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Complete Guide to Online Graduate Certificate Programs

If you're thinking of pursuing a graduate certificate, consider the difference between online and on-campus programs. Learn key characteristics of online graduate certificate programs, how to get financial aid, and what careers they can lead to.

Comparison of Graduate Degrees and Graduate Certificates

The key difference between graduate degrees and graduate certificates is the time that it takes to complete their respective programs.

  • Graduate Degrees - Graduate degree programs usually consist of 30 to 50 credit hours for master's degrees, and around 60 credit hours for doctoral degrees. Master's degree programs can usually be completed in around two years or less of full-time study. They usually include a broad exploration of the subject area and some courses in related areas; for example, a master's degree in business will include courses in accounting, marketing, business operations, economics and management.
  • Graduate Certificates - Certificate programs vary in length, but often include between 9 and 15 credit hours. The number of courses included in graduate certificate programs varies based on the subject area. Students can complete certificate programs in one or two semesters, depending on how many courses they take at a time. Certificates are more focused because they include courses that are specifically applicable to the area of study. For example, a certificate in education might include courses in curriculum, assessment methods, education policies and instruction.

Program Program Length Coursework
Master's Degree 2 years Subject-specific plus related topics
Graduate Certificate 1 to 2 semesters Subject-specific courses

Prerequisites for Online Graduate Certificates

Graduate certificate prerequisites can vary greatly by school and field of study but may include some of those listed below.

  • Bachelor's Degree - Online graduate certificate programs typically require students to have already earned a bachelor's degree. Although many programs do not require students to have a degree in a specific area, some programs do require students to have a degree in a qualifying field. For example, graduate certificates in more technical fields, such as nursing and education, may require students to have a degree or certain previous coursework in that subject.
  • Grade Point Average (GPA) - Students often need to have earned a specific GPA on their undergraduate coursework. The GPA requirements vary by school but may be 2.0, 3.0 or even 3.5.
  • Other Items - Other items required might include letters of recommendation, application fees, proof of English proficiency (for international students) and a current resume.

Overview of Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Online graduate certificate programs are very similar to their on-campus counterparts; both can usually be completed in the same timeframe and lead to the same learning outcomes. The primary differences between on-campus, online and hybrid graduate certificate programs are noted below.

  • On-Campus - In on-campus graduate certificate programs, students take courses in traditional classroom settings. Some courses may integrate some online components into the course curriculum, but the primary method of delivery is face-to-face. Students may attend courses during days, evenings or even weekends, and are able to ask questions and discuss topics in the moment. Certificate programs that have practicum experiences may be easier for students in on-campus programs, as these practicums can be completed in nearby locations and might allow students to work with their peers.
  • Online - Online graduate certificate programs are often more flexible. Students can usually log into their online learning platforms at their convenience. This is extremely beneficial for students who are busy or unable to attend regular on-campus courses. Students can learn from the comfort of their homes at times that work for them. Students in online programs need to be good at time management because they are responsible for completing their assignments before specific due dates. In addition, rather than having open discussions and questions in a classroom, students communicate via discussion boards and emails (which typically means slower responses). While many certificate programs are available entirely online, some programs do require students to complete practicum experiences. Depending on the school and program, students may be able to complete these near their homes.
  • Hybrid - Hybrid graduate certificate programs combine on-campus and online learning. These types of programs may be offered for students pursuing a certificate in nursing, education, or another technical area. Students in hybrid programs might be required to attend laboratory or other on-campus learning sessions, practicum experiences and on-campus courses. These programs enable students to have face-to-face discussions and instruction as well as flexibility for their online coursework.

Program Type Benefits Drawbacks
On-campus *Live discussions
*Set schedule
*On-campus
*Not as flexible
Online *Flexible
*Learn from home
*Slower responses to questions
*Students without time management skills can fall behind
Hybrid *Live discussions
*Set schedule
*Some flexibility with online coursework
*On-campus requirements
*Limited flexibility

Characteristics of Online Learning in Graduate Certificate Programs

Online courses in graduate certificate programs are typically asynchronous, meaning that students can access and work on course resources and assignments at their convenience. Students are usually required to submit assignments at weekly or biweekly intervals but can work on them throughout the week.

