Cyber Security Certificate vs. Degree: How to Choose

October 25, 2022

There were enough open cyber security positions last year to fill 50 NFL stadiums, and data suggests demand for cyber security professionals is increasing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, cyber security will experience an average employment growth rate of 31% over the next ten years.

The long-term outlook for cyber security careers is beyond positive, and multiple trends are driving growth in the field. For example, the number of cyber attacks reached an all-time high last year. Businesses were the primary target as the world saw a 105% surge in ransomware attacks. Add increasingly complex data privacy regulations and the rising sophistication of attacks, and companies are investing more money in internal teams with the skills and domain expertise to protect their firms’ computer systems and digital assets against cybercrime. 

IT, computer science and tech professionals interested in cyber security can prepare to meet the demand for specialists in several ways. There are four-year degree programs focused on the fundamentals of cyber security for beginners, intensive cyber security bootcamps for career switchers and cyber security certificate programs such as those offered through San Diego State University’s Cyber Tech Academy that attract a broad audience of students. 

Keep in mind that professional development in this field is not a question of cyber security certificate vs. degree vs. other credentials. Cyber security professionals tend to have resumes packed with credentials as varied as certifications and graduate degrees because excelling on this career path requires lifelong learning.

What Is a Cyber Security Certificate Program? 

A cyber security certificate program is a cost-effective advanced study pathway. Don’t confuse certificate programs with certification programs because certificate programs teach new skills while certification programs validate them (usually via an exam).

SDSU’s cyber security certificate programs teach the knowledge and processes necessary for various security focused job roles relating to homeland security, information systems and other fast-growing fields. Because they take far less time to complete than degree programs, cyber security certificate programs can help you secure a position or promotion sooner.

Additionally, while degree programs tend to cover a broad range of topics, SDSU’s cyber security certificate program offers specialized knowledge combined with strategic and tactical perspectives in specific functional areas of cyber security. Each certificate pathway provides many of the same benefits as master’s programs — e.g., industry connections and hands-on training — in less time and for less money.

All four certificate options available at SDSU are flexible and updated frequently to ensure they cover current events and trends in the cyber security field. These pathways provide technology and industry specific training in the areas of:

For those preparing to enter the field of cyber security, certificate programs provide a deep dive into the industry’s current requirements and needs. For existing IT professionals who hope to transition into specialized positions such as Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), a certificate program can provide a shortcut to obtaining the knowledge necessary to get there. Even professionals who have graduated from full-time degree programs can benefit from completing one or more certificate pathways. SDSU’s cyber security certificate programs can help them stay up to date with the latest technologies, methodologies and best practices in their field.

What to Consider When Comparing a Cyber Security Certificate vs. Degree

Both certificate programs and college degrees allow you to move beyond entry-level cyber security skills and prepare for a sustainable career in the information technology (IT) sector. Certificate programs also help cyber security professionals with bachelor’s and master’s degrees keep up with developments in the field. 

If you are interested in a full-time, on-campus program, a master’s degree might be the optimal choice. Meanwhile, the expediency and flexibility of a certificate program is ideal for working professionals who want to continue earning while studying; and for people who want to start or change careers sooner without waiting to complete two or more years of school to earn a degree.

Choosing a certificate program now does not mean foregoing a degree program later. Deciding which path is best in the present involves looking at your professional goals, existing skills, financial situation and schedule. To help get clarity in the cyber security certificate vs. degree debate, start by asking yourself these questions: 

  • Do you want to leverage cyber security skills in your current role, or is your goal to transition into a cyber security career?
  • How much time can you reasonably devote to professional development at this point in your life?
  • Do you want to study specific areas of cyber defense?
  • Will your academic or professional background support your success in a specialized cyber security education program?

You should also think carefully about differences in cost, admission requirements, completion time and ROI when looking at cyber security certificates vs. degrees. 


The average cost to complete a master’s in cyber security is between $17,000 and $70,000, according to U.S. News & World Report. Related bachelor’s degree pathways cost even more. Meanwhile, Cyber Tech Academy certificate tuition is just $4,500 — less than the typical annual professional development benefits offered by employers. Your organization may gladly pay for you to pursue cyber security training in a certificate program because businesses increasingly see the utility of training existing employees to respond to emerging cyber threats.

