All You Need to Know About Certificate Programs

by TBS Staff
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Undergraduate, graduate, and professional certificates provide unique opportunities to advance your education and enhance your career.

Certificate programs serve students of all ages, education levels, and career stages. Online certificates can help those looking to enter new roles, build on existing skills, or demonstrate expertise.

Certificates span disciplines and professions, suiting students and working professionals alike. This guide covers how certificates work, common courses, and factors to consider when choosing an online program.

What Is an Online Certificate Program?

Academic certificates are offered through colleges and universities. They cover specific topics and fields. Professional certificates help students advance within specific careers.

Certificates can come at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Undergraduate certificates cover basic knowledge for learners who do not hold degrees. They are well suited to high school graduates.

Graduate certificates supplement existing degrees and credentials — similar to a master's degree, but with less commitment. Applicants typically need a bachelor's degree for most graduate certificate programs.

Students may earn undergraduate or graduate certificates in conjunction with degrees or as independent programs. Undergraduate certificate programs typically provide workforce skills. Working professionals can use graduate certificates to study a subset of their field, shift into a different role, or pursue a new industry.

Academic certificates differ from professional certifications. Certifications are offered by non-academic organizations — usually professional networking associations. They are awarded through exams, require professional experience, and vary by industry.

Types of Online Certificate Programs

Online certificates vary in scope and objectives, but typically provide short routes to professional goals. Colleges and universities offer certificates at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.


Undergraduate Certificates

Undergraduate certificates generally take 4-12 months to complete. Students can use them to pursue vocational careers, like medical coder or automotive technician. Admission to most online undergraduate certificates requires a high school diploma or equivalent.

It's common for learners to pursue an online undergraduate certificate while also pursuing bachelor's degrees. Certificates can supplement degree curricula by integrating outside content, giving students a broader base of knowledge.


Graduate Certificates

To enroll in an online graduate certificate program, students need to already have a bachelor's degree. A graduate certificate can help working professionals advance their careers or change professions without earning master's degrees.

These certificates typically cover a niche topic within a larger field. For example, educators, business and healthcare professionals, and technology employees can all use graduate certificates to build niche skill sets. Similarly, a graduate certificate in professional leadership or project management can help professionals move into managerial roles.


Professional Certificates

Professional certificates focus on career-based knowledge and skills, and they are often offered through nationally accredited institutions. Enrollees typically need work experience to earn professional certificates. In these programs, learners take non-credit coursework as they work toward cumulative assessments.

Professional certificates enhance candidates' resumes by demonstrating specific skills required by employers. For example, a working professional could earn a management certificate, which will help them qualify for management roles.

Which Subjects Tend to Offer Certificate Programs?

Disciplines like business, education, and healthcare all offer certificates. Business is a broad industry, requiring niche expertise in areas like human resources, leadership, and project management. These are all popular areas for certificates.

Education certificates prepare future and current teachers to instruct about specific subjects or work with certain populations. Healthcare certificates cover vocational careers, like medical office management, medical coding, and healthcare administration.

Other industries with many certificate options include information technology, finance, and professional writing. Some of the best online certificate programs include:

  • Project management certificates, which train students to oversee project lifecycles.
  • Medical coding certificates, which cover different coding languages, computer technologies, and healthcare policies.
  • Professional writing certificates, which train learners in discipline-specific formatting and jargon.
  • Accounting certificates, which cover niche aspects of accounting, auditing, and federal taxation.
  • Certificates in specific computer languages, like C++ or Java.

Certificates vs. Certifications vs. Degree Programs

Certificates are concise educational programs taken through a college or university. They can be taken independently or in conjunction with a college degree. Certificates require students to complete specific curricula in order to graduate, but they are not degrees.

By contrast, certifications are awarded through independent organizations and professional bodies based on industry standards. Candidates must complete exams to receive certifications, and they often need to meet minimum professional experience requirements, too.

Associate degrees span two years, bachelor's programs span four years, and master's degrees usually take two additional years after earning a bachelor's. Meanwhile, a certificate program may last only a few weeks or months, depending on the subject.

In all cases, online programs can offer convenience and flexibility. Admission requirements vary by program and credential, as do overall career outcomes. Some industries require at least a bachelor's degree, so it's important to do your research before choosing an educational pathway.

Below, you'll find some basic information about certificates, certifications, and degrees. Keep these factors in mind when researching your educational options.

