There's various MOOCs such as Coursera, edX and Udacity making all sorts of claims about how valuable their certifications are. They often use the names of big universities to give them some legitimacy such as edX suggesting this on their XSeries program:

Created by world-renowned experts and top universities, XSeries programs provide a deep understanding of exciting and in-demand fields. Earn a professional certificate of achievement stamped by the institution providing the program including Harvard, MIT and more.

and Udacity suggesting that their credentials are valued by industry leaders:

Learn skills taught by industry leaders, and earn a credential recognized by industry leaders

Udacity goes even further and seems to be positioning itself as competitive to a college education by branding its program as a nanodegree and even straight up guaranteeing an entry-level job after completing the course.

I can totally see how a high school student might look at these offerings and see them as a possible or even attractive alternative to paying for a traditional 4 year degree. Would doing this be viable for a long term career path?

Said another way: If a job opening asked for a college degree, would a resume be universally tossed out if it only included a nanodegree as a credential?*

What are the long term career implications of using these programs as an alternative to college?

*I have a non-computer science degree and have gotten interviews with companies that list one as a requirement. I recognize that a degree that's not in computer science is quite different from a MOOC credential, but it goes to show that companies are at least a little flexible when it comes to the requirement.

  • "If a job opening asked for a college degree, would a resume be universally tossed out if it only included a nanodegree" - this is company specific. If it only included the nanodegree, though (no other experience), that would probably be worse than only including a degree, since they asked for a degree in your invented scenario.
    – Brandin
    Jul 20, 2016 at 6:06
  • 2
  • You are right that companies are flexible. One thing that many folks in tech sector find hard to accept is that hiring is INTRINSICALLY subjective. People can and do get hired even if they're missing "requirements" listed the job description. The candidate simply needs to convince the hiring manager, one way or another, that they're the right person for the job. The degree of flexibility here depends on the job, the employer, the hiring manager, and the candidate. I think you'll find however that this flexibility becomes far more visible when you bypass HR and online applications.
    – teego1967
    Jul 20, 2016 at 12:20

3 Answers 3


The most basic answer is that it depends on the MOOC and on what class at what school you are comparing it to. And that many of us remain extremely skeptical about whether these courses are properly run or graded.

And there are a lot of "soft skills" one develops by actually interacting with people on a college campus that a set of MOOCs, even if run with team exercises, won't give you. Extracurriculars and distribution requirements and such are a nontrivial learning experience.

So my own opinion is that while online courses are fine for highly motivated individuals who need to bootstrap specific skills, I would be very skeptical of someone trying to claim degree equivalence therefrom.

  • 1
    Good general answer; the footnote about having a non-CS degree suggests that the "soft skills" in this particular case are also covered.
    – MSalters
    Jul 20, 2016 at 8:15

Would doing this be viable for a long term career path? What are the long term career implications of using these programs as an alternative to college?

Careers are very individual and mostly depend on luck, dedication and commitment. Knowing the right people helps. The point of an education is to get your foot in the door when you don't have any actually worthwhile (working) experience in your chosen field. Except for certain industries like law and a certain class of companies that require degrees for management positions, not having a degree is not a significant impediment to a successful career. In fact, if people manage to break into their sector early they can build up work experience while their would-be colleagues still have years of college left to do. The main risk is not getting that opportunity and having to "work your way up". Despite what popular fiction may have you believe, that is much more easily said than done. The odds are better for self-taught IT people but in any other of the real career fields this is exceedingly hard.

Said another way: If a job opening asked for a college degree, would a resume be universally tossed out if it only included a nanodegree as a credential?*

A single nanodegree with no other relevant experience? Yes. Definitely. Without a doubt. Even in high-demand fields there are typically plenty of graduates to choose from and no hiring manager will seriously consider investing effort into someone who's untrained and unqualified. If you're after a career your goal is not to get a job but to succeed at one and be given the resources to grow your skills on the job. The majority of businesses that are prepared to invest in people who are new to the workforce are only prepared to do so for classically-trained candidates, which means college graduates. Internships and recruitment fairs are also predominantly college-oriented.

If you have a few degrees relevant to the job you're applying for as well as more impressive qualifications like significant open-source contributions, publications or internships then you're a different sort of candidate. At that point, those online trainings and credentials are also mostly noise. By and large, these online courses are fluff on your resume because they add virtually nothing of value to your profile. That may change as they become more well-known and their quality is proven, but that's just how it is right now.

Remember, all this only applies to getting your foot in the door. Once you've got a couple of years' work experience your education is rendered largely meaningless, once again excepting certain fields.


Are MOOC certifications a viable replacement for college education requirements?

I just did a quick search at a few large job boards.

I found exactly one employer who explicitly states that they are willing to consider candidates with a relevant nanodegree.

So it's possible that a nanodegree could be a viable replacement for a real college education. But (at least today), I'd say the odds are very slim, and the opportunities are very narrow.

Choosing to pursue a nanodegree instead of a 4-year college degree isn't something I'd advise my family and friends at this point.

Personally, I think college age is a time to cast your nets widely. I think a nanodegree is too specific, while a college degree leaves open many career possibilities. I'm not sure about others, but I certainly didn't have a clear vision for my career when I was that young.

Still, with the cost of college being so high these days, it makes sense to keep an eye on college alternatives that might become viable for your chosen field. Nanodegrees, apprenticeships, community colleges, certifications, etc - all these might become good alternatives, or might not.

  • I think at this point they are most useful for the current professional in a related field who is trying to switch to a new specialty such as the Business Intelligence specialist or development DBA who wants to move over to Big Data. But for people with no related professional experience, I doubt they would help a lot.
    – HLGEM
    Jul 20, 2016 at 13:51

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