As a lowly liberal arts alumnus, I've developed a growing cynicism for the importance of a college degree. It's not uncommon for me to advise friends to pursue a skills-based degree or certification, such as for the variety of medical specialist positions out there, over a traditional academic degree.

A few decades back, having a college degree was like the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's factory. But today, many college degrees leave dissatisfied college grads with tens of thousands in debt and little to show for. As someone who lives in the same area I attended college, I've seen the results of this firsthand.

With that anecdote in mind, I've primarily focused on certifications over academic degrees when talking about the importance of training in IT. Certifications demonstrate specific expertise in specific technology, preparing you for the real world, right? So what do you need a college degree for?

You might think I sound silly by now, but this is how most of us liberal arts majors feel. After speaking with a few people in the IT industry though, I see that college degrees are still a very big deal, and many IT pros that don't have a degree feel at a disadvantage compared to young professionals coming out of the gate with one.

Barriers to College
When you jump from high school to college, it's a gentle incline of your continuing education. You have few commitments, great flexibility, and smooth transitions. Moving from the "real world" to college, however, is not so easy. Most people have a mortgage, a family, and a day job. Few people can just "take a break" from their day job, there's no easy way to get out of a mortgage (especially in this market), and I'd like to think that most people don't want to get away from their families.

TestOut's LabSim, an online lab software, is now available at a number of colleges to offer online courses that teach practical skills through online labs. Since they're online courses, you can make the schedule fit with your busy lifestyle without worrying about commuting schedules, rush hour, or missing your kids' soccer games.

Meet WLAC
West Los Angeles College (WLAC) is just one of a number of colleges now integrating LabSim into their courses.

“We’ve built our entire syllabus around LabSim for both the online and the on campus classes,” said Marcus Butler, assistant professor. “Each week, I assign a specific assignment that includes which videos to watch, which online labs to do, which practice exams to take. As a result, we feel that between the LabSim materials, the optional textbook TestOut offers, and the online course portal, our students have a very robust online environment that offers a comprehensive and integrated online experience.”

The online labs in LabSim allow students to experiment with a wide variety of IT functions. Students aren’t limited to a prescribed pathway for completing tasks. Nor are they simply faced with a series of screen images. Rather, they are able to freely work within a wide variety of virtual environments to accomplish their tasks and build their skills. Each online student is required to spend a minimum of 30 hours in LabSim.

Four of the school’s 65 associate degree and certificate programs are major vocational training programs, with the Microsoft and Cisco training being one of them. Within the Microsoft and Cisco training is three categories – networking (with security), database and web development. Courses during each 15-week semester prepare students for MCSE and CCNA certifications. Though, if WLAC doesn't have a program you're interested, there 250 colleges across the country using LabSim. (Examples of some of the bigger colleges include DeVry University, ITT Tech, and the University of Phoenix.)

Cost
The cost depends largely on the type of education you're looking for. Various colleges offer certifications, certification-like programs, 2-year degrees, or 4-year degrees. For instance, Virginia College Online has a 4-year Bachelor's Degree (which costs $67,140 after all costs are added up) and a 2-year Master's Degree (which costs $30,296). Of course, taking one or a few classes will run at a much lower cost--most technical/community colleges will charge a few hundred dollars per credit hour.

For College Seekers, Online Option is Compelling
Don’t get me wrong: most IT pros will probably find their own personal time constraints significant enough to make going back for a degree not worth it. Certifications offer an excellent opportunity to specialize in a given field, which is a smart career move. But for those that feel like getting that college degree out of the way is the thing to do, online courses with LabSim offer a pretty compelling option.

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