Comparing Certificate, Certification and Degree Programs
  Certificate Programs Certification Programs Degree Programs
How long does this type of program typically take to complete? Online certificates last 4-12 months. Learners can complete a certification in a few hours or it may take several weeks, depending on the field. Associate degrees usually take two years, as do master's degrees. Bachelor's programs traditionally span four years.
How many courses are typically required? Online certificates include 15-30 credits. Requirements vary. Some do not require any coursework, while others require the equivalent of 4-30 credits. Associate degrees typically include 60 credits. Most bachelor's degrees require 120 credits. Master's degrees usually require 35-60 credits.
Do most online colleges offer this type of program? Undergraduate/graduate: Most online colleges offer undergraduate and graduate certificates.
Professional: Some online colleges offer professional certifications, but not all.
Online colleges generally don't offer certification programs. They are offered through professional organizations. Most online colleges offer undergraduate degrees, and many also offer graduate degrees.
Will this program allow you to put credentials after your name? Some certificates come with credentials, but it depends on discipline and education level. Yes, some certifications allow professionals to use credentials after their names. Graduate degrees often come with credentials. This is less common with undergraduate degrees.
Is this a good credential to launch a career? In some industries, yes. In others, no. Certifications typically require previous experience in a field. Yes, college degree prepares students to launch careers or pursue continued study.
Is this a good credential for changing careers? Yes. A certificate helps individuals change careers by providing niche skills. Undergraduate certifications allow professionals to shift into new roles, but usually not whole new careers. Yes, degrees qualify students to change careers.
Is this a good credential for advancing a career? Yes. A certificate may advance an individual's career by providing special expertise. Certifications aid in career advancement by demonstrating expertise. Depending on the field and level, a degree can lead to career advancement.

How Much Do Certificate Programs Typically Cost?

With fewer credits and shorter completion timelines, certificate programs are often more affordable than degrees. Online certificate programs also don't require students to live on campus or commute, which can lead to savings.

Many schools charge the same per-credit tuition and fees for certificates that they do for degrees. Online students often qualify for in-state tuition rates, regardless of where they live. Graduate courses generally cost more than undergraduate courses.

How Will Certificate Programs Impact My Career Trajectory?

A certificate can open new career opportunities. With an undergraduate certificate in cybersecurity, accounting, or medical coding, learners can enter the field right away. A certificate may also facilitate a career change.

Earning a certificate develops expertise in a specific area, provides networking opportunities, and helps students bolster their resumes. For example, information technology professionals can gain additional programming or database management skills through certificates. Similarly, business professionals can earn certificates in leadership or organizational behavior and pursue executive roles.

Where in My Professional Journey Might Certificate Programs Make Sense?

Whether you're looking to enter a new profession, advance within your field, or find exciting opportunities, you can gain a lot through a certificate program.

  • If you just graduated from high school and are unsure about what to do next, a certificate can help you land an entry-level position without incurring a lot of student debt.
  • If you don't need a degree for your chosen career, a certificate program can help you build the skills to get you hired.
  • If you work in business and want to move into a leadership role, certificates in management, human resources, or organizational behavior can help you advance.
  • If you teach or work in education, a certificate in educational leadership, curriculum development, or online education can enhance your credentials.
  • If you work in information technology, learning about additional programming languages, cybersecurity, or database management can lead to more professional opportunities.

Can You Get a Certificate All Online?

Yes, many colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate certificates entirely online. Most certificates do not include internships or practical requirements. Programs that do have internships or face-to-face activities may offer virtual or local options.

Students can earn online certificates by completing synchronous or asynchronous coursework. Synchronous coursework uses a set schedule with designated meeting times. Asynchronous coursework happens on a flexible timeline, allowing students to set their own schedules.

How to Choose an Online Certificate Program

Students should first determine their professional interests and goals when researching the best online certificate programs. Common considerations include admission requirements, program length, time commitment, and overall cost.

Certificates vary in scope and level. Students should always assess a certificate's coursework and requirements before enrolling to ensure it's a good match. The buttons below cover just a few of the online certificate programs available to you.

Accreditation for Certificate Programs

Colleges and universities receive regional or national accreditation. Accreditation status measures the quality and types of programs offered by a school. Regional accreditation is preferred for institutions that offer academic certificates and degrees, while national accreditation is reserved for career, vocation, and technical programs. Regional accreditation generally carries more prestige.

Students should always research the accreditation status of their prospective schools. That status influences financial aid eligibility, transfer options, and the quality of your education.

What Can You Do With an Online Certificate?

An online certificate can open up professional opportunities, including career advancement. Fields like healthcare, business, and information technology all offer entry-level roles for undergraduate certificate-holders, while working professionals can use online certificates to change or advance their careers.

For example, an online certificate in analytics, organizational leadership, or marketing can lead business professionals to take on new responsibilities. Similarly, an online certificate in software development, cybersecurity, or database management can benefit information technology professionals. Educators looking to move out of the classroom and into administrative roles often pursue certificates in educational leadership or curriculum development.

Common Questions About Certificates

How Is an Online Certificate Different Than an Online Certification?

An online certificate is an academic program that prepares students for a career or builds upon their existing education. An online certification comes from an independent or professional organization and assesses industry-specific skills.

What Certificate Programs Pay the Best?

Business and technology certificates can be quite lucrative. The certificates that pay the best are those that lead to high-paying career advancement opportunities — especially executive roles.

What Certificates Can I Get Online?

Undergraduate, graduate, and professional certificates across disciplines are all available online. Students can earn online certificates in business, technology, humanities, and science.

Melissa Sartore holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her BA and MA in history are from Western Illinois University. A medievalist by training, she has published on outlawry in medieval England with additional publications on outlaws in popular culture and across geographic and historical boundaries.

Header Image Credit: FatCamera | Getty Images

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