Online Certificate Program Guide

| TBS Staff

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An online certificate is a specialized academic award that requires less time and fewer credits than an undergraduate or graduate degree.

Online certificate programs forego general education and instead focus on specific areas of study. This allows students to gain advanced knowledge in their chosen field at an accelerated and affordable rate. Whether you are looking to jumpstart your career, add to your existing qualifications, or to develop a better understanding of a particular discipline, online certificate programs offer flexible options for a practical education.

If you already know what you are looking for, check out the pages below. Many of these schools offer excellent accredited online certificate programs.

Online Certificate Program Basics

Online certificate programs are some of the shortest, most straight-forward programs that students can complete. These programs are available as both online undergraduate certificate programs and online graduate certificate programs. Certificates provide a flexible, accelerated path for students who seek specialized knowledge in a field of study. Because certificate programs usually do not include general education requirements, they often require no more than 12–18 credits for completion and can be completed in one or two semesters.

Online certificate programs are ideal for:

  • Working professionals who wish to expand their resume and qualifications
  • Undergraduates who wish to round out their degree programs
  • Students with no college experience who wish to jumpstart their careers by focusing on specific professional areas

While online certificate programs can be taken by themselves, they are also frequently added to full degree programs through elective coursework.

Most accredited online certificate programs offered by online colleges result in college credit; these credits can typically be applied toward or transferred to online degree programs. Some online certificate programs even allow students to earn or qualify for professional certifications. However, some certificate programs are considered professional, non-credit conferring programs. These programs offer professional education, but do not result in transferable college credits. When you apply to a certificate programs, it is important that you are aware of this distinction. Be sure you know what classification your certificate program falls under, so that it will ultimately serve your needs and goals.

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Three Reasons to Get a Certificate Online

Online certificate programs provide students with significant advantages over traditional on-campus certificate programs. These online certificate program advantages include:

Professional Advancement on Your Own Time
In just about every field, higher education means higher pay. Online certificate programs offer you a quick and flexible option for earning the education you need on a schedule that works with the demands of your professional schedule. Some certificate programs can even prepare or qualify you for professional online certifications.
Personal Growth Without the Stress
While furthering your education can be personally rewarding, attending a traditional on-campus program can also cause you a lot of stress. Online certificate programs allow you and other working adults to academically excel without putting your personal lives on the backburner.
Greater Affordability
Because of their minimal course and time requirements, on-campus certificate programs are already an affordable option for students who just need a little extra education in a specific area. Online certificate programs increase that level of affordability by removing various costs associated with on-campus programs, especially the cost of commuting.
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Types of Online Certificate Programs

Online certificate programs, like their on-campus counterparts, come in two varieties: undergraduate and graduate. In general, academic online certificate programs require around 12–18 credits for completion regardless of program level. Additionally, both undergraduate and graduate certificates can result in various forms of professional online certifications or prepare students for professional certification.

Undergraduate Certificates
Undergraduate certificates are the shortest type of undergraduate academic program. These certificates require less coursework than even an associate degree program. They can often be used to complement an online bachelor’s degree program. These certificates may be earned through elective coursework or completed on their own. They typically require no more than a high school diploma or GED score for admission.
Graduate Certificates
Graduate certificates are roughly half the length and credit requirements of a master’s degree program. They consist of graduate-level courses and provide advanced education in specific areas of study, such as accounting, supply chain management, project management, or homeland security. Online graduate certificate programs can be taken as standalone programs, but they require a bachelor’s degree for admission. Graduate certificates can also be added to online master’s degree programs through electives or extra coursework.
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What are Professional Online Certifications?

Professional certifications are different from academic certificates because they are not inherently academic. Professional certifications can sometimes be earned through undergraduate and graduate certificate programs (these would earn college credit), but they can also be earned on their own, through non-credit conferring programs or an exam. Some of these certifications can only be earned after completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Professional certifications are sometimes known as trade certifications, and they are often a prerequisite for professional licensing or practice in fields, such as:

  • Accounting
  • Automotive Repair
  • Aviation
  • Biomedical Technology
  • Investment
  • Project Management

Professional certifications also function as a stamp of quality in many fields; these certifications show that the certified individual meets industry-standards for quality, ethics, and ability. For example, earning a human resources certification online, such as a SHRM-CP, signals to potential employers that the certified individual is a prime candidate for human resource management positions. Professional online certifications are especially common in business and information technology.

