How to Spend $1,000: Find Cheap (or Free) Online Courses to Build Career Skills

There's a huge array of skill-building online courses that can level up your career for under $1,000.

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Buttressing your resume with a new skill is one of the best ways to make a modest financial investment pay big returns. One study found that, depending on the skill and the worker’s previous education and job, some holders of short-term (typically defined as taking 6-18 months) credentials earned 65% more than otherwise equivalent colleagues.

If you just need to learn a new skill, there are plenty of free options, including online classes available through your public library or on platforms such as Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, LinkedIn and Udemy. And many colleges offer free auditing opportunities to groups such as veterans or those over age 60.

But if you want to prove to employers that you’ve really mastered a new skill, you’ll need a certificate or credential program that requires you to pass proctored tests. Almost all of those come with a cost.

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And just like any other investment, these are no slam-dunk. One recent study found that about half of the short-term credential programs accredited to award federal financial aid failed to increase earnings enough for students to recoup their costs within five years. And Credential Engine, a nonprofit that is monitoring the field, says that there are now more than 967,000 different credential programs – a number that can overwhelm prospective students.

The experts suggest winnowing by these three factors:

Field: A recent analysis of thousands of job postings by labor market analytics firm Lightcast found growing demand for data visualization, social media marketing and data analysis skills, even for jobs that didn’t have such technology requirements as recently as 2016, such as in human relations or marketing.

Provider: Because the whole point is to impress employers, you’ll want a program with a good reputation in the field you’re targeting. That varies by industry, so it pays to get guidance from managers in your company or at your dream employer. Look beyond name colleges. Lightcast has found that employers also value certifications from trade associations such as the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and companies such as Amazon.

Mode: The biggest waste of money is to invest in a program you don’t finish. So you have to be realistic about time demands and the boredom factor. Online self-paced classes offer the most convenience and are typically lower cost. But Dhawal Shah, CEO of Class Central, a search engine for online courses, who has taken other shorter online courses, ended up dropping out of a long, tough statistics course offered by edX. “Six months is a long time to do something hard on your own,” he explains.

For the disciplined, the University of Washington offers an Essentials of Cybersecurity certificate through edX at a cost of $716.40. Alternatively, Coursera offers a specialization certificate in data visualization from the University of California, Davis. Coursera, which charges as little as $49 a month, says the program should take about six months, bringing the cost to under $300.

Getting human support doesn’t have to break the bank. Coastal Carolina Community College offers a blended online and in-person program to help you prepare for an entry level CompTIA techie test, known as A+. The tuition and books expense for locals is just $306, though you’ll also have to budget for transportation. The test runs another $246, still bringing your total cost to well below $1,000.

In the latest Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, our editors offer advice on how to spend, save and invest $1,000. Get other smart tips:

Kim Clark
Senior Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance