Certificate vs. Degree: What’s the Difference?

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?
student sitting and thinking about certificates and degrees

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
  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:

  • What are the requirements to get a job in your industry? If you already know what profession you want to be in, then the choice is often simple; reading a few job listings in your industry will give you an idea of whether you need a certificate or a degree to get the job.
  • Do you meet the requirements for entering a degree program? A certificate can be a good start for someone who doesn’t yet meet the requirements to start a formal degree program. Also, if you choose to start a certificate program now, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to pursue a degree later. Your employer may even help pay for some or all of your tuition costs toward a degree.
  • Do you already have a degree? Certificates can be a good option for those who already have a degree and want to change their career focus or develop a specialty. Classes in certificate programs often have flexible hours to accommodate working professionals. On the other hand, if you already have a bachelor’s degree, pursuing an advanced degree instead of a certificate may be the best way to move up in your industry. For example, an MBA or a DBA are attractive options for business students.
  • How quickly do you want to make a change in your career? A certificate is a good option if you are on a time constraint. Since many certificates can be completed within less than a year, students can start and finish sooner than if they decided to pursue a degree. On the other hand, if time isn’t as pertinent, pursuing a degree can be a better long-term investment.

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.