Often earned in 6-9 months, certificates are cheaper and faster than traditional degrees and can launch careers in fields like health, administration, and IT.

What Is a Certificate Program?


  • Certificate programs establish and redirect careers in a growing number of fields.
  • As a whole, certificates are more affordable and faster than bachelor's degrees.
  • College students and recent graduates can strengthen their resumes by adding a certificate.

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 of at least $40,000. While new jobs increasingly require a bachelor's degree, 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.

Online Certificate Programs Are Flexible and Cheap

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 COVID-19 — affordable and flexible, but they also allow for self-paced learning. Students listen to lectures and complete assignments whenever is most convenient for them.

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

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 vs. Certification vs. License

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

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

Certificates

Awarded by colleges and vocational schools upon completing coursework in a specialized subject. Certificates are not standardized but rather unique to the institution where they are earned.

Examples

  • Certificate in Machine Learning
  • Certificate in Business Analytics
  • Certificate in Entrepreneurship
Certifications

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.

Examples

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

Typically issued by state governments. Licenses are mandatory for professionals in certain fields and sanction them to work based on completion of rigorous exams, continuing education, and other requirements.

Examples

  • 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 for which a certificate isn't required, employers might look for additional education on resumes to help them pick between two equally qualified candidates.

Certificate programs attract those without college degrees as well as degree-holders who want to change career tracks or hone their skills. While degrees are expensive and time-consuming, certificates can be earned in as little as a few months. Some certificates, such as air traffic control, can even earn more than a bachelor's degree.

Easier for schools to produce than entirely new majors, certificates 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 the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Additional Certificate Resources

BestColleges Online Certificate & Diploma Guide

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

BestColleges Online Graduate Certificate Guide

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

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