Career Goals 

Certificates are best for cyber security professionals who know where they wish to specialize and for professionals in technology roles who want to study leading-edge cyber security trends and tools. The SDSU Cyber Security in Healthcare Certificate, for example, is for IT and security professionals who want to learn to mitigate cyber vulnerabilities in healthcare. Cyber security is a rapidly evolving field, and the courses in shorter certificate programs may be updated more frequently than coursework in cyber security degree programs, which have to go through a lengthy process of approvals by university administration before any changes are made.

Admission Requirements 

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline or computer science, pursuing a master’s seems like the obvious next step. However, many master’s programs in cyber security require that applicants have significant professional experience in information security, network security or system security. Certificate programs such as SDSU’s offer an alternative inroad into cyber security for professionals who have experience working with technology but little previous experience in the field. Applicants don’t have to submit GRE or GMAT scores or have taken specific prerequisite courses to apply.

Time Commitment 

When you consider the question ‘Cyber security certificate vs. degree?’, ask yourself how much time you can reasonably dedicate to developing your cyber security skills. You can complete any of Cyber Tech Academy’s suite of cyber security certificate programs in as little as 14 weeks or over the course of an entire year, whereas bachelor’s and master’s programs take years to finish.

Return on Investment 

The cost of a cyber security certificate or degree should always be measured against its potential payoff — known as return on investment (ROI). Cyber security jobs pay well. PayScale reports that professionals with cyber security skills earn an average base salary of $92,000. According to Forbes, building cyber security skills can boost an IT professional’s salary by $12,000.

You can maximize that investment by choosing a flexible program that accommodates full-time working professionals. SDSU Cyber Tech Academy offers fully asynchronous professional development pathways, which helps offset program costs. You don’t have to take time off work to pursue certificates as you would in a full-time master’s program, you can begin using what you learn immediately in your current role and what you learn can help you prepare to pursue valuable industry certifications.

Which Cyber Security Certificate Is Right for You?

If pursuing a cyber security certificate (vs. a degree or another credential) feels like the right choice at this point in your career, choosing a program is your next step. SDSU Cyber Tech Academy offers cyber security certificates in many high-stakes areas of the field.

In the Cloud Security and Governance Certificate program, you can explore a range of Cloud models, risk, response and mitigation strategies. 

In the Cyber Governance and Risk Management Certificate program, you will learn how to help your organization evaluate the likelihood of cyber attacks, identify and navigate potential risks and identify existing system and process vulnerabilities. 

The Securing the Nation and Enterprises with AI Certificate provides an advanced understanding of how to use AI to secure against risks and address the growing presence of AI as a national security concern.

The Cyber Security in Healthcare certificate develops your ability to assess, respond to and prevent cyber vulnerabilities in the healthcare industry. 

How SDSU Certificate Programs Enhance Professional Development  

Degree programs, bootcamps, industry certifications and certificate programs all have a part to play in addressing the ongoing cyber security talent shortage. Bachelor’s degree programs and bootcamps help professionals enter the field, while certificate programs and master’s degree programs help them advance beyond entry-level cyber security roles. 

Some early career professional development pathways offer a temporary boost with skills that must be updated regularly as technology changes. Others, including most graduate school programs, explore cyber security in more depth but have stringent admissions requirements. Meanwhile, the SDSU certificate pathways help students build the most in-demand information assurance and cyber security skills plus the skills they need to stay up-to-date beyond the course. They also provide more specialized cyber security training than many degree programs because coursework changes frequently to align with industry needs.

Cyber security requires constant professional development. SDSU offers a layered and in-depth curriculum, providing the student with foundational knowledge, technical skills and a specific focus on working environments and job responsibilities — but no one credential can stand on its own in this field. When it comes to cyber security certificate vs. degree, there will never be one perfect choice. Even someone with a master’s degree can benefit from Cyber Tech Academy certificates.

If you are ready to launch your career in cyber security with the support of elite, industry-leading faculty, connect with an SDSU enrollment advisor or apply to enroll in one of San Diego State University Cyber Tech Academy’s certificate tracks.