Three ways to take career-relevant courses without pursuing a degree

Posted June 24, 2013 by
Computer mouse on a diploma in a blue background

Computer mouse on a diploma in a blue background. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Maybe you’re at the point in your career where you don’t need another degree but you need more education. These days, with the Internet more prevalent than ever, there are plenty of ways to pursue knowledge and acquire skills formally without having to earn a college degree.

Here are three ways to take career-relevant courses as a non-degree seeking student.

1. MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are courses offered online. They are not usually part of a degree program, and they’re free.

The best example of MOOCs (and the most popular) is Coursera. Coursera has over three million students and offers 334 courses from 62 universities. Universities from all over the world are represented, including schools such as Princeton University and University of Copenhagen. The classes fill up by the thousands but surprisingly go beyond video lectures. In fact, students receive homework, peer reviews and tests. Courses range from to computer science 101 to sustainable agricultural land management.

Coursera and edX (a similar company) are both striving to offer a way for students to show proof of taking their courses through college credit or certificate. At this point, if you want to show employers proof you’ve taken a MOOC, you may have to wait. But if you’re just looking to obtain some knowledge and skills for your job, then MOOCs could be a good way to go about it.

2. Certificates

A more classic and traditional way to take courses without pursuing a degree is by earning a certificate. These may be offered at community colleges, four-year schools, and online, sometimes at a lower cost than pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defined certificates in a winter 2012-13 publication. According to BLS, “Certificates are non-degree awards for completing an educational program of study after high school. Typically, students finish these programs to prepare for a specific occupation…Most certificates take less than a year to complete, and almost all are designed to take less than two years.”

According to the BLS, 33 occupations may require a certificate or a similar non-degree award in some instances. These programs may range from dental assistant to welder. Depending on which field you’re in, a certificate may be a viable way for you to expand your duties or switch jobs within that field. Depending on their interests, students may want to obtain a certificate if they are interested in switching fields and looking for additional education without pursuing another degree. Some people pursue second bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees to do that, spending at least four years in school.

The best place to start looking for certificates is your local community college or an online school.

3. Personalized online courses

If you’re not interested in taking classes with hundreds of other students and don’t desire to return to campus, then you may want to look at other modes of online education to further your career. Some out there are more personalized than MOOCs but in the comfort of your home.

One example of this is Thinkful. As of now, Thinkful offers a 12-week front-end web development course for a cost, which includes a one-on-one mentorship with an expert and an employer network that seeks graduates from the program. According to a Feb. 2013 article in Forbes, Thinkful plans to expand beyond just a web development class to other subjects within computers and software development.

It’s not just the one-on-one mentorship that makes Thinkful a more personalized online education experience. Before you even sign up for the course, you take a skills assessment, in which you also list out your goals and past experience. Thinkful then customizes a curriculum for you (including video or text content) and places you with a cohort on a similar course track. This then encourages further student interaction and keeps students accountable.

With MOOCs, certificates and online courses, you may be able to explore the possibility of furthering your career without breaking the bank or spending several more years in school. This is ideal, especially if you’re a parent or full-time employee.

By Jon Fortenbury

About the Author

Jon Fortenbury is an Austin-based freelance writer who specializes in higher education. He’s written for many publications, ranging from the Huffington Post to USA Today College, and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He blogs regularly at

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