Certificate vs Degree: What’s the Difference

    January 1, 2021 | Admin

    When it comes to post-secondary education, there are many choices to make. These include what school to go to or whether to pursue a certificate or a degree. Whatever your decision, just the fact that you’re looking at education after high school is a positive thing. Graduates of higher education receive 57% more jobs than someone who only has a high school diploma. 

    Most people understand the importance of higher education these days, though everyone takes their own path. Some students may choose not to get a post-secondary education right after high school. Others may drop out of college or university and then decide to go back at a later time. These students realize that they need knowledge, skills, and credentials to move forward in the working world.

    Both certificate and degree programs provide students with the information or skill set needed in a specific field. Some would say that degrees achieve this in a more theoretical way while certificates have a more practical, hands-on approach. Both roads help their students get the best information and walk away with the experience they need to pursue a career in their chosen industry or field.

    Certificates and degrees have similar educational goals; however, they differ when it comes to cost, format, curriculum, and delivery. To decide between a certificate or a degree, students generally consider all of the information. Then, they choose based on their interests and needs. Knowing they want to get a higher education is one thing, but deciding which avenue to pursue is another, and the answer isn’t always so black and white.

    Differences Between Certificates and Degrees

    When choosing between a certificate or a degree, a lot of the time, it comes down to what type of career path you plan to pursue. If you are looking for what many refer to as a blue-collar job, then you may just need a certificate to start your career path. If you have your sights set on being a white-collar worker or working your way up the corporate ladder, though, then chances are you’ll need to get a degree.


    Most programs that offer short-term certificates have courses for those who are looking for careers in technical or skill-based fields, such as:

    • Dental or Medical Assisting
    • Nursing
    • Web Development
    • Cosmetology
    • Real Estate
    • Paralegal
    • Carpentry
    • Electrician
    • Accounting

    This list is by no means exhaustive, just enough to give you an idea of the many types of jobs in several different industries in which a certificate can help you get full-time employment.

    Some students earn a certificate to advance in their current careers, gain opportunities in their current company, increase their education, help them earn an associate or bachelor’s degree, or supplement a degree they have already completed. 

    When it comes to certificate vs. certification, they are two separate and unequal things. Certificate programs, or professional qualification certificates, are not to be mistaken for certification. Certifications are generally two or three-day courses offered by third-party companies that provide you with a certification, for example, Project Management Professional (PMP). Another example is healthcare professionals who have to get certified in CPR. Certifications are useful professionally, and some may be required, but certification is not the same as a certificate.


    A degree is one of four academic titles that you can receive after completing a more intensive study program than the one required for a certificate. Degrees also take at least twice as long to finish, though some may take substantially longer. The four types of degrees are:

    Many jobs list a degree as a requirement for employment, such as:

    • Engineer
    • Scientist
    • Doctor or Dentist
    • Financial Advisor or Manager
    • Art Director
    • Accountant
    • Lawyer
    • Professor
    • Physiotherapist

    Again, this is not an exhaustive list, just a sample of some of the jobs that require varying types of degrees for employment. Whether you work in a field that requires it or not, having a degree can help qualify you for advancement in your field, and it provides better opportunities for higher-paying positions.

    You may notice that accounting is on both the certificate and degree lists, but this is not a mistake. A certificate in accounting can give you the education you need to get started with accounting; however, you will need a degree in accounting to be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Each gets you a job as an accountant, but one provides many more opportunities than others. This career is just one example of a program that you may find on both lists.

    Associate Degrees

    Associate degrees are somewhere in between a certificate and a bachelor’s degree. Like a certificate, they focus on a particular skill set or technical area of a field, and like a bachelor’s degree, they add in some general education, just not as much. Associate degrees can be completed in about the same amount of time as some of the longer certificate programs, which is about two years. 

    Transfer Degree Program

    Many certificate programs or two-year schools offer transfer degree programs. Transfer programs allow those who have completed a two-year program to get credit towards a four-year program and work towards a bachelor’s degree. Transfer programs have been increasing in popularity over the years.

    We should say that the transfer degree program isn’t only for students going from two-year to four-year programs. Students enrolled in four-year programs can also transfer to another school offering a four-year program if they are unhappy, want something more affordable, or any number of reasons.

    The Main Differences Between Certificates and Degrees

    The most notable differences between certificates and degrees are the cost and time it takes to earn them; however, there are other differences to consider when looking at certificates vs degrees and finding the right program for you.

    The three main areas that students should look at before making a decision are:


    To earn a degree, you are first required to have a high school diploma or an equivalent. Many certificate programs prefer a high school diploma, but this is not always the case. Several programs, such as truck driving, and carpentry, do not have this requirement. 

    For a certificate, if you meet the basic requirements, you can sign up for the program of your choice. If there is room in the class, you are just enrolled. Acceptance for a bachelor’s degree program is not as simple. You apply to the school of your choice, and the school accepts or rejects your application based on grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. 

