Online vs. Traditional College Degrees: What to expect from online graduate certificate programs

Graduate certificates are short-term, stand alone academic programs designed to help students focus on a specific topic or field of study. They can be helpful for those who are considering a master’s or doctorate program, but want to try graduate level study before committing to a full program. Some programs are designed to help students reach their professional goals, which might include a career change, professional development for advancement, or eligibility for industry certification or licensure.

Certificates offer an alternative to a full graduate degree, which can positively impact your job skills and employability in a shorter time frame than a full degree program. These programs are available in a wide range of topics, and applicable across industries. According to The College Board, popularity is growing for certificate programs with overall growth of one million certificate students annually, including post-baccalaureate certificates (also known as graduate certificates and postgraduate certificates).

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GRADUATE CERTIFICATE AND A GRADUATE DEGREE?

Both certificate and degree programs offer students the opportunity to advance their skills and knowledge in a specific subject area in order to further their career. Graduate certificate programs online require fewer courses, and so may be completed in less time and at a lower cost than a full degree. Graduate degree programs offer more in-depth study, and graduates earn master’s or doctoral level credentials. Neither graduate certificate or degree programs result in industry certification, however they may be designed to help you meet certification requirements in your field of work.

Certificate:

Graduate certificate programs online typically require students to complete four to eight courses, ranging from 12 to 24 credit hours, depending on the school and subject. These programs generally do not require any kind of field work or comprehensive exams, although some may require related work experience before enrolling. Non-degree programs, such as certificates, usually aren’t eligible for federal financial aid. Students enter these programs after having already completed a bachelor’s degree. While certificates are typically not required for employment, earning one can be a great way to update specific skills needed in your career, explore a new field without having to commit to a full degree program, complete coursework requirements, or continue education needed for certification or licensure in your field.

Degree:

Graduate degree programs are more extensive in terms of time, cost, and requirements. Master’s and doctoral level programs typically include coursework, field experience or internships, capstone research projects, and comprehensive exams. These programs can range from 30 to 90 credits or more, depending on the level of study and subject area. Students enrolling in graduate degree programs have already earned a bachelor’s degree, and are eligible for a wider range of financial assistance than certificate students. Graduate degrees are required for employment in many careers and job roles, such as counselors, librarians, physicians, nurse practitioners, and university professors. In some hiring situations earning a full degree, no matter the subject, can be preferred by employers as a way to differentiate applicants in a competitive job market.

ONLINE VS. CAMPUS-BASED GRADUATE CERTIFICATE PROGRAMS

On-Campus Full Time

Benefits

  • Increased opportunities to network with faculty and other students
  • Increased opportunities to engage in college culture, non-academic activities

Drawbacks

  • Loss of wages while not working
  • Least amount of flexibility
Evening/Weekend Classes

Benefits

  • Easier scheduling for working students
  • Ability to connect with faculty in person

Drawbacks

  • Less flexible than online options with any-time, any-place access
Hybrid/Blended

Benefits

  • Offers students the opportunity to interact with each other, instructors, support services in both online and in-person formats
  • Provides combination of online convenience with face-to-face interaction and communication

Drawbacks

  • Adapting to both online and in-class learning formats proves challenging for some students
  • Less flexible than online options
Online

Benefits

  • Most flexible access to coursework
  • Can be completed while working full-time
  • Ability to attend schools not geographically close to student

Drawbacks

  • More challenging to develop faculty mentoring relationships
  • More challenging to get involved in campus-based activities and services

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET AN ONLINE GRADUATE CERTIFICATE?

Graduate certificate programs online typically consist of 4 to 8 courses, with a total of 12 to 24 credits. Some programs may require additional courses, depending on the school and subject. These programs are usually completed within a quick time frame, from one year to one and a half years, but a lot depends on how many courses a student can take at once. This may be limited by the school or by the student’s preference and availability. Additional courses may also be required if the student has not completed prerequisite courses for those included in the certificate. Certificate programs may be self-paced, allowing students to enroll in courses in their own time frames, or use a cohort model, in which students enroll in small groups and complete all courses together.

FINANCING AN ONLINE GRADUATE CERTIFICATE PROGRAM

Certificate programs are typically less expensive than full degree programs, requiring fewer courses to complete. However, students should still understand that cost is a factor and develop a plan to pay for a certificate in addition to their current living expenses. Tuition, fees, textbooks, and other class requirements, such as hardware and software, should be part of an overall budget. Students who borrow money to complete a certificate program should carefully calculate not only repayment rates, including interest, but also how long it will take to repay the loan.

