Your education doesn’t have to stop once you graduate college. Brushing up on in-demand hard skills like data analytics and programming languages, or soft skills like leadership and communication, can help you bring valuable knowledge to your workplace and get a leg up in your career.

However, if you want to take the first step in learning a new skill, economic uncertainty can make it hard to commit to investing in your education. Due to the state of the economy, including factors like inflation, rising interest rates and recession fears, 10 percent of people have delayed furthering their education, according to Bankrate.

Luckily, upskilling doesn’t always require a costly graduate degree. Higher education is a meaningful way to boost your career and personal development, but many online courses offer certifications and teach new skills for free. By taking advantage of online courses, you can affordably learn valuable, career-boosting skills that may open opportunities for your future.

Key online learning statistics

  • Higher education is worth the cost for many. 59% of student loan borrowers who graduated say higher education improved their career opportunities and/or earning potential. (Bankrate)
  • Skill development is expected by nearly all employers. In 2020, 94% of business leaders reported that by 2024, they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job. (World Economic Forum)
  • Skill development can result in a significant income increase. U.S. workers gained an additional 8.6% in annual income, or an average of $8,000, after participating in upskilling programs, as of June 2021. Those who pay for their own skill development are at an advantage: 15.3% of workers who paid for their own skill development received a salary increase, while 5.2% of workers whose skill development was paid by their employer received a salary increase. (Gallup)
  • Computer science employees are hungry to learn. 72% of workers in computer and mathematical fields say they’re interested in training or education to upgrade their skills, or in learning new skills, the most of any industry. (Gallup)
  • Skill development isn’t just for entry-level workers. 65% of those in managerial roles are interested in training or education to upgrade their skills or learn new skills. (Gallup)

Online courses and skill-building are growing in popularity

Upskilling, or learning new skills for career development, is highly sought after by workers. As of 2021, 52 percent of American workers surveyed by Gallup said they had participated in an upskilling program in the past 12 months.

Workers whose jobs or income were affected by COVID-19 were even more likely to be interested in upskilling: 63 percent said they were “extremely” or “very” interested, according to Gallup, compared to 42 percent of those not impacted who said the same.

Generally, online learning on sites such as Coursera have exploded since COVID-19 and the subsequent increase in remote work. The number of students registered for Coursera online classes rose to 71 million in 2020, up from 44 million in 2019, according to the World Economic Forum. As of 2021, 92 million learners are registered for classes on Coursera, a trend that the World Economic Forum says reflects the global acceptance of online teaching.

If you’re looking for a way to gain new skills without your employer footing the bill, paid certifications can offer personalized training and career coaching. Luckily, the same subjects are often taught in free classes you can take on your own time. Here are a few examples:

Certification Free course Paid online program and cost
Data analytics Google Career Certificates, Coursera University of Texas: $3,800
C++ Udacity University of Washington: $4,335
Cybersecurity IBM, Coursera Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $6,854
Marketing Hubspot Academy Digital Marketing Association: $1,368

When looking for ways to open career opportunities, a college degree is still a valuable tool, and it may be worth the investment. However, the cost burden means some students wish they had sought other ways of paying for education, according to a Bankrate survey:

Source: Bankrate

The average undergraduate student loan borrower has $37,787 in student loan debt, according to Bankrate. Still, nearly one-third (31 percent) of student loan borrowers wouldn’t have changed their college decisions, even though they borrowed student loans. Some students, however, wish they would have made other financial choices in light of their student loan debt.

The second-largest percentage of borrowers (23 percent) wish they’d applied for more scholarships than they did, while 20 percent wish they had worked more while in school. Nearly 1 in 5 (17 percent) wish they’d attended a cheaper school.

How upskilling can boost your salary

Workers who take an upskilling program earn on average $8,000 more than their peers who did not, about an 8.6 percent increase, according to Gallup. Self-funded upskilling tends to result in even higher results: Those who funded their own development received an average salary increase of 15.3 percent. Those who received training from their employer received a 5.2 percent increase.

In addition, 64 percent of workers surveyed by Gallup who recently completed skill development courses say it had a positive impact on their standard of living. Three-fourths (75 percent) of those who have participated in skill development report some kind of career advancement. Most commonly, 39 percent of people reported they advanced at their current job.

High earners are also likely to seek skill development, according to Gallup: 73 percent of those making $120,000 a year or more say upskilling is important to them. These high-demand fields are largely in technology, and tech skills dominate the top hard skills that employers are looking for. The tech industry is facing layoffs and lost 25,000 jobs in February 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But  the industry has still been growing in recent years, according to Robert Half’s 2023 salary guide, which stated that job vacancies outpace the number of available candidates. In turn, that drives up salaries. There’s a need for more skilled workers: 88 percent of tech employers say it’s challenging to find skilled technology professionals.

