Advice for PR Students! Certification vs. College Degree?

Learning, implementing and evaluating the fundamental principles of Public Relations takes years of trial and error, as well as a constant eagerness to always strive to become more proficient in our industry.  Recently, after a speech to PR Students at Missouri Baptist University and a personal request for advice from a friend wanting to get into PR, I was asked for advice regarding their educational direction.

While many different paths may lead to a career in Public Relations, I feel it’s not only necessary to explain my non-traditional story, frankly, but offer advice to others planning to enter the industry.  After receiving an associate’s degree in communications from my local community college, I went into politics and ended up on the Governor’s staff.  I realized almost immediately that, if I had that piece of paper with Bachelors degree stamped on it, I’d make about $20,000 more per year.  It was then that I started to make a determined effort to work full-time and earn that degree.  After receiving my Bachelor’s degree, I decided to go for my Masters – this I feel was a mistake!


When thinking about it more, I believe most of us grew up in families that encouraged us to go to college and get a degree.  I was proud to be the first in my family lineage to graduate college!  I received no grants and no scholarships.  I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Media Relations with an emphasis in Public Relations, and did so on loans which I’m still paying off nearly 18 years later! Those student loans were equal to the monthly mortgage payment of my first home, which about broke me.

My advice is strictly dependent upon whether or not you, the aspiring PR professional, receive a tuition-free education.  If this is the case, then, by all means, make the most of an amazing opportunity and follow the education for as long as the gravy train is leading the way.  However, if you are paying out of pocket, I will propose something different. Before we do that, let’s evaluate a Degree vs. Certification – Does it really matter?
mezunBenefits of a College Degree

There are two benefits to earning a college degree dominating current trends.  First, according to recently published information by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are significantly lower unemployment rates among those who have earned a college degree.  One doesn’t have to search long for articles stating that earning potential averages 66{fb2cd6ecc5ea822e7d55867f94952838aab4b89ae39846a722113040866900c7} higher for workers with a Bachelor’s degree. The conclusion one can draw from these numbers is that a college degree exponentially increases the likelihood of one being employed and earning more income. These are compelling reasons to earn a college degree.

There are additional benefits associated with a college degree.  Some are directly or indirectly related to earnings. Let’s look at a few.

Are benefits and perks important?  A college degree opens doors to employment with organizations offering favorable benefit packages and perks that most workers find attractive. These packages weigh heavily in the decision to accept employment offers.

How about networking? Do you enjoy developing relationships with people who share similar life experiences?  There is potential for networking with other students, professors, and other professionals – relationships developed during the academic experience and beyond. These relationships place a person in circles of influence they might not be otherwise exposed to. Beyond the academics, the networks grow even more as these same people move into influential positions.

Having a college degree makes a person more attractive to employers, which makes it easier to deal with economic adversity and recession.  It would be presumptuous to say that a college degree makes a person recession-proof, but it is fair to depose that degreed workers are less likely to find themselves unemployed for long periods.

certificate of excellenceBenefits of Certification

Certification training can be a substitute for a college degree, but in many cases, they augment the college experience most favorably. The focus of college education is a combination of broad and conceptual knowledge and specialized training – depending on the degree program.  Certification programs offer more focused and intense training in specific industries or segments within an industry.  The benefit of this focus enables workers to learn more than just basic concepts about a chosen vocation.  Certifications are especially attractive in technical and professional fields.

Certification programs are shorter and cost less than the college experience. Typical programs can run as little as one day or as much as one year or longer and they cost a fraction of the price of a two or four-year degree program. Corporations may even offer certification programs at no cost to their employees.  These benefits usually require a commitment to remain in the company’s employ for a set period of time.  A price most are willing to pay in exchange for the value that is ultimately added to the employee overall.

For professionals, a certificate tells clients they have focused experience in their chosen field.  They know what they are doing and they are good at it. Prospective customers enjoy knowing they are working with individuals that truly know their business and have proven it.

Certifications can add impressive letters to one’s salutation.  Not only do these letters convey a higher level of professionalism to potential clients and employers, they also instill a sense of confidence in the person that earned them.  The letters and the certifications they represent are key to building credibility and they represent a well-deserved “well done” pat on the back.

Your chosen vocation will determine which is more desirable – a degree or certification.  Adding letters and certificate designations to a resume is impressive, regardless of where they came from.  A college degree offers that broader experience and helps develop a deeper perspective within an industry.  It proves to an employer and clients that one knows how to learn and is likely open to doing so throughout life.  Certifications are most attractive when one is pursuing a vocational role in more specialized fields, especially technological fields where change is consistent and inevitable.

Going after higher education in your chosen industry is always a good idea. Learning on the job is also important and greatly contributes to future success. Whatever your approach, never stop learning.  Make it your goal and purpose to learn every day.  You never know what doors will open for you.

Plan for the futureAdvice for PR Students…

I encourage every student to follow their dreams.  I also caution these students to understand that in PR and Media, you will always be fired or will be the first to be laid-off for any one of a number of reasons.  It could be for something you said – or didn’t say. It could be for something you did – or didn’t do. Or, it could be because of the economy and the first budget to shrink is the communications budget. The reality is this. What makes a good PR person is the ability to get back up and move on to find the next gig, client or project. I strongly advise earning your degree in business with a minor in PR/Communications prior to going into the workforce.  This background will bring strong value to any organization, even in a downturned economy.

If you obtain free education, once again, I say take advantage of that to the fullest extent.  However, if you don’t have that luxury, the BEST OPTION is for you to enter the field of Media Relations by diving in head first, immersing yourself in learning everything you possibly can!  Spend 2-4 years at an agency, as a PR specialist in a non-profit organization, and/or volunteer for an organization on the publicity committee.  Get involved in the Public Relations Society of America!  Learn the basics of on-the-job training while honing your skills.  Once, you’ve done this, set your sights on the PRSA APR Accreditation program.

Personally speaking, I believe the PRSA APR accreditation is all you need to be highly-viewed as a successful and professional PR person.  It takes about a year’s worth of preparation to obtain the APR accreditation, and, the cost is substantially lower than a Master’s Degree!  The fee for testing is about $410, books are about $200,  and there’s a Cohort online study course for about $200.  Therefore, instead of paying $40,000+ for a master’s degree, wouldn’t you prefer to spend under $1,000 to get an accreditation?

Since joining the PRSA in 2016, I have become an extremely active member in several functions of the organization, including Counselors Academy (CA).  The CA is designed specifically for agency owners to assist in challenging one another to grow our businesses. Even though I have a Master’s Degree in Media Relations, I have committed to getting my APR by the end of 2018.  I have started my year-long process and have already seen tremendous benefits to heightening my game by doing this. I am confident that my clients will benefit from my commitment to excellence.

In conclusion, I challenge you to commit to bettering yourself!  When are you going to get the APR accreditation?  Let’s challenge each other!  Feel free to reach out to me for personal advice!  You can reach me at 314-603-2866.