real costs. However, these will provide you with reasonable estimates to begin your budgeting.

The instructor-led training (ILT) costs listed in the table include standard exam fees plus estimated training costs (average retail price of $425 per day of training including books.) The ILT numbers are in line with the industry average. The number of ILT days will depend on the electives chosen in many of the certification tracks.

Remember that these are estimates for the training programs. You may find providers that charge higher or lower fees. The online training includes estimated asynchronous online program costs that can range between $599 and $1,199 depending on the program, plus associated exam fees. The self-study prices include an estimated cost of books ($80) and associated exam fees. Standard exam fees for Microsoft and Cisco are $125. CompTIA exams are A+ ($139 per exam), Network+ and i-Net+ ($199), and Security+ ($225).

In most cases, your return on investment (ROI) is integrally tied to the cost of your certification. According to Certification Magazine’s annual study, in 2002 the average technical certification cost was down 43 percent from the previous year. However, the average ROI on certifications had increased from last year to 3.2-to-1. Translated, that means for every dollar invested in your certification, you will (on average) realize a $3.20 return.

What to Consider Before You Seek Financing
Now that you’ve decided to get certified, I offer the following suggestion: Undertake the decision to finance your certification with the same respect and diligence that you would before making any other significant investment decision, such as buying a house or a car. It is important that you do your homework. Research your financing options and carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each available choice. Then, exercise wise fiscal responsibility when deciding how much to borrow. Some additional considerations to think about before financing:



  • Have a clear understanding of your career goals, the certification you want and the type of delivery method that works best for you—make a wise investment!
  • Investigate every financing option and program available.
  • Look for the plan that offers the most flexibility in repayment and charges a reasonable rate.
  • Borrow as little as possible.
  • Understand your personal credit history.


Although last on the list, understanding your personal credit history is by no means the least important point. In fact, in terms of financing, this could be the most important step you take.

“Information is power,” said Kirby Helmkamp, director of data marketing for Exper

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