The opportunity cost of certification and degrees

I know someone who doesn’t have matric – on the contrary, we doubt he has grade 9. He has no S.A.Q.A. certified qualifications and earns more money as a senior software developer than you could imagine.

On the other hand, imagine going in for brain surgery – you have a serious issue and need professional help. Just before the anaesthetist puts you to sleep, you discover that the doctor isn’t a qualified neurosurgeon. He did however do a three-month certificate in podiatry.

Where can we make (more) money?

In this mess, we find ourselves looking to build a career, and a living, support a family and still have money left to invest for retirement. We realise that we need to grow ourselves and make more money. To this end, we’re often left with one of three choices:

  1. Get certified so that we can negotiate a higher salary
  2. Change careers to one that pays more
  3. Start a side hustle or business to make more money

Society tells us that we cannot be successful unless we are certified by a professional body – that can confirm that we have completed a course, passed the bar exam and are competent in a field.

The sad reality is that there are a lot of graduates that don’t have jobs. From my experience in the coding industry, I’ve also found lots of people with multiple degrees who know the theory of the industry but cannot do the work.

Is opportunity cost only about student debt and time sacrificed?

I am aware that you’re expecting an article to say that the financial impact of debt and the time sacrificed studying affects your ability to bounce back. I think this goes without saying – it does have an impact. The actual cost will depend on the degree. In some cases, it can take a lifetime (think degrees in humanities) whereas others might take a lot less.

To avoid overstating the obvious, I would like to focus on the whole. This will include the cost after the degree, type of certification and our perception that certification means success will be inevitable.

Is a degree/certification valuable?

Having a degree is awesome, as it gives you something to talk about when you’re at a braai. For me, it’s cool as long as I don’t mention what degree I did.

I have a BA degree in graphic design. I used to tell people this joke: What is the difference between a BA degree and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four.

Frugal Local

Many industries require you to have a degree to work. For example doctors, engineers, actuaries and architects all need to have degrees and be registered at their local guild to provide their services – and this makes sense. In these fields, it’s not only valuable to be certified, but required!

But for the normal person on the street (like me and you), these aspirations are out of reach. With a lack of funds and opportunity, we cannot become a “professional”. There are however other options, such as coaching, graphic design, software development and digital marketing. I do however find that many people favour certification even in these fields – considering it more important than the ability to do the work.

The opportunity cost of having a professional degree

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it

Oscar Wilde

When I started working, I spoke to my boss and asked him about a decision I had to make. He responded “Whatever you choose, you’re going to be unhappy”. In our daily lives, we’re chasing riches, success, good family relationships and then fame on top of that. In real life, this is very different.

How does the type of degree affect your pocket?

Let’s take the scenario of a gynaecologist to illustrate how a career can affect your pocket.

Imagine earning R 1 200 for a 15-minute consultation. Gynaecologists can easily charge that, and even more! The downside is that they need to pay serious fees to sustain their business and keep all the legal bodies happy. For example, if something goes wrong with a baby, they are personally liable. For this reason, gynaecologists pay about R 1.3 million for medical malpractice insurance. They also have to work long hours – often 36 hours at a time. Imagine the toll that this takes on your family!

As doctors move in professional circles, they need to keep up appearances – they need to drive the car, wear expensive clothes and live in an expensive homes. All of these things eat into their cash flow. Furthermore, many doctors still need to repay their student loans. For the first two years, they need to work for (almost) free for the state. From conversations I’ve had, their salaries cover their expenses, but not much more.

This might sound that the privileged are complaining about first-world problems – and this is true. I recall the game Cashflow by Robert Kiyosaki, it’s much more difficult to get out of the rat race with a professional degree. On the contrary, these costs can easily cause expenses to be more than income. Recent research has shown that the student debt in South Africa has hit  R16.5 billion – up from R 14 billion in 2019 – and this is just one of the many debts that we need to pay.

Having a degree it not always as glorious as we would like to make it sound. It comes with its own issues.

Does a degree mean I will get a job?

The short answer is no. I know of quite a few people who studied and couldn’t find a job – even now, 15 years later, they still aren’t able to break into the job market. I think that attitude, persistence and the willingness to upskill can be more valuable in getting a job than just having a degree.

Is there hope for people with no degree, not in a professional field?

Yes – and I’d like to illustrate this with another story from my first boss. He grew up in Harare in a middle-class school. There was a dux pupil in the school – one of the most intelligent people in the region. He decided to start working in the local post office, rather than go to university. He quickly climbed the ranks in the business and was exceptionally successful within the company. He became a well-esteemed manager with a stellar career.

Whose responsibility is it to grow?

In a recent Twitter Space with Sage, I asked the HR expert whose responsibility it was to upskill. He responded by saying it’s both the employer and the employee. I do, however, think that it’s far easier to blame others for our lack of growth.

I believe that we’re ultimately responsible for our own lives. Before I got my first job, I was studying full time during the day and working in a security call centre in the evenings. While at the call centre, I dedicated the quiet times to learning the basics of web design. This gave me an entry point into the coding industry. At this point, I could at least have a basic conversation about markup and HTML with software developers.

Upskilling myself has been a central theme in my life. I’ve learnt a new language (Chinese), I listen to audiobooks while driving and even watch coding videos while at the gym.

Choosing a job that aligns with you

Aligning your skills, talents and abilities with your career opportunities can be valuable. For example:

  • If you don’t have the opportunity to go and study, but you can learn the skill of sales – learn it well. It opens other doors.
  • I loved chemistry, but hated physics. I, therefore, opted to focus on my other skills and abilities.
  • I have had a dream to work for myself, but wasn’t willing to jump until life forced me into that direction. I am using the skills gathered over my career to run my own business now, including social media, graphic design, coding and drinking coffee.

Will a big corporate pay for my studies?

In many cases, a company will pay for courses, if you are willing to sign a contract to stay with them for a period of time. This is good motivation for some, but in many cases, people realise this is not what they want to do for the rest of their lives – ask me! In some cases, it might be more valuable to work for a small company and become a big fish. But this depends on your career and life goals.

If you’re interested in specialising deep rather than broad, it might be worth it to get sponsorship from a potential employer.


Not having a degree should never discourage you from making a success in your life. In the software development industry, I see many people who don’t have degrees, but took initiative to upskill themselves and grow their skillset.

Though there are some options of corporate and employers able to invest in your future, you are ultimately responsible for your own future. There are many opportunities on YouTube, Udemy and other channels where you can upskill and grow your skillset.

Happy investing!


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