What is a Certificate Program and Is It Right For Me?

You know what field you want to study. You know what schools you want to apply to. You even know what your dream job would be. But there’s still one huge question left to answer: should you get a degree, or a certificate? This guide will help you make an informed decision by explaining some of the key differences between a certificate and a degree, such as the cost, time commitment, and scope of study associated with each.

Depending on factors like what career you want to pursue, what skills you’re hoping to learn, and the amount of time and money you’re willing to invest, a degree or certificate might be the better choice. For instance, due to their flexible structure, certificate programs are often attractive to working professionals or students who have existing degrees.

By weighing the pros and cons of each option carefully, you can make a practical, strategic decision that supports your chosen career path. Keep reading to find out whether a certificate or degree program is the best option for you.

Certificate vs. Degree: What Are the Differences?

When you’re comparing and applying to universities, it’s vital to understand the difference between degree and certificate programs. The choice you make will affect every aspect of your education, from the amount of tuition you can expect to pay, to the length of time you spend in the program, to the types of job opportunities you might have after graduating. What works for one student might be impractical for another, which means there’s no single answer to the question of which program is “best.” Instead, you’ll need to think about your professional goals, your financial resources, and your calendar.

The more clear and detailed your plan for the future is, the easier it will be to determine which type of program better suits your needs. However, even if you’re still deciding what career path to explore, choosing the right program will be simpler if you understand the differences between a certificate and a degree. Let’s take a closer look at what each of these programs has to offer.

What is the Difference Between a Certificate and Degree?

A certificate program is an efficient, fast-paced academic program that focuses on teaching a career-specific or industry-specific skill set. The goal of a certificate program is to rapidly train and prepare you for your career of choice, so that you can “hit the ground running” as soon as possible. If you’re trying to capitalize on rapid growth or increased demand within an industry, a short program like a certificate might be the better fit.

Like two-year and four-year degree programs, many certificate programs can be partially or fully completed online, providing a convenient option for students who are interested in distance education. Depending on your prior education and work experience, you can also choose between a graduate or undergraduate certificate.

If you complete your program successfully, you’ll earn certification. Becoming certified in your field of choice has a few important advantages:

  • Certification may be a job requirement for certain industries or employers. For example, each US state enforces its own set of certification requirements for teachers and educators.
  • Getting certified can open up new job opportunities and increase your earning potential.
  • Being certified can help you stand out from other job applicants in a competitive field.

Think a certificate program might be right for you? National University offers a wide range of accredited online and on-campus certificate programs, including an Undergraduate Certificate in Criminal Justice Administration to a Paralegal Specialist Certificate. Among our 190+ degree programs, we offer certificates across a wide swath of industries, from banking to the medical field.

Like certificates, many degrees can be earned online and cover a vast range of industries that range from the arts and social sciences to mathematics and engineering. However, while a certificate program typically takes less than a year to finish, a full degree program may require anywhere from two to seven years for completion, depending on the type of degree you are pursuing. Types of degree programs include:

  • Associate’s Degree Programs — Typically 2 years
  • Bachelor’s Degree Programs — Typically 4 to 5 years
  • Master’s Degree Programs — Typically 18 months to 2 years

Another key difference is the scope of the education you will receive. While a certificate program exclusively teaches practical, job-related information, a degree aims to provide a broader, more comprehensive education which encompasses all sorts of topics and skills.

Should I Get a Certificate or Degree?

Thanks to their condensed format, certification programs tend to cost substantially less than full degree programs. You won’t need to invest as much money or time, and you get to retain more control over your busy schedule — yet you’ll still leave the classroom armed with valuable, in-demand skills that can be immediately put to work in a real-world setting.

While more time-intensive, full degrees offer a broader, more well-rounded education, providing opportunities like internships and study abroad opportunities that are absent from certificate programs. However, many schools offer flexible online learning options, giving you the option to complete your degree at home and balance a job and busy day-to-day schedule.

For some career paths, you’ll need a specific type of degree and licensing to work in a given field. For example, to become licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you’ll need to earn at least 150 credit hours, which generally means you’ll need to either obtain a master’s degree or earn a bachelor’s degree while taking graduate-level classes.

Should I Get a Certificate or Associate’s Degree?

It typically takes around two years to earn an associate’s degree, compared to an average of six months to one year to complete a certificate program. Applicant criteria vary widely from school to school, so be sure to follow your program’s instructions carefully. For instance, you may want to review our Admissions page, read about our credential and certificate programs, or view the complete list of online and on-campus certificate programs available at National University.

Both certificate and associate’s degree programs are affordable, convenient, and aggressively paced — ideal for applicants who want to develop their skills and enter the workforce as quickly as possible. Some popular associate’s degree programs at National University include our Associate of Arts in General Education, which can set you off on the path to become a teacher. You can also consider associate’s programs in business or even paralegal studies to differentiate yourself from other candidates in a new and rewarding career journey.

Should I Get a Certificate or Bachelor’s Degree?

Many employers require applicants to possess a bachelor’s degree, ideally in a relevant field, when applying for work. A bachelor’s degree program costs more and takes longer to complete than a certificate program, but can open more doors.

The program’s four-year structure also allows more time to explore other fields of study. National University offers a variety of on-campus and online bachelor’s degree programs, including a Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering, which can set you up for an in-demand career in the computer science field.

Should I Get a Certificate or Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is an advanced degree that, put simply, may enable you to earn a higher salary. With some exceptions, most students earn a bachelor’s degree before pursuing their master’s degree. If you aren’t willing to make such a major time commitment, a more streamlined option, such as a certificate or associate’s degree program, might be a better fit. Some examples of our accredited master’s degree programs include our Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, which can broaden the career horizon for you across a number of different industries.

Earn Your Degree or Certificate at National University

While full degree programs aim to provide a broad, comprehensive education, a certificate program rapidly zeroes in on the knowledge and skills you’ll need for employment. Both can boost your earning power by making your resume more appealing, setting you up for greater success in the workplace.

Find out what doors a certificate or degree from National University can open for you. With over 190+ programs to choose from, flexible online courses, and WASC accreditation, we’re committed to helping you achieve more.

Start sooner. Finish faster. Apply to National University today.

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