Some common, valuable professional online certifications include:

  • American Management Association certificate in Analytical Skills
  • Certified Information Systems Manager (CISM)
  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
  • Certified Scrum Master (CSM)
  • CompTIA A+
  • Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC)
  • Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)
  • Project Management Institute Project Management Professional (PMI-PMP)
  • Six Sigma
  • Society for Human Resource Management-Certified Professional (SHRM-CP)
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Are Online Certificates Respected?

Yes! Accredited online certificate programs can be completed in many general or niche professional fields, and they come with the same level of respect and reputation as their on-campus counterparts. In fact, many employers recognize the unique value of online certificate programs because they allow employees to quickly earn more qualifications while balancing their workplace responsibilities.

An accredited online certificate in any of the following fields could help improve your earning potential, boost you towards a full degree, or complement the degree you already have:

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Admission Requirements

Even among the best online certificate programs, admission requirements are typically not strenuous. For undergraduate certificate programs, most schools require nothing more than high school transcripts or a GED score. Some may require a resume, letters of recommendation, or a personal essay.

For online graduate certificate programs, students typically need to submit college transcripts showing they have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, and sometimes may need to submit documents such as a resume, letters of recommendation, or a personal essay.

Students who are already enrolled in an online degree program, such as an online bachelor’s degree program, can typically just add the online certificate program to their studies. Some online certificate programs can even be completed through elective coursework in online degree programs, which minimizes the amount of extra work a student might need to complete.

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Online Certificate Programs Costs

The cost of online certificate programs, like any degree program, can vary based on a variety of factors. The following cost guidelines generally hold true:

  • Public schools are more affordable than private schools
  • Undergraduate credits cost less than graduate credits
  • In-state tuition is less than out-of-state tuition
  • Community colleges are more affordable than full-universities

Online certificate programs cost significantly less than a full degree, because they often require little more than an average semester’s 12–18 credits for completion. Moreover, many students currently enrolled in degree programs can roll online certificate program requirements into their study plan through electives with little to no extra work. This can mean that the certificate is effectively paid for by the cost of the degree program.

Regardless, we recommend that students follow our guidelines and prioritize affordability when they select a place to earn an online certificate. Students who are only earning a certificate can expect to pay as little as $5,000 and no more than $20,000. You can start your search by checking out our definitive ranking of The Best Online Colleges & Universities.

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Here are the top online certificate programs in the most popular areas of study:

Top 10 Online Certificate in Human Resources Programs

  1. Southern New Hampshire University
  2. Ferris State University
  3. Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI)
  4. Champlain College
  5. South Texas College
  6. Dickinson State University
  7. University of Maine at Machias
  8. Montana State University-Billings
  9. Hampton University
  10. Butler County Community College

Top 10 Online Certified Financial Planning (CFP) Programs

  1. The College for Financial Planning
  2. Boston University Metropolitan College
  3. Kansas State University
  4. University of California Los Angeles-Extension
  5. University of California-Irvine
  6. DePaul University
  7. California Lutheran University
  8. University of Florida
  9. University of Missouri
  10. Rice University

Top 10 Online Certificate in Marketing Programs

  1. Ferris State University
  2. University of Maine at Machias
  3. Macomb Community College
  4. Ozarks Technical Community College
  5. Hagerstown Community College
  6. Montgomery County Community College
  7. Pitt Community College
  8. Scottsdale Community College
  9. Dakota County Technical College
  10. Thomas Edison State University

Top 10 Online Dental Assisting Certificate Programs

  1. Oregon State University
  2. Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis
  3. University of Georgia
  4. Rutgers University
  5. North Carolina A&T State University
  6. Southeast Community College
  7. Sinclair Community College
  8. California State University-San Marcos
  9. Monroe Community College
  10. Middlesex Community College

Top 10 Online Paralegal Certificate Programs

  1. Duke University
  2. University of California-Berkeley
  3. Boston University-Metropolitan College
  4. George Washington University
  5. University of California-Davis
  6. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  7. Rutgers University
  8. University of Miami
  9. Rice University
  10. University of Nevada-Las Vegas
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Find the Best Online Certificate Program for You!

Online certificate programs continue to grow in popularity as flexible and affordable alternatives to their on-campus counterparts. There are lots of options available. Start your search by checking out these resources:

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The Best Online Certificate in Human Resources Programs

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