Resources

All You Need to Know About Certificate Programs

Hero Image - All You Need to Know About Certificate Programs

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges
TheBestSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What is a certificate program? It's a great way to further your education — without having to pay for a full college degree.

Certificates offer an alternative to formal college degrees by providing discipline-specific content in a condensed format. Certificates fill gaps in existing knowledge, keep professionals current, and cost less than college degrees.

Certificates and certifications differ in several ways. Schools offer certificates, while third-party associations, like professional organizations, confer certifications. Certifications often need to be renewed, while certificates do not. A certification culminates in a comprehensive exam, which certificates may not require.

Certificates can provide a pathway to an associate or bachelor's degree. They also supplement expertise gained through previous study or on-the-job experience. Enrollees can complete some certificates in a few months, while others span 1-2 years.

Certificate courses vary by discipline, with many geared toward careers in healthcare, business, and information technology. With a certificate in one of these areas, individuals can demonstrate competencies to employers and colleagues.

Why Get a Certificate?

There are several benefits of certificate programs. Certificates require less time and money than full degrees, but still help learners enter new professional roles, add to existing expertise, and enhance career growth opportunities.

Certificate program content can update what a student learned during an undergraduate or graduate degree, often adding new skills to an individual's repertoire in the process. By opening up new educational and career pathways, certificates can facilitate continued study. However, certificates may not provide enough training to enter some professions.

Earning a certificate requires time and dedication, potentially conflicting with work and family obligations. Additionally, while certificate programs are more affordable than a full degree, they can still be expensive, which might mean students need student loans or comparable financial aid to afford them.

Pros

  • Certificates cost less and take less time than college degrees
  • Certificates allow current professionals to enhance their knowledge and skills
  • Certificates offer updated information to keep individuals abreast of changes in their field
  • Certificates can lead to advancement within a career
  • An individual with a certificate in a niche area can demonstrate that knowledge to potential employers
  • Certificates can lead to opportunities for careers in expanding fields, like healthcare and computer and information technology

Cons

  • Pursuing a certificate rather than a college degree can limit your career options
  • Enrollees may have to take out student loans
  • A certificate may not provide enough information for anything beyond an entry-level position
  • Certificate coursework might be offered during time windows that conflict with professional and personal obligations
  • Coursework from a certificate may or may not transfer into an associate or bachelor's degree program
  • A certificate may not be enough for advancement within some professions

When Should You Pursue a Certificate Program?

Students just out of high school can enroll in quick certificate programs to explore career options and enter fields that do not require undergraduate degrees. For example, they could pursue certificates designed for future administrative assistants, nursing assistants, personal fitness trainers, or retail sales associates.

Learners earning bachelor's degrees can supplement their education with certificates, while graduate students can complete certificates to build upon existing knowledge and skills. For example, computer and information technology professionals can earn certificates in specific areas, such as data analytics, programming, or cybersecurity. Similarly, individuals with degrees in business can pursue certificates in project management, organizational behavior, or digital marketing.

A certificate can open new career opportunities for individuals looking to change professions. Retired persons may want to enter a second profession, while individuals who experienced a layoff or job loss can enhance employment prospects by earning certificates.

What Kind of Certificate Should I Get?

Certificate subject matter is the most important factor when choosing a program, but students should take program length and format into consideration as well. Just like learners exploring options for undergraduate and graduate degrees, individuals pursuing certificates need to research accreditation status, program requirements, and overall learning outcomes.

Business

Certificates in business qualify students for entry-level jobs and provide professional development opportunities. Learners entering business careers can take on roles as office and administrative assistants, bookkeepers, and business technology specialists. Programs in digital marketing, social media, and web design keep current professionals informed on how to best meet consumer needs and optimize their brands.

Coding

Coding certificates train students in the fundamentals of computer programming languages and how to use them in software and web development. By earning a coding certificate, individuals with little experience in the discipline can build their knowledge and experience. Certificates often use a bootcamp-style format to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the field.

Data Science

A certificate in data science introduces learners to the tools and processes used to assess large amounts of data. Data science certificates integrate real-world scenarios with coursework in machine learning, statistical analysis, and predictive analytics. Data science certificates often emphasize specific technologies, like Google or IBM Cloud computing.

Individuals working in business, scientific research, and public administration can benefit from earning data science certificates, as can professionals in computer engineering and information technology.

Design

Design certificates teach the knowledge and skills used in various design careers, usually with an emphasis on computer-aided drafting technologies. Students learn the fundamentals of drafting, architectural documentation, and construction processes. A certificate also prepares learners to incorporate building codes and standards in their design projects.

Design certificates can also include credentials for field-specific technologies, like AutoCAD. Potential careers include engineering technician, drafter, and design assistant.

Finance

Finance certificates train learners to use and understand financial language, practices, and policies. A certificate in finance may open opportunities for careers in financial analysis, reporting, and recordkeeping. It can also enhance existing financial knowledge and skills for practicing business professionals.

Financial certificates, especially those designed for graduate students, often cover specialized areas. For example, a certificate in finance may emphasize corporate finance, nonprofit management, or financial technology. Additional concentrations include financial risk assessment, personal finance, and finance for entrepreneurs.

Healthcare

Healthcare is one of the more diverse fields when it comes to certificate options. Medical and healthcare certificates provide provide avenues for health professionals to increase healthcare skills, build leadership opportunities, and grow within the healthcare profession. They can also qualify graduates for some entry-level positions, like radiologist.

Certificates in sonography and ultrasound train students to use advanced diagnostic technologies, while medical assistant certificates cover daily administrative operations and needs within medical offices and practices.

