What Is a Certificate Program?

What Is a Certificate Program?
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on April 13, 2021

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Education pays off. For every year of education completed, projected lifetime income increases. The value of any degree or certificate is based on what you learn — practical knowledge as well as digital skills and soft skills — but employers also like to know that you see commitments through to the end.

Earning a bachelor's degree equates to four years of school and an investment that often surpasses $40,000. While many jobs require a bachelor's degree, certificate programs can equip students with career skills on a tighter timeline — and for a lot less money.

Certificate programs can equip students with career skills on a tighter timeline — and for a lot less money.

Many certificates can be completed in just six months to a year. For most of these programs, tuition ranges from under $1,000 to $5,000. For out-of-state and graduate students, the cost of a certificate usually falls in the $15,000-$20,000 range.

Healthcare, administration, and IT make up some of the most popular certificate fields, but over the past few years universities have added thousands of new certificates. While certificates continue to prepare students to become professional coders and pharmacy techs, now they also teach more niche fields like social entrepreneurship, personal training, and even craft beer brewing.

Benefits of Online Certificate Programs

Students have many options for certificates and schools. Traditional colleges, online colleges, vocational schools, and MOOC (massive open online course) providers all offer certificate programs, some at no cost.

Like education as a whole, certificate programs are rapidly moving online and greatly expanding their reach and offerings. Not only are online courses — college students' top choice during the COVID-19 pandemic — affordable and flexible, but they may also allow for self-paced learning.

Many online certificate programs are self-paced, which allows students to listen to lectures and complete assignments at their convenience. Because of this flexibility, students can maintain their work obligations while they finish their studies.

While flexibility is important for nontraditional students with families and jobs, taking your time with a certificate program can make it last a lot longer than advertised. Fortunately, students who want to earn a credential quickly can set their own rapid pace or enroll in an accelerated program.

Unlike bachelor's programs, which typically require four years of full-time study, many certificate programs take only a few months. Some certified nurse assistant programs, for instance, can be completed in only four weeks. Prospective students should review the timeline of different certificate programs to find an option that aligns with their schedules.

Because certificate programs feature a limited number of credits, they almost always cost less to complete than a degree. Additionally, many vocational schools and community colleges offer certificate programs.

Students who select a certificate program offered by a local public school can take advantage of low in-state tuition rates. Completing a certificate online can also help learners avoid costs related to parking, transportation, and facilities access.

What Kinds of Certificates Can You Earn?

Undergraduate Certificate

Undergraduate certificate programs are designed for students who want to gain technical skills without pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree. Many undergraduate certificates are professional certificates that equip students for a specific vocation, such as hairdresser or plumber. Other certificates are designed to complement college majors. For example, an economics major may add a certificate in global labor studies.

Graduate Certificate

Graduate certificate programs give students the opportunity to dive deeper into their chosen field of study for an extra year or two after earning their bachelor's degree. Similarly, post-master's certificates allow master's degree-holders to advance their studies and pursue certification. The two most common fields for post-master's certificates are education and healthcare.

Certificate Programs vs. Degree Programs

Before deciding to pursue a certificate or degree, students should understand the differences between the two. Certificates typically provide training for vocational roles and focus primarily on skills-based training rather than a traditional curriculum with general education coursework. The majority of certificate programs last a year or less.

Degree programs, conversely, focus on both vocational and academic education. In addition to learning about their chosen subject, students complete general education classes from a variety of disciplines to develop a well-rounded knowledge base.

Associate degrees require two years of full-time study, while bachelor's degrees require four. While degree-holders typically earn higher starting salaries, certificates often serve as a good first step for students interested in a particular field or career path.

Certificate vs. Certification vs. License

Certificate programs prepare students for specific careers, but additional testing and credentialing may be required for certain jobs. In some cases, certificate programs can also serve as exam prep for professional licensure.

Many people use the terms "certificate," "certification," and "license" interchangeably, but these words actually have distinct meanings.

true Certificates

These are awarded by colleges and vocational schools upon completion of coursework in a specialized subject. Certificates are not standardized, but are unique to the institution where they are earned.


Certificate in Accounting Certificate in Human Services Certificate in Marketing

These credentials are awarded by professional associations and independent organizations when education and exam requirements are met. Many certifications are highly valuable and used as industry standards, unlike certificates.


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

Typically issued by state government agencies, licenses are mandatory for professionals in certain fields. Licensed individuals are sanctioned to work after they complete exams, continuing education classes, and other requirements.


Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

Are Certificate Programs Worth It?

As the job market becomes more competitive, certificates are gaining attention from students and schools. Even in fields where a certificate isn't required, employers might look for additional education on resumes to help them pick between two comparably qualified candidates.

Certificate programs may attract those without college degrees as well as degree-holders who want to change career tracks or hone their skills. While degrees tend to be more expensive and time-consuming, certificates can be earned in just a few months. Additionally, some jobs that only require a certificate, such as wind turbine technician, pay above-average salaries and are projected to be in great demand in the coming years.

Certificate programs may attract those without college degrees as well as degree-holders who want to change career tracks or hone their skills.

Easier for schools to produce than entirely new majors, certificate programs can also respond quickly to market demand. Many certificate options are concentrated in the fields poised for the greatest growth, including healthcare and technology.

To ensure the certificate you pursue will retain its value on the job market, verify that the program is accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Additional Certificate Resources

Learn the difference between a certificate and a diploma, and get tips on financing your education.

Get more information on graduate certificates and how to pursue one online.

Feature Image: Thnathip Pha Tir Wat'hn / EyeEm / Getty Images

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