Certificates vs. Certifications vs. Licenses

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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Published on April 1, 2021
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  • Certificates, licenses, and certifications all equip specialists to work in their fields.
  • Certificates are awarded by postsecondary schools for completing required coursework.
  • Certifications and licenses are industry standards with education and exam requirements.

For practically every year of education you complete, your projected lifetime earnings rise.

The reality is that education lands people better jobs. With new graduates flooding into the job market each year, educational credentials send clear signals to busy hiring managers that you possess the skills, background, and knowledge needed to perform the job — and perform it well.

When researching education options, there's a variety of credentials to consider besides a two- or four-year degree. Here are three that are often confused with one another.


A certificate is 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.

Like college majors, certificates are unique to the institution where they are earned. You can get an undergraduate or graduate certificate depending on the program. However, it should be noted that while certificates are a kind of academic credential, they are not academic degrees, nor do they certify you to work in a particular industry.



Despite their similar-sounding names, certifications and certificates are not the same. Awarded by professional associations, companies, and independent organizations, certifications are standardized credentials that are intended to certify someone for work in a particular industry. Certifications may include both education and exam requirements.

While many certifications are used as industry standards, they're not typically mandatory to work in a particular field. However, some certifications may be required for professional advancement, and it may be difficult to find a job in certain industries without the necessary certification.


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


Licenses are normally issued by state governments. Like certifications, they 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.

Because they are issued by state governments, licensing requirements usually vary by state but share some common characteristics. For example, to become a licensed psychologist in almost all U.S. states, it's necessary to obtain a doctorate from a program accredited by the American Psychological Association.


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

What's the Point of All These Credentials?

Certificates have popped up for a growing number of subjects in recent years. Many certificate programs provide job-specific training for vocations like phlebotomist and dental hygienist, while others develop special skill sets, such as medical coding and data visualization.

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 or chartered financial analyst, for example, you must earn a bachelor's degree and pass special exams administered by independent organizations and associations.

Meanwhile, licenses are issued by government agencies and generally mandatory in the fields that use them. When seeking licensure, you must meet educational and exam requirements. Healthcare professionals, lawyers, teachers, and tradespeople are all regulated and licensed at the state level.

Certificate vs. Degree

Certificates and college diplomas both come on thick pieces of paper and acknowledge that a course of study has been completed. The differences between the two are the amount of time they take to earn, their costs, and the kinds of jobs they qualify graduates to perform.

Certificates take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years to complete. 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.

Though a certificate can enhance your skills, for many top career tracks — and most new jobs — a bachelor's degree is required.

“Certificates can help students break into high-paying fields without investing in a four-year degree.” Source: — Mary Clare Amselem, Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation Link: More Info

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Traditionally, certificate programs equip students for specific careers, like air traffic controller or dentistry. Increasingly, college students and college graduates are pursuing certificates to gather microcredentials, add valuable skills, or change career tracks.

Colleges have added thousands of certificate programs over the past few years. Students can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship, blockchain, social media management, or any number of other program areas, all while pursuing a bachelor's degree.

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

Certificate vs. Certification

A certificate program does not lead to certification but can prepare you to earn certification.

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Certificate programs prepare students for certain careers, but for some jobs, additional testing and credentialing may be required. In some cases, certificate programs serve as exam prep for professional certification. Simply put, a certificate is evidence of education, while certification is evidence of passing an exam or meeting industry standards.

Because certifications are often issued by national organizations, they are standardized. So for instance, while a healthcare employer may not be familiar with a candidate's specific phlebotomy training course, they will instantly recognize a phlebotomy technician certification.

Certifications rely on the credibility, authority, and standards of their awarding organizations. Some industry certifications are notoriously difficult to obtain, while others have relatively few requirements.

Similarly, while some certifications are highly coveted in certain industries (e.g., accounting and finance), a variety of certifications may exist for industries for which no certification is needed.

Certification vs. Licensure

Certifications and licenses both come after certificates and degrees. It takes an education to prepare for certification exams. And it takes an education — plus those qualifying exams — to receive a professional license.

It takes an education — plus certifying exams — to earn a professional license.

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Licensure sanctions individuals to work in professions that can impact others' safety. Potentially dangerous jobs include architects, psychologists, electricians, manicurists (who use strong chemicals), and even bartenders (who are responsible for not overserving or serving to minors).

Licenses are mostly issued by state governments, which means that licensing standards and procedures vary widely. Not all states require licenses for the same professions, but if a state requires one, you must get a license in order to legally work in that position.

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