    To earn a master’s and then a doctorate, you repeat the process as you complete the lower degrees first and move onto the next level of education. Even if you choose to take your other degrees at the same school as your bachelor’s, you still need to reapply.

    Time Commitment

    Earning a certificate takes much less time than earning a degree. You can typically earn a certificate in nine months to two years, depending on the field. Some programs may require extra hours of work experience before receiving the final certificate.

    An associate degree takes around two years to earn, whereas a bachelor’s degree takes four years. A master’s degree generally takes two additional years after completing a bachelor’s degree, and a doctorate takes another year or two after completing a master’s degree. 

    Some programs run year-round, offering summer school so you can take three semesters a year instead of two. There are also accelerated courses, providing some opportunities for students to graduate early if they choose.

    What You’ll Learn

    Certificate programs spend more time focusing on teaching students specific skills and tasks related to the field of the program they are studying. These programs do not contain a lot of background information that students don’t need to know, and the students do not have to take general education courses such as math, English, and science that are not relevant to the certificate they are pursuing in their program. 

    Degree programs provide students with broader knowledge, as they are required to know more than just one task or skill. The knowledge obtained in a degree program is more generalized, and therefore they are required to take many more courses in many more topics, including math, English, and science. In several cases, a majority of the course hours taken go towards general courses instead of major-specific courses. 

    While it may seem counterproductive to spend so much time on general knowledge and less time on topics that directly relate to the student’s major, this approach is useful in the end as it gives graduates knowledge on several topics. This way, they have an opportunity to see what interests them, what they are good at, and what they might want to learn more about in the future.

    Workers between the ages of 18 and 42 have an average of about 11 jobs in that timeframe, so exposing students to a broader range of educational topics can help them throughout each of those job changes, rather than just focusing on their major, and perhaps being lost or unqualified for other jobs.

    Should You Get a Certificate Instead of a College Degree?

    When it’s time to decide whether or not you should get a certificate instead of a college degree, there are several things to consider. Look at what your career aspirations are. Then, ask yourself if you plan to use a certificate as a way to further your education or if you are only pursuing it to fulfill the requirements for a job or promotion that you want. You have to make an honest assessment of your life and career, where they are right now, and where you want them to be when considering the path you want to take.

    5 Things to Consider When Choosing Between a Certificate or Degree

    When you are trying to decide which educational route is best for you, there are things to consider beyond the costs or requirements of your chosen path. Here are five of them:

    1. How soon you need the credentials. If you just need to learn specific practical skills quickly to find a job, then a certificate might be the better path for you. That said, if you have several years to dedicate to your education, and you would like to learn more general information about more topics, go for the degree.
    2. Balancing school and home life. Depending on where you are in life and what your responsibilities are, this could be the big deciding factor as to which route you take. If you work full time, you may not be able to take on the course load required for a degree. Gaining a certificate may work well while balancing responsibilities, such as work and parenting. If you don’t have any responsibilities outside of school, and you can put all of your focus on your schoolwork, then you can put your time into going for a degree.
    3. Your field of choice. The field that you want to go into or the one you are currently working in can help you decide what your next step will be. If you want to be a carpenter or a hairstylist, you probably don’t need to get a degree, unless you want to own your own business some day. If your goal is to be a doctor or a lawyer, you need to work through a bachelor’s degree and beyond. Keep your long-term goals in mind when making your decision.
    4. How far you want to go in your career. A degree often provides you with more opportunities in the workforce, no matter what your industry or career path may be. Along with the opportunities come the higher paychecks; however, not everyone is looking to climb the corporate ladder and wants to take on the responsibilities that come along with it. If you are looking to work at a skilled job and don’t have higher aspirations, then getting a certificate might be enough. Not all jobs have a corporate ladder. Look at carpentry. A certificate might be fine to become a master carpenter. In the future, the carpenter may want to get a certificate or degree in business if they plan to open their own business. For now, though, a carpenter’s certificate is enough to get started.
    5. Where you are in your career.  If you’re looking to get into a junior position so that you can get your career started, you might want to consider getting a certificate. You can then use it to further your education if that is something you are interested in doing at some point. Perhaps you have been working for several years, and you are interested in moving up in your field. Or, maybe you just want to open up new opportunities in your company or industry or there’s a promotion that requires a certification that you don’t have. You might want to work on completing a degree. You can always work in your field and work towards a degree simultaneously, though you will likely have to go to school only part-time.

    Take a look at your life as a whole and not just the school you want to attend and how much it costs. You have to decide if the choice you make will fit into your life or if you are willing to make the needed changes so that it will fit. 

    Unfortunately, the question of should you get a certificate or degree doesn’t have a simple answer, and it isn’t one that someone else can give to you. Take a look at all of your circumstances and what your goals for the future are.

    Your goals today may be different from what they are in five years from now, and that’s ok too. Many people aren’t sure what they want to do in the future and start by pursuing a certificate. Several people have multiple degrees or certificates because they aren’t sure either, another good reason for broad learning people get with the degree. Some of what you’re learning applies to other fields, making it easier to pursue other avenues later.

