Higher education is more valued in the workplace today than ever before. In fact, it’s been
reported that individuals with bachelor’s degrees have 57 percent more job opportunities
and earn 56 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. This type of data has
encouraged many of the 36 million adults who dropped out of college before completing
their bachelor’s degrees to go back to school and continue their education.
Degree and certificate programs are two of the most common choices for students
returning to the classroom. These two educational paths are designed to expose students to
a specific field or skill set that can help broaden their knowledge in that subject area. At
their core, the purpose of both program types is to help students in understanding the
depth of their industry, and to walk away with the tactical skills and experiences needed to
expand their career options, advance at work, or even switch to a new industry altogether.
As similar as the educational goals of these types of programs are, however, the format, cost, and
curriculum of each are so different that students often find themselves more drawn to one or the
other depending on their own needs. Throughout this article, we explore these differences between
degree and certificate programs to help you identify which is the right choice for your continued
Degree vs. Certificate: What You’ll Learn
Perhaps the most important factor to consider when weighing these options is what is
actually covered in the classroom within the curriculum of certificate and degree programs.
What You’ll Learn in a Certificate Program?
Certificate courses are narrowly focused and explore the actionable skills needed to work in
a particular industry. Depending on the type of the certificate, classes may only cover a
broad view of essential industry-related topics or practices to ensure you have a working
knowledge of the field. More advanced certificate programs dive more deeply into the
subject or review more sophisticated methods for the work. In either type of certificate
program, however, graduates leave with skills well-developed enough to apply what they’ve
learned to your field or, in some cases, expand that base knowledge into an advanced
degree later on.
What You’ll Learn in a Degree Program?
Courses outlined for the completion of degree programs cover far more than the base level of
knowledge required for you to complete your work-related tasks. Degree programs are often
interested in producing “well-rounded” students with an understanding of their industry and the
world as a whole. To achieve this, degree-granting institutions include “core classes” alongside the
major-specific courses required to graduate.
Degree vs. Certificate: Time Commitment
One of the biggest draws of a certificate program is the speed at which you can complete it.
Unlike a degree—which can take between two and four years to finish—certificates require
as little as a few months to a few years to complete. This variation in length is due to the
flexibility of certificate programs, including that they allow you to take as few or as many
courses at a time as needed.
The pursuit of degrees has become a lot more flexible in recent years, as well, especially
with the introduction of options like online classes, which allow students to work from
anywhere at any time. However, more often than not, these programs will require a slightly
more rigid timeline for completion due to the sheer number of credits needed to graduate
and the different semesters in which certain required classes are offered.
Degree vs. Certificate: Price
The price of education boils down to the cost per course and, depending on the university,
these prices can vary. While courses required for a degree and courses required for a
certificate likely cost around the same amount, a cost difference occurs due to
the number of courses students must take in order to graduate from each program. There
are far fewer courses required to complete a certificate program than a bachelor’s program.
Although there are dozens of financial aid options for both—
including scholarships, grants, tuition reimbursement, and more—some find the lower price
associated with a certificate is enough to lead them down that path.
Degree vs. Certificate: Job Opportunities
A bachelor’s degree is often the minimum requirement for entry-level positions in today’s job
market. What’s more, even though some may be able to obtain work with a certificate alone, a lack
of a degree can limit opportunities for advancement in your field. For this reason, those who wish to
set themselves up for long-term success in their career should invest in the extensive knowledge,
exposure, and industry insight that can be obtained during the pursuit of a full degree.