Budgeting 101

As you research graduate certificate programs online in your area of interest, you’ll find programs that are offered completely online, completely on campus, and in a blended or hybrid format with both online and on-campus requirements. Costs vary by school, and may vary by format. Compare the cost-per-credit and fees at each school you are considering, as well as how these institutions price different types of courses. Many schools charge the same tuition rates no matter the course format. A study from WCET shows that 75% of colleges charge the same tuition rates for online and on-campus courses.

Students pay for certificate programs in the same ways they pay for degree programs. Financial sources can include grants and scholarships, federal financial aid, employer incentives, loans, veterans’ benefits, and personal savings. Keep in mind that not all certificate programs are eligible for federal financial aid, especially if the certificate isn’t part of enrollment in a larger degree program. Check with your schools of interest to confirm what might be possible in the programs you are interested in pursuing.

While non-degree programs, such as graduate or post graduate certificates, are usually not eligible for federal financial aid, you may be able to apply money from college savings plans toward the cost. Most students rely on personal savings, employer incentives, and private loans to pay for certificate courses. These programs are usually much shorter than full degrees, reducing the overall expense incurred at this level. Students who are enrolled in certificates that are part of their degree programs may be eligible for federal financial aid, which begins with the FAFSA application.

The Debt-Free Degree
Understanding the FAFSA

Many students are drawn to certificate programs for their combination of short duration and focused curriculum. With a smaller investment of time and money, you can complete a certificate that helps you advance your current skills or give you a start on changing directions towards a new career. According to research from The College Board, “as workers age, earnings rise more rapidly for those with higher levels of education.” Certificates provide opportunities to enhance your resume for an upcoming job search – showing that you are up-to-date with current trends in your field. Pursue a topic of personal interest, which could lead to a new employment path or even to an online graduate degree program.

Online programs offer the flexibility to continue your education while you’re working. If you are thinking about a graduate degree, earning a certificate is a great way to get started. Check with your schools of interest to see how credits earned in a certificate program can transfer to a master’s or doctoral program. Admission requirements for certificate programs can be different from full degree programs. If your undergraduate GPA doesn’t meet requirements to enter a master’s program, for example, talk with advisors about completing a certificate first, as a way to show your readiness for academic work at the graduate level.

The Best Online Schools

CAREERS THAT MAY REQUIRE A GRADUATE CERTIFICATE

In some career fields and employment roles, earning a certificate is related to completing licensure requirements or meeting hiring expectations. The following job titles provide a few examples of how certificate programs enhance employment opportunities and career readiness.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Most states require completion of a master’s degree as part of the licensure process for the LCSW credential. Social workers at this career level may choose to continue their education beyond the master’s with a graduate certificate in topics such as addiction studies, art therapy, women’s health, gerontology, and child welfare practice.

Senior Graphic Designer

Graphic designers aren’t required to have a license, but have typically completed an undergraduate degree and several years of work experience before taking a senior position. Certificate programs provide additional knowledge and skill development in topics such as digital publishing, web design, and multimedia. Earning a certificate in graphic design can also help you transition to a career in this field.

Registered Nurse (RN)

Registered Nurses have typically earned an associate (A.S.N.) or bachelor’s degree (B.S.N.) before becoming licensed as RN’s. Requirements vary by state. Certificate programs can help students move into full master’s degree (M.S.N.) programs, or provide continuing education or certification in a wide range of subjects, such as clinical research management, nursing education, nursing informatics, and patient safety.

Paralegal

Paralegals support attorneys with tasks ranging from client interviews to legal research. Some students complete paralegal degrees, while others complete paralegal certificate programs after completing an associate or bachelor’s degree in another field. Most programs include coursework in legal topics (e.g., contracts, court systems, ethics) and specialization courses (e.g., criminal law, taxation, environmental law, civil litigation).

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

CPA’s must be licensed to practice, and each state provides its own guidelines for this certification process, which includes an exam. Most require a bachelor’s degree in addition to related work experience to be licensed or certified, however, some states also have a certificate option that allows for more limited work in the field. You’ll also find graduate level certificate programs in accounting that help you prepare for the CPA exam.

Certified Financial Planner (CFP)

Financial advisors who have already completed a bachelor’s degree and want to earn CFP certification may choose to enroll in a certificate program designed to help them pass the CFP exam.

Median Salary for Careers with graduate certificate options


Career Median Salary
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) $54,620
Senior Graphic Designer $70,000
Registered Nurse (RN) $60,616
Paralegal $45,973
Certified Public Accountant (CPA) $62,410

Source: PayScale

TYPES OF GRADUATE CERTIFICATES

As you begin your research you’ll find a lot of graduate certificate options to choose from in nearly every industry. Are you just starting a new career or planning a career transition? Do you want to get promoted or take on new projects in your current role? Graduate certificates offer short-term learning options that help you meet your career goals.