    Costs of Certificates vs. Degrees

    It’s not surprising that working towards a degree costs more than a certificate. That said, in many cases, the cost per course is relatively similar. One of the main reasons that degrees cost more is that you need so many more courses to earn one.

    The rewards are often worth the extra costs. Starting salaries for graduates with degrees are often much higher than those with a certificate or just a high school diploma. 

    Example of Cost Difference for Certificate vs. Degree

    Krypton State University offers both a certificate and a bachelor’s degree program in finance.

    In the certificate program, the cost is per course, and to graduate, students are required to complete six classes in total. Each of these six courses cost $1,142, based on the number of credit hours. If a student were to complete the six required courses in this program at $1,142 per course, they would pay a total of $6,852 for their education.

    Krypton State University’s Bachelor of Science in Finance and Accounting Management degree program requires 37 courses toward the specific major. The cost per class for this degree is also $1,142 based on the number of credit hours, which, in this case, is 120 hours per semester. For the major-specific courses offered in this degree program, this cost adds up to $42,254, with an additional charge for all foundation and elective courses as required by the university.

    Other Things to Think About

    Often, there are many other costs associated with earning a degree, including room and board. If you choose to live on campus for those four years, those costs add up even more. Fees can change depending on the area of study, plus there are administrative fees. Don’t forget about the cost of books and supplies, which can be quite costly but change depending on what field you are studying.

    A degree might cost you more in the end, but the breakdown per hour is close to the same as it is for a certificate. This per credit figure does not take into consideration living on campus or any additional fees, though, it is just for the education part of the degrees and certificates.

    Help Paying for Certificates and Degrees

    When it comes to paying for college in California, there are several options open to you. As far as a financial assistant, you can receive four different types. Some require payback, and some do not. Many types of aid are available within each type of financial assistance as well. 

    • Grants – Grants are free money that you do not have to repay and generally comes from the state, government, or college that you are attending. To receive a grant, you start by applying through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
    • Scholarships – Just like a grant, you don’t have to pay back the money from a scholarship. To be eligible for financial aid scholarships, students have to do something to make themselves worthy, which can include having good grades, being great at sports, or completing a substantial amount of community service. Many organizations, companies, and groups offer scholarships for local colleges, and there are options available to various minority groups.
    • Work-Study – Different from a regular job, this part-time work is done to gain experience in the field that students are studying to help pay for the program in which they are enrolled.
    • Loan – Loans have to be paid back and can be borrowed from a public or private lender. Many things need to be considered before taking this route, such as interest rates, terms, and fees. You will end up paying more than you borrowed due to accumulated interest, so this should be a last resource.

    Salaries for Certificates vs. Degrees

    When it comes to salaries, those who have degrees tend to make more money, and the higher your degree, the higher your pay is in most cases. There are generally two reasons for this. One is the recognition that those who took the time and effort to get a degree have advanced their knowledge, and two is that the positions that require degrees are generally more advanced.

    Let’s go back to looking at the certificate and degree programs for accounting. In the United States, the average salary for someone with a certificate in accounting, with zero to five years of experience, is $56,000. Someone who earned their bachelor’s degree in accounting and is a Certified Public Accountant has an average salary of $63,857 for the same number of years of experience. 

    So, as you can see, having a degree can give you an advantage right out of the gate. Granted, the person who earned the degree did put more into their education and can do more as a CPA than the one who graduated with just a certificate. Chances are, though, the one with the certificate probably knows all of the same basic information as the one with the degree.

    This example is just one instance in which someone with a degree makes more money than someone with a certificate; however, don’t let it be the only deciding factor when deciding whether to take a certificate program or a degree program. 

    Getting a degree to become a cosmetologist probably won’t earn you any more money than getting a certificate. Cosmetology is not a field that requires higher education past a certificate as it is a technical, skill-based program. Going for a degree may be a waste of time and money if you don’t plan on pursuing anything further.

    Now, if you plan on one day owning your salon, you may want to first get a certificate in cosmetology and then move on to a degree in business. A business degree can help you run a successful salon because you understand and learn how to handle all the aspects of owning a successful business. Having these added skills benefits you in a multitude of ways.

    The higher you go with your degree, from bachelor’s to master’s to doctorate, the higher your starting salary is when you leave school, even though you have no job experience. Many other professions, including our accounting example, will quickly increase as you gain experience. 

    Education and experience combined help to increase someone’s salary, and often someone with a degree receives a larger increase than someone without one. This is not to say that someone who receives a certificate can’t make good money.

    Depending on what program you take, you can make six figures a year with a certificate program education. Yes, there are more six-figure positions with degrees than certificates, but don’t let that deter you. The fact is that even with a certificate, you can make good money, even right out of school. A health care practitioner can make $82,000 straight out of college, coming in at number 6 of professions with the highest beginning salaries.

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