Robert Half’s data shows tech workers’ salaries can grow as much as 69 percent as they gain more knowledge and experience:

Role 25th percentile of salaries 50th percentile of salaries 75th percentile of salaries
Data analyst $90,500 $110,250 $130,500
Software engineer $106,500 $127,000 $149,000
Web developer $89,250 $113,000 $132,750
Network security administrator $103,750 $123,500 $147,250
DevOps engineer $108,250 $133,730 $157,500

Source: Robert Half

Note: Those in the 25th percentile of salaries tend to have the least experience, and income rises as workers gain experience and are promoted, according to Robert Half.

Jobs in data, programming and cybersecurity have introductory salaries of around $89,250 to $108,250. Those salaries can grow as high as around $157,500 when workers gain more experience and knowledge of their field. The need to hire the best workers before they can be hired elsewhere means 58 percent of tech managers add starting salary premiums of 5 percent to 10 percent for in-demand jobs to make sure they hire the best talent before the competition does.

6 in-demand hard and soft skills you can learn at a low cost

The top hard skills sought by employers, as determined by LinkedIn research of its users, are largely software development and data management skills. To meet that demand, entry-level courses on these skills are widely available:

1. SQL. SQL, or structured query language, is a programming language used to analyze data. As businesses seek more information to make better decisions, data analytics and business analytics jobs are becoming more popular. Free SQL courses usually teach the basics of using a database or beginner’s SQL. The average U.S. salary for a business analyst is roughly $78,000 per year, according to Indeed.

2. Finance. Learning basic finance and bookkeeping isn’t just for accounting majors. A free course won’t give you a certified public accountant license, but you can learn more about accounting and personal finance. Free courses can also teach you how to understand tricky financial concepts like reading corporate financial statements. The average U.S. salary for a financial analyst is roughly $72,000 per year, according to Indeed.

3. Python. Python is a common first programming language for those looking to learn how to code, and it can be used in developing websites or data visualization, among other purposes. You can jump into learning Python through a free course, but check out more advanced courses if you already have some programming knowledge and you want to develop your skills. The average U.S. salary for a programmer is roughly $58,000 per year, according to Indeed.

LinkedIn also lists management, communication, customer service, leadership and sales as the top soft skills requested by employers. The following skills are valuable in almost any field:

1. Management. If you’re looking to move into a management-heavy role, you may need tips on managing people or projects for the first time. Most fields need managers, but the average U.S. salary for a business manager, including profit sharing and other additional pay, is roughly $73,000 per year, according to Indeed.

2. Communication. Communication skills aren’t just for public relations. Better communication can help you negotiate, build better relationships and be a thoughtful listener and messenger for your team. Communication is a valuable skill whenever you work with others, but the average salary for a communications-heavy role, such as a human resources specialist, is roughly $58,000, according to Indeed.

3. Sales. Online sales training can help employees learn to negotiate or provide certification in popular software like Salesforce. The average U.S. salary, with additional pay such as commission, for sales representatives is roughly $68,000, according to Indeed.

3 inexpensive ways to learn career skills

If you’re ready to take the next step and learn something new for your career, or just for fun, finding the right method can help you get the knowledge you need without spending too much money.

1. Take a free online class. If you want to learn something, the internet probably has the answer. You can learn beginner or advanced coding languages on Codeacademy or learn personal development skills —such as conflict resolution— on Alison. Many Ivy League universities also offer massive open online courses, which are free or low-cost courses on everything from history and art to programming and sciences. Consider a class on the biology of sharks from Cornell University or on intellectual property law from the University of Pennsylvania.

2. Sign up for subscriptions. If you know you’re interested in multiple courses and want to make a small investment in your learning, consider a subscription service to take multiple classes for a monthly fee. Most companies, such as LinkedIn Learning ($39.99 monthly) and Coursera Plus ($59 monthly), allow you to start with a free trial so you can see if the programs offered are right for you.

3. Go local. If online learning isn’t your style, many local libraries offer free classes on financial literacy, foreign languages and other subjects. For those who need more practical classes, libraries often offer free classes on how to use a computer, English as a second language or preparation for the U.S. naturalization test. Also, consider joining a local learning group on Meetup or joining a local professional organization for development opportunities. Organizations like Toastmasters also teach soft skills like leadership through local chapters nationwide.

  • commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey on financial milestones. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The total sample size was 2,442 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between October 19-21, 2022. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a nonprobability-based sample using quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results. commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey on student loan debt. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,939 adults, among whom 1,442 have, or had, student loan debt for their own education. Fieldwork was undertaken on March 29 – April 1, 2022. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.