Medical billing and coding certificates provide foundational information about billing processes, practices, and the language of medical coding. Other healthcare certificates emphasize managerial and leadership roles in the field.

Human Resources

Human resource professionals work across economic sectors and industries. Earning a human resources certificate can lead to a career as a human resource assistant or manager, depending on individual educational background, personal goals, and professional experience.

HR professionals are tasked with hiring and training employees, overseeing benefits and retirement programs, and ensuring adherence to state and federal regulations. As such, they can benefit from the specialized content in human resource certificate programs. Content within a human resource certificate may emphasize areas like diversity and inclusion, recruiting and talent acquisition, or employment law.

Legal

Certificates in law and legal studies prepare students for roles as paralegals. Paralegals provide essential services to lawyers, assisting them with documentation, research, and trial preparation. Paralegals can work within private law firms, public agencies, or corporations, providing legal assistance and guidance.

Certificates for paralegals may also include specialized coursework in employment law, corporate law, hospitality, law, or another subset of the discipline. Most enrollees can complete paralegal certificates in just 18 months.

Marketing

Marketing certificates build on existing business knowledge and skills, teaching individuals to effectively engage with consumers and customers. Marketing certificates often emphasize customer development, digital marketing, and marketing strategy, with additional opportunities to study brand management, activation, and measurement.

A marketing certificate may focus on products or services, building expertise in marketing techniques for each. With a certificate in marketing, individuals can pursue roles as marketing managers, strategists, and analysts.

Project Management

Project management certificates blend coursework in leadership, communication, and business, training graduates to see projects through, from beginning to end. Certificates in project management teach students to guide teams of workers while adhering to timelines and organizational strategy.

Program management certificates can also emphasize risk management processes, budget maintenance, and developing project schedules. These certificates prepare learners to pursue credentials from professional organizations, like the Project Management Institute.

Technology

Technology certificates vary in content, but many offer learners a comprehensive look at the information technology profession. With a certificate in computer and information technology, individuals can enter careers as software analysts, computer programmers, and operating systems support specialists.

Advanced certificates usually focus on a subset of technology. For example, cybersecurity certificates emphasize the detection, prevention, and management of threats to computer systems, while technology certificates in business analytics focus on data collection and analysis within large companies or corporations.

Online Vs. On-Campus Certificates

Colleges and universities usually offer both online and on-campus certificates, and online certificates may be synchronous or asynchronous. A synchronous certificate program includes coursework offered in sequence, while an asynchronous curriculum allows students to take classes in any order, accessing course materials on their own schedules.

Colleges and universities usually offer both online and on-campus certificates, and online certificates may be synchronous or asynchronous.

Online certificates may have scheduled class meetings, but they generally allow learners more flexibility about when to complete coursework. Students earning an on-campus certificate often have classes during the day, in the evenings, or on weekends. Working professionals and students with busy schedules often prefer online formats for their convenience.

On-campus certificates allow students to interact with classmates and instructors directly, while online programs tend to struggle more in offering opportunities for networking and group cohesion. Online programs usually offer students access to information technology, library, and student resources, but their on-campus counterparts may have more readily available resources.

How Does a Certificate Improve Your Career?

A certificate can improve careers by building upon previous education and experience. Earning a certificate demonstrates unique skills and qualifications, allowing candidates to move into leadership roles, resulting in higher pay and continued advancement opportunities.

A certificate may also help students transition to a higher degree. Many certificates include coursework that learners can apply toward associate or bachelor's degree requirements, while graduate certificates can help students pursue advanced degrees.

Certificate programs can also build connections between individuals within specific fields and disciplines. Enrollees can network with classmates and collaborate with industry professionals as they strengthen their own credentials.

What to Do Next

After earning a certificate, be sure to add it to your resume as you explore further career options. With a certificate, you can apply for new or advanced positions within your field or even enter a different discipline entirely. A certificate can lead to a job that better meets your personal needs and professional goals.

A certificate can also lead you to a graduate degree or another quick certificate program. Depending on the certificate and your career status, the knowledge gained in a certificate program may spur an interest in additional study. Many of the best certificate programs prepare students to pursue professional certifications through field-specific organizations and agencies, offering curricula that match industry standards.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Graduate Certificate the Same as a Master's Degree?

No. A graduate certificate differs from a master's degree in content, length, and prestige. Graduate certificates include specialized coursework that learners complete in three months to two years, while most graduate degrees include at least two years of coursework. A graduate certificate can supplement a master's degree, but it is not equivalent.

Is Getting a Certificate Worth It?

The worth of a certificate varies by student, profession, and program. Students can assess the value of a certificate for their career by weighing the program's pros and cons. Earning a certificate can be worth it if it leads to career opportunities and personal fulfillment, helping the learner achieve their professional goals.

Do Employers Take Certificates Seriously?

Yes, especially if the certificate comes from a prestigious source and demonstrates advanced knowledge and skills related to a specific role. With a certificate, applicants can increase their appeal to employers, especially when compared to candidates without education and training.

Is It Better to Have a Certificate or Degree?

Many careers do not require degrees, and for those careers, a certificate offers the most efficient path. If you seek a career that requires a degree, a certificate is less valuable. Even with a degree, however, professionals may still benefit from a certificate to enhance their knowledge and skills.

What Is the Highest-Paying Job With a Certificate?

Web development is the highest paying certificate program. Web developers design, create, and maintain websites; monitor website traffic; and fix problems. They may specialize in back-end or front-end development. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, web developers earned annual median salaries of $73,760 in 2019.

Header Image Credit: FatCamera | Getty Images

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Woman working at desk