Certificates vs. Certifications vs. Licenses

Discover the differences between certificates, certifications, and licenses. Find out which one is right for you and how each can benefit your career.
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Updated on March 29, 2024
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For practically every year of education you complete, your projected lifetime earnings rise.

With new graduates flooding the job market each year, additional credentials send a clear signal to busy hiring managers that you possess the skills, background, and knowledge needed to perform a job — and perform it well.

Certificates, certifications, and licenses are three types of credentials that professionals can obtain to showcase their skills and knowledge.

Each of these credentials serves a different purpose, but they all play a crucial role in validating an individual's qualifications and abilities. Whether you're looking to switch careers, advance in your current job, or simply gain a competitive edge, understanding the differences between these credentials and knowing which one is right for you is essential.

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What Is a Certificate?

A certificate is a post-secondary qualification that showcases that a student has undergone practical training and developed specific skills in a particular area.

Certificates are awarded by colleges and vocational schools to students who've completed all of a certificate program's required coursework, normally in a shorter timeframe than academic degrees. While students must have earned passing grades to receive the certificate, they do not typically have to take any rigorous exams.

Certificate programs are designed to equip students for technical or skill-centric occupations by offering a mix of practical and theoretical learning in a specialized field. Often, individuals seeking to kickstart or switch their careers, or those aiming for higher salaries or advancement in their jobs, opt for certificates.

What Is a Certification?

Awarded by professional associations, companies, and independent organizations, certifications are standardized credentials that are intended to certify someone for work in a particular industry.

How do you obtain a certification? The process can vary depending on the field and the specific certification, but it generally involves a few key steps: First, you select a certification that aligns with your career goals. Then, you prepare for and pass the required exam. Last, you maintain your certification through ongoing education or renewal processes.

Obtaining a certification is not just about adding another line to your resume. It's about showcasing your commitment to your profession, staying updated with industry trends, and ultimately enhancing your career prospects.

Certification Examples

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
  • Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

What Is a License?

A professional license is an official authorization issued by a state-level authority that legally permits you to practice a particular profession. It's not just a rubber stamp; it's a validation of your competence and adherence to certain professional standards.

Like certifications, licenses often accompany education and exam requirements and are mandatory for professionals in certain fields. Licenses may come with additional requirements, such as obtaining a minimum number of supervised work hours.

If you're transitioning from one state to another and already hold a license, be sure to check for interstate licensure reciprocity agreements through the state licensing boards.

License Examples

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Cosmetologist
  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

Certificate vs. Degree

A degree program, whether an associate, bachelor's, or higher, is a traditional educational route that provides a wider and more comprehensive education. It requires a longer commitment and can be quite expensive.

A certificate program is a specialized, shorter-term path that equips you with specific skills for different trades or professions. Certificates are usually more affordable and flexible, with provisions for online education. However, depending on the industry, a certificate by itself might not be enough to secure a job and might be more effective when used to supplement a degree.

Certificates take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years to earn. The total cost of a certificate ranges widely, but many are available for just a few thousand dollars or less. By comparison, a bachelor's degree usually takes four years and costs $40,000 or more.

Traditionally, certificate programs equip students for specific careers, like roles in air traffic control or dentistry. Increasingly, college students and college graduates are pursuing certificates to gather micro-credentials, add valuable skills, or change career tracks.

Certificate programs are also able to respond to market demand more quickly than traditional educational fields. In today's competitive job market, those extra skills and experiences can help bump your resume to the top of the pile.

Ultimately, the differences between certificates and degrees are the amount of time they take to earn, their cost, and the kinds of jobs they qualify graduates for.

Certificate vs. Certification

A certificate is an educational credential you earn upon completion of a course or program at a university. It showcases your knowledge and abilities in a specific field and provides a path to expertise without the need for an advanced degree.

On the other hand, certifications are granted by professional organizations and confirm that a person has the requisite skills, knowledge, and competence to carry out a certain job.

Certifications usually involve passing a test and meeting ongoing educational needs, making them more recognized in professional environments because of their standardized requirements.

Simply put, a certificate is evidence of education, while certification is evidence of passing an exam or meeting industry standards.

Certification vs. Licensure

Certifications and licenses are both generally obtained after earning a certificate and/or degree. Both also require exams.

Certification is a voluntary process managed by a professional organization that acknowledges an individual's specific set of skills or qualifications. However, it does not provide a legal permit to practice a profession.

Licensure is generally state-specific and sanctions individuals to work in professions that can impact others' safety. Licensure is a state's way of granting legal permission to individuals to practice in a specific professional field, and it is usually compulsory for regulated professions.

What's the Point of All These Credentials?

Certificates, certifications, and licenses all serve unique functions.

Certificates can add in-demand skills to your resume, but a certificate alone isn't enough to start working in certain industries.

For some professions, certifications are required to do business. To become a certified public accountant, for example, you must earn a master's degree and pass an exam administered by an independent organization.

Meanwhile, licenses are legal permissions issued by a state that allow professionals to engage in specific professions like nursing or law, often necessitating a blend of education, certification, and hands-on experience.

Pursuing professional credentials can qualify you for a higher salary, advance your career, grow your expertise, or help you change careers.

Note: The insights on this page — excluding school descriptions — were reviewed by an independent third party compensated for their time by BestColleges. Page last reviewed March 27, 2024.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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