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What is the Difference Between a College Degree and a Certificate Program?

Written by

George D. Baker

Date

August 14, 2014

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What is the Difference Between a College Degree and a Certification? Students who plan on pursuing higher education can choose to either earn a college degree or certificate by completing coursework. While a certificate isn’t as prestigious as a four- or even two-year degree, there are many jobs out there that require employees to earn certification or a degree. Like a degree program, certification programs teach individuals about specific subjects to boost their current careers or maybe even enter a new field. There are similarities, but there are also major differences between certificates and regular degree programs. Let’s explore the two education choices and find out once and for all: “What is the difference between a college degree and a certificate program?”

What is a College Degree Program?

We probably all know what a college degree program is, but let’s do a quick review anyway. A variety of colleges and universities offer degree programs of different lengths, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Nearly all colleges and universities require students to complete general education courses in addition to some core classes in order to earn a degree. For example, a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing must complete courses in history, mathematics, science, and English. Many careers require a minimum degree for employment. Online colleges, community colleges, two-year colleges, and four-year universities all offer some kind of degree program.

What is Certification?

Just like a degree program, a student can earn a certificate after they have completed a required sequence of classes in a specific subject. The main difference between a certificate program and a college degree is the number of courses required and thus the length of time it takes to actually complete the degree. Certificate programs vary in length, but most certificates can be completed within one or two semesters (6 months to one year). Because they take less time to complete, many students pursue certificate programs specifically to advance their current careers and acquire more technical knowledge about a certain area. In many cases, certificate programs focus on the same subjects that many degree programs do, with students able to acquire specific knowledge about business or explore technical areas more in depth.

While the difference between a college degree and a certificate is pretty clear, it is easy to see why many people can get confused about the difference between one certification and another. If you’re thinking about enrolling in a certificate program, make sure you choose the right kind for you so you don’t get your hopes up for nothing. There are many certificate programs available that don’t require a 4-year degree to enroll. However, there are also graduate certificate programs that do expect students to have already earned a degree. These graduate certificates are designed to specifically complement or augment a degree you’ve already earned. For example, a student who has a bachelor’s degree in counseling may decide to complete a graduate certificate in substance abuse to hone their area of expertise or prepare for an upcoming licensing examination. Sometimes, degreed professionals will complete certificates just to keep their license current and up-to-date. Many technical institutes, certification firms, and four-year universities offer certificate programs.

How long does it take to complete a certificate?

Certificate programs typically require less time to finish than a 2-year associate’s degree because they do not require students to complete general education courses. Instead, they focus solely on the specific subject to provide students with career-related abilities. Ever think that it’s silly to waste time taking an art history course when you’re planning on working in radiology? Maybe certification is the best fit for you. Most certificate programs can be finished in under a year. Since degree programs require more courses in general subjects, they obviously will take longer to complete. You can complete an associate degree in two years and a bachelor’s degree in four years. You can usually complete a master’s degree in 2-3 years, but finishing a doctorate degree takes at least 3 years.

What is the difference in cost?

Since less courses are required to complete a certificate program, they usually cost significantly less than a regular college degree does. If you aren’t sure whether you want to earn a certificate or a degree program, you should investigate college degree programs that accept transferred certificate credits, thus reducing overall tuition rates. Graduate certification is a different story, however. Graduate certificate programs typically go by graduate tuition rates, so those certificates may cost more than an undergraduate program would.

Why You Should Choose to Complete a Certificate Program

A certificate is often seen as the first step towards completing a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Certificates allow students to first focus on specific areas of interest with the option of completing full degree requirements at a later date. Having earned a certificate also tells potential employers that you have a certain amount of relevant know-how in job-related coursework. For some jobs, such as plumbers or electricians, training is only available through certificate programs.

Students may want to consider two important issues before choosing between a certificate and degree program: time and money. If you want to enter a new career quickly, then certification may be the best route for you. On the other hand, if you have the time and means to realistically complete a 4-year or even associate degree, going for a full college degree may ultimately generate a more profitable long-term outcome. As for cost, even though certificate programs cost significantly less, students may have a harder time acquiring financial aid since priority is usually given to students who plan on completing a degree program. Since certificates don’t require as much work and study as a college degree does, your job prospects will obviously be more limited if you choose to complete a certificate program.

Now you know the difference between a college degree and a certificate program. Remember: certificate programs provide students with career-specific skills in a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, college degree programs usually involve a more well-rounded education and enable students to specialize in a broader area of focus. Different degree programs work for different people and circumstances, so think about it before you choose to complete either degree program.

Enroll in a Certificate Program Now.

Are you seriously considering completing a certificate program? We’ve already discussed how certification is in many ways more convenient than completing a 4-year degree. The only thing that makes getting certified easier is completing your certification online! Check out the certificate and diploma programs we offer in competitive fields like healthcare, business, arts & design, and more!

Written by:  George D. Baker

George D. Baker is a long-time contributor to College Mouse. Now retired, Mr. Baker volunteers at adult education programs in his local community.

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