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The Edupunks' Guide: How to Earn Your Credentials

A guide to the many types of degrees, how to earn them, and how they could advance your career.


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It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a learner. College tuition has doubled in the past decade, while the options for learning online and independently keep expanding. Anya Kamenetz's new free ebook The Edupunks’ Guide and her free online course are all about the many paths that learners are taking in this new world, and we're running excerpts from the book all week. We're also asking GOOD readers to doodle your learning journey and submit the result by Sunday, September 11. See all Edupunks excerpts here.

A bachelor's is not the only game in town. In fact, according to a 2011 report by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, the economy needs to add far more people with post-secondary certification (4.7 million) than those with only an associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree (3 million). Moreover, 43 percent of people who hold professional licenses or certifications out-earn those with associate’s degrees only, and 27 percent out-earn those with bachelor’s degrees. There are many different flavors of credentials out there. Here’s a mini-guide to what you need to earn each one.

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  • High school diploma or equivalent: Different states have different requirements for earning a high school diploma. If you’re over 18, or if you’re just impatient, you can earn the equivalent: a General Educational Development certificate, or GED. The tests cover reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. GED tests are administered at 3,400 testing centers in all 50 states, for free or for a small fee. It’s important to note that you cannot take the real GED online, although there are misleading websites that suggest otherwise. The best resource for information on where and how to take the test is the American Council on Education.
  • Certificate: Certifications are privately organized by nonprofit industry administrations to qualify people for specific jobs. CertificationGuide lists 2,852 national certifications in 21 categories from health to sales—“certified travel associate” or “certified substance abuse counselor,” for example—and provides guidelines on quality. Some certifications require advanced degrees or lots of on-the-job experience. But you can earn others with just a short course and exam; Microsoft and LEED certifications are two examples. Some one-year courses at community colleges also are designed to prepare you for certificates.
  • License: Licensing exams are administered and regulated by the state. Licensed occupations include practical nurses, massage therapists, or even bartenders. Some require other degrees, while others just require you to pass an exam (that means passing a new exam if you go to a new state). Go to Career Infonet for a comprehensive state-by-state guide to licensed occupations, with the requirements for each.
  • Associate’s degree: An associate’s is typically a two-year degree offered by a community college. In California, the country’s largest community college system, associate’s degrees require 60 units, or around 20 courses; 18 units must be in your major. An associate’s of arts or associate’s of science degree is designed to prepare you to transfer to a four-year college, while an associate’s in business, “occupational studies,” “industrial technology,” or “applied science” is designed to lead directly to a job (perhaps with the addition of a license or certification, as above). In general, the more liberal arts courses you take (like literature, history, math and science) the easier it will be to transfer your credits to a four-year college. After liberal arts, nursing is the most popular associate’s degree. You don’t have to earn your associate’s degrees all in one place; you can transfer credits from one college to another or apply freestanding credits.
  • Bachelor’s degree: A bachelor’s is the most common undergraduate degree in the US. It’s a four-year degree offered by a public or private college or university. To apply for a bachelor’s program, you typically need to take a standardized test, either the SAT or ACT. To get a bachelor’s, you usually have to satisfy liberal arts requirements in a range of disciplines including the humanities (writing, literature, history) and the sciences (math, physics, biology). At the same time, you need to choose a major or concentration, and take a specific number of courses in one particular discipline. The most popular undergraduate major in the United States is business, and the highest-paying are in engineering and computer science. The State University of New York, for example, requires 120-130 credits to graduate, of which 30 must be general education credits in 7 of 10 different subject areas (the liberal arts requirement) and 30 must be in your major. You don’t have to earn your bachelor’s all in one place, and most students don’t. You can transfer credits from one college to another, transfer an associate’s degree, or apply freestanding credits from prior learning.
  • Master’s degree: A master’s degree is typically a one- or two-year graduate degree offered after the bachelor’s degree. To apply for a master’s degree, you need to take a test called the GRE, or for MBA programs, the GMAT. Master’s degrees can mean higher earnings for teachers, businesspeople, mental health counselors, or other professionals. Master’s candidates are the most likely to pay out of pocket for their degrees, using loans instead of grants. For this reason, it makes sense to look at the expected salary from your degree, which you can find on sites like CareerBuilder.
  • Professional degree: Professional degrees include law school (three years), medical school (seven years, including the training period called residency), dental school (four years) and divinity school (three years or more). Professional schools require a bachelor’s degree to enter. They also have their own entrance exams: the LSAT for law school and the MCAT for medical school. And they have their own exit exams for state licensing (the bar exam for lawyers is the most famous example). People with professional degrees, except for divinity graduates, earn more than any other type of graduates, but they also have the highest debt: upwards of $100,000 on average.
  • Ph.D.: Doctorates typically take at least seven years to earn. They are awarded in the humanities, the sciences, and in education. To complete a doctorate, you must publish some original research in the form of a dissertation; for English Ph.D.s, that often means writing 100 pages of literary criticism, for biology, it means a lab experiment. Doctoral programs are open to people with bachelor's or master's degrees. They usually offer students a small stipend, which may increase if you agree to work as a teaching or research assistant; but many Ph.D. students take on loans to cover living expenses. Ph.D. candidates usually look for jobs in the academic world after graduation; in many disciplines, these jobs are very hard to find, so do your research carefully before picking a program.
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