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The chasm between college degrees and IT certifications is shrinking. Is it possible to merge these two often disparate worlds into one lesson plan? You bet it is.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that three-quarters of the IT jobs that open between now and 2010 will call for a four-year bachelor’s degree. The BLS also reports that two-thirds of the current IT workforce have a bachelor’s degree (or higher) in a wide range of areas. That underlines how the chasm between college degrees and IT certifications is shrinking.

What are your options in merging these two often disparate worlds? They’re plentiful:

Four-year computer science degrees are great for fundamental knowledge in IT. Be warned, though, that they offer little training in the day-to-day aspects of IT. Computer information systems degree programs and private IT colleges tend to be stronger on the practical side of IT training.

IT-related master of science (MS) programs are usually meant for working professionals, or as a way to prepare students for study at the doctoral level. Some MS programs offer preparation for advancement to management-level jobs, while others are geared toward expanding your skillset into new IT disciplines or to prepare you for work in a highly specialized IT area.

Two-year degrees from community colleges are cheap and convenient, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. Think of community college offerings as a good shortcut to prepare you for your start in IT: low and intermediate-skilled IT jobs. Also, two-year degrees often focus on more practical applications of IT.

Community colleges are also great for retraining current IT workers, training workers who are changing from one career to an IT career, and training folks with bachelor’s degrees who need technical skills.

Most community colleges offer two kinds of degree paths. Transfer tracks prepare students for transfer to an IT program at a four-year college or university, working toward a bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer engineering, or management information systems.

Terminal tracks are designed for students who intend to move directly to employment after achieving their two-year degree. These programs often focus on programming, network and database administration, and technical support

IT certificate programs usually provide in-depth teaching in some particular IT specialty such as networking, e-commerce, or IT security; in a specific technical skill area; or in a particular vendor’s technology. These concentrated programs of study can add depth to your existing knowledge and skill in a particular specialized IT discipline, or help an IT worker expand his or her breadth of skills into new discipline areas.

Most colleges that offer IT certification programs try to strike a balance between offering a wide variety of possibilities and making sure that what they offer has enough depth to be valuable. For instance, Takoma Park, Md.-based Capitol College offers IT certification programs in A+, Network+, i-net+, MCSE, Windows 2000, and Cisco–a good variety, but not an overwhelming one.

Vendor and vendor-neutral certification training is becoming more and more common at the college level. A certification, of course, provides independent verification that its bearer has achieved a certain level of expertise in a particular IT discipline, or a specific set of skills and knowledge that relates to a specific software or hardware product.

It’s gotten to where you can get preparation for all sorts of certification exams at all sorts of learning institutions: four-year college and universities, community colleges, private computer colleges and schools, high school IT academies, on-line training providers, and others.

But it’s worth remembering that this kind of training is often narrow and doesn’t provide the foundational IT knowledge you’ll need to start with. Vendor and vendor-neutral certs are strictly the icing on the cake

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