Career Starter Certificates

Whether you are a recent college graduate starting your first career or a working professional planning a transition to a new field, graduate certificates provide a way to get a career started. Use the opportunity provided by an online graduate certificate program to develop skills relevant for employment and enhance your professional network. Check out certificates focused on emerging career trends, such as sustainable tourism, cybersecurity, robotics, and entrepreneurship, for example.

Career Accelerator Certificates

If you are already in a career field you enjoy, online graduate certificates provide new professional development opportunities. These learning options can help you develop advanced skills in your current job, stay up-to-date with trends and issues in your industry, and prepare for promotion and future roles in your organization. Look for certificates that cover topics relevant to your field and your career goals. A high school teacher, for example, might choose a certificate in special education, educational technology, autism education, or school administration as a way to enhance his work in the classroom and school district.

TYPES OF ONLINE STUDENTS

Students enroll in online programs with a wide variety of motives and expectations. They also represent a range of ages and professional experience. Research from The Parthenon Group and Lumina Foundation shows growing segments of students, and many have career goals in mind when they enter or return to school online. These profiles are most closely identified with undergraduate students, however, you may see some similarities in your own interest in pursuing education at the graduate level.

Industry Switchers

These students already have some relevant work experience, and are likely currently employed part- or full-time. They are interested in changing careers through a certificate or other graduate-level program.

Career Accelerators

Do you want to get promoted in your current job or move into a specialty area of your current career field? Career accelerators can use certificate programs as a way to develop advanced skills in a particular topic, update their existing knowledge, and prepare for managerial or leadership roles.

Academic Wanderers/Lifelong Learners

Students in this category are interested in learning for personal development. They may or may not have related career or employment goals, but enjoy the structure of academic programs. Graduate certificates provide a way to explore something new in just a few courses.

Graduate certificate programs may be less expensive than full degree programs, but they still require significant time and money investment from students. Take some time to research multiple options in your subject of interest and compare online programs, keeping a list of priorities in your mind. In addition to price and affordability considerations, find out how flexible your study schedule will be. Some online courses require students to log in at specific dates and times for live (synchronous) class meetings, while others allow students to complete course requirements at their own pace with weekly deadlines.

Will you need to travel to a campus location for courses or student support services? Check to see if the programs you are interested in attending require students to come to a physical location for class meetings, testing, or advising, for example. Many students choose to enroll in an online program offered by a school in their local area even if there is no on-campus requirement. This provides access to a wide range of services, from in-person academic advising and campus events to writing centers and fitness facilities.

IS IT BETTER TO ATTEND AN ONLINE GRADUATE CERTIFICATE PROGRAM IN MY STATE?

Many schools charge the same tuition rates for online and on-campus courses, however, the different formats may involve different fees, as well as requirements for hardware, software, and internet connectivity. Costs vary by school and program, so carefully compare the online and traditional certificate programs you may be interested in attending. It’s also important to understand that not all online programs enroll students from all states. The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement provides a process schools and states can use to ease the approval process. Check with each school you are interested in to find out if they are able to enroll students living in your state.

Many online students choose a program offered by a school in their local area. Some programs have on-campus requirements, ranging from orientation meetings to comprehensive testing, making a local or in-state option more convenient. Others offer all certificate requirements and activities in an online format, but provide online students with access to on-campus activities and facilities such as lecture series and gyms.

Since 2012, the radius from which online college students have been selecting their program has been shrinking, with nearly 75% of students selecting a campus within 100 miles of their home.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS?

Both public and private institutions offer a range of graduate certificates with a similar academic curriculum. The differences in these types of colleges are related to how they are funded and managed. Public schools are primarily funded by state and federal sources. Private schools are primarily funded through tuition, fees, grants, and donations.

Public schools generally offer lower tuition rates, particularly for in-state students, but this isn’t always the case. These schools also often enroll more students than private schools. Each school and program is different in terms of costs, academics, student support, and resources available. Research your options carefully based on your priorities and expectations for an online graduate certificate program.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FOR-PROFIT AND NONPROFIT SCHOOLS?

Private colleges and universities can be divided into two categories: non-profit and for-profit. Non-profit institutions rely primarily on tuition, fees, grants, and private donations to cover operating costs. For-profit institutions use a business model that includes these many of these funding sources while also focusing on developing a positive financial return for those who have invested in the organization. Negative reports have surrounded the for-profit college industry in recent years; however, not all institutions are alike. Make sure any school you attend is properly accredited (see more information below), has a good reputation among students and employers, and has positive student outcomes (e.g., graduation rates).

