Certificate vs. Degree: What’s the Difference?

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Category: Value of Education

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If you’re thinking about new career options, you’ve probably considered furthering your education. Certificates and degrees are popular choices – they can improve your potential for getting better paying and more satisfying jobs – but which one should you choose?

In this article, we take a closer look at certificates and degrees and explore their differences.

What is a Certificate?

A certificate is a document that shows potential employers that you have completed focused, industry-specific training within an academic setting. Certificates can be helpful when entering a career field that doesn’t require a degree, but they can also be useful when shifting to a new specialization within an industry in which you already work.

Some institutions offer certificates at the undergraduate and graduate levels; graduate certificates can be especially useful for experienced professionals moving to new specializations.

Also, in some cases, certificates can be earned while pursuing a degree. At Columbia Southern University, several of our certificates, like cybersecurity and emergency management, are embedded within degree programs and can be earned by completing the required courses for a certificate.

What is a Degree?

A degree is awarded by a college or university and shows potential employers that you have completed significant coursework for a specific area of study.

Degrees are typically offered at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate levels. Associate and bachelor’s degrees are most often required for entry-level positions in certain industries, and master’s degrees or doctorates may be required for executive-level roles or positions in higher education.

Differences Between Certificates and Degrees

What are the differences between certificates and degrees?

Differences Between Certificates and Degrees
Variable Certificates Degrees
Time Certificates can take months or up to several years to complete on the high end. Associate degrees often require a minimum of two years, and the typical bachelor’s degree usually requires four years of study. Master’s degrees and doctorates vary based on their academic focus, but many require multiple years to complete.*
Requirements Certificate programs sometimes require a high school diploma, but many do not. Starting a lower-level degree program often requires a high school diploma and completion of standardized tests. Advanced degrees often require lower-level degrees first; for example, a completed bachelor’s degree may be required to enter a master’s degree program.
Curriculum Certificate programs tend to focus on developing the core skill needed for a job. Degree programs cover a wide diversity of subjects and provide a broad depth of knowledge. They also often include classes outside of core requirements. For example, a criminal justice degree may require students to complete classes in English composition.

*Some schools like CSU offer flexible learning options, allowing students to go through an academic program at their own pace or enroll 365 days a year. For more information: LifePace Learning® vs. Term Learning: Which Style Suits You Best?**

Certificate vs. Degree: Which Should You Choose?

Whether you choose to pursue a certificate or a degree will depend on many factors. Here are some questions to consider:

Salaries for Certificates vs. Degrees

In general, people with more education earn more money, so employees with degrees tend to earn more than those with only certificates; however, earnings potential also depends on the subject matter.

For example, occupational health and safety technician positions typically do not require a degree according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and some employers may require a certificate. These workers earned a 2019 median wage of $51,550, and the 2019 median wage for all occupations was $39,810.

Start Growing Your Career Today

At CSU, we have online degree and certificate programs to help you compete for the best jobs in today’s job market. Our programs include flexible online learning options, affordable tuition and dedicated support staff to help you succeed.

To learn more about our degree and certificate programs, visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu.

Columbia Southern University does not guarantee that students or those who pursue these careers will earn the specific salaries listed.

**The LifePace Learning® option is not eligible for Federal Student Aid, VA funding or doctoral programs.

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