IS AN ONLINE GRADUATE CERTIFICATE AS GOOD AS AN ON-CAMPUS GRADUATE CERTIFICATE?

Online learning is no longer just available from “online colleges.” As more traditional schools develop online course and program options for students, attitudes are becoming more positive towards distance education. There are more programs available than ever in a growing number of formats, including online, on-campus, and blended/hybrid options that combine online and in-person requirements. In recent surveys, academic leaders and online students both share positive feedback on the quality and value of online learning.

If you are interested in earning an online graduate certificate, determine your priorities and resources as they relate to flexibility and convenience, class meeting times, interaction with faculty members, and access to student services, when comparing online and on-campus programs. Some programs are specifically designed to help students achieve certification through a professional organization or state licensure. Not all certification and licensure boards accept online coursework, so make sure your program matches your needs. Deciding what’s best for you is an individual decision based on your preferences, as well as on your learning and career goals.

71.4% of academic leaders view learning outcomes – the skills and knowledge a student is expected to attain – from online classes as comparable or superior to face-to-face courses

Annual Trends in Online Education

Accreditation is a process developed to help academic programs maintain a basic level of quality. Evaluation and approval through an accrediting agency includes a careful and external review of a range of factors including faculty qualifications, institutional finances, and learning outcomes. The process is the same for online and on-campus programs, and accreditation must be updated periodically.

Any schools you are interested in attending should have either national or regional accreditation. Regional accreditation is an older system than national, although both offer similar reviews. If you are enrolling in a certificate program as a step toward professional certification or licensure, check with the licensing organizations for information about which accreditation sources are accepted for the credential you plan to pursue. Individual academic programs can also be accredited by specific agencies, in addition to the school’s accreditation status.

The Best Accredited Online Colleges and Universities

Refer to either the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) list of accreditors and database of accredited schools, or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) roster of accredited schools to find out which accreditation agencies are recognized. Not all accrediting agencies are recognized by the DOE or CHEA. The DOE tracks accreditation and accrediting agencies to inform decisions about whether or not schools can receive federal financial aid. CHEA is an advocacy organization working to make sure the public, including students and employers, are better informed about school and program quality.

Some graduate certificate programs provide a faster admissions process with fewer requirements than a full degree program. For example, some schools don’t require applicants to take entrance exams, such as the GRE or GMAT. This varies by school and program, however, so work with the admissions office to make sure you complete the submission process for any programs you decide to apply to.

Things to Consider:

Flexibility

Many certificate programs are designed with student career and employment goals in mind. Depending on how many courses you take at any one time, you may be able to continue working full time while you pursue the certificate. Most certificates can be completed within a year to a year and a half. You can expect to commit approximately three hours per week per credit hour for coursework at the graduate level.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

Some programs accept career and military experience as credit toward a graduate certificate, but there are also limits related to how many total credits you can transfer in toward the certificate requirements.

Admissions Deadline

Applications may only be accepted at certain times during the year, often coinciding with traditional academic semester deadlines in Fall, Spring, and Summer. Rolling admissions policies are also possible, allowing you to apply at any time during the year and enroll in classes at the start of the next term.

Technology Requirements

Check your programs of interest for detailed specifications related to technology use for students. To participate in online courses you will need to have appropriate hardware, software, and a reliable Internet connection. These requirements vary by school and your field of study. You may need additional equipment, such as a headset, to participate in live class meetings.

What you need to apply:

Testing

Many certificate programs do not require you to submit admissions test scores (e.g., GRE, GMAT, LSAT). However this varies by school and subject. International and ESL students should expect to submit TOEFL or IELTS scores with their certificate application to demonstrate proficiency with English.

Letters of Recommendation

Some programs require a reference or recommendation from someone who knows your academic or professional work. Others make this component optional, or don’t require it at all. Check the application deadlines closely and give your recommender time to respond, at least six weeks. The school will let you know if they want a letter or for your reference to fill out a form the school provides.

Resume

A resume or CV is often part of the application as a way to convey your related professional experience, which can be a requirement or prerequisite to enter a certificate program.

Personal Statement/Essay

If your program of interest requires a statement or essay, follow the application directions carefully. You may be asked to generally share your reason for enrolling and plans after completing the certificate. Or you may be asked to answer specific questions about your background in the field of study and education/career goals.

Official Transcripts

Most graduate certificates require you to have already completed a bachelor’s degree. Some will also have course prerequisites and minimum GPA requirements. “Official” transcripts are usually submitted from the institution where you earned your previous degree or credits, to the school you are applying to. But you may be allowed to submit an unofficial copy of your transcripts with application materials while you are waiting for the official process to be completed. Plan to submit transcripts from any universities where you’ve completed a degree or coursework related to the certificate program.

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