An online class is typically hosted by a third-party website, such as Moodle or Canvas. Students can often use these learning portals for contacting their instructors, watching and reviewing lectures, getting assignment checklists and communicating with peers. Depending on the class, students will access and complete homework in the learning portal and/or through an online lab. Online labs are especially common in courses with technical work, such as mathematics, because they enable students to complete more extensive problems and processes.

Practicum Requirements

Although not all online graduate certificates include practicum requirements, some certificate programs do. Students in programs such as education, for example, might be required to complete some supervised practice experiences as part of their certificate program to qualify for graduation and/or licensure.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Graduate Certificate Online?

The length of graduate certificate programs depend on how many courses are included in the certificate and how many classes students choose to take at one time. Programs that have 12 or less credit hours can be completed in one semester, although graduate students are usually considered full-time when taking 9 credit hours. Students enrolled in a 9-credit certificate program can often finish in one semester of full-time study, while students enrolled in a program that has 12 or more credit hours will usually finish in 2 semesters.

Why Accreditation Matters for Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Institutional accreditation is the accreditation that is applicable to schools. To qualify for accreditation, schools must meet the quality objectives set by the accrediting organization. Attending an accredited school should mean that students will receive a better education than those attending schools without accreditation.

Attending an accredited school also means that students can usually have credits transferred to another program in the future. For example, if a graduate of a business certificate program decides to pursue a master's degree in business later, they can often have their courses from the certificate program transferred into the master's degree program.

Finally, students who plan to use financial aid to pay for their online graduate certificate program will need to attend an accredited school, as students who attend non-accredited schools are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Financial Aid & Scholarships for Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Not all online graduate certificate programs are eligible for financial aid, so students should check with their admissions representatives to see if their program qualifies. The U.S. Department of Education approves certain graduate certificate programs for federal aid (such as loans). Approved programs include those in business, nursing, computer topics and more. Students enrolled in eligible programs should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as the first step in their aid search. The FAFSA shows some of the types of aid that students can qualify for and is completely free to use. Some of the types of financial aid available to students in online graduate certificate programs are discussed below.

Work-Study

Work-study programs can be offered by student employers or schools, and involve part-time work in return for student financial aid. Depending on the position and hours worked, students can earn part or all of their program costs and can often work in positions related to their field of study.

Student Loans

Students can get student loans for their online graduate certificate programs from both private and government lenders. Government loans are typically better because they offer income-based flexible repayment plans and nationally-set interest rates. Eligible online graduate certificate students may be able to qualify for around $20,500 in Federal Direct Stafford Loans (from the government).

Loan Forgiveness

Graduates of online graduate certificate programs can have their student loans forgiven, or repaid, through at least two avenues: employers sometimes offer loan repayment to qualifying and new employees, and students working in qualifying careers for a certain number of years (such as 10) may be able to have their loans forgiven by the government.

Scholarships

Scholarships are available to students based on various factors, including academic performance, the field of study and student characteristics (such as gender and heritage). Scholarships can be found and earned a few different ways.

  • Tracking Down Scholarships - Students can find scholarships by doing some research online. There are various sources with scholarships listed by qualifying criteria (such as field of study). Many states have excellent scholarship search tools on state-funded websites that are offered by the department of labor or education. CareerOneStop is run by the U.S. Department of Education and boasts a handy Scholarship Finder.
  • Earning Scholarships - Most scholarships are awarded to students based on academic performance while other scholarships emphasize other criteria more than grades. Students may also earn scholarships by winning an essay contest or demonstrating exceptional performance or service in a specific area; for example, a scholarship for education students may be awarded to those who have spent significant time in a teaching or similar role.

How to Choose an Online Graduate Certificate Program

There are several factors that you should consider when choosing an online graduate certificate program, many of which are listed below.

Residency Requirements

When choosing an online graduate certificate program, you should review the curriculum and program details to see if there are any on-site components. Some programs may include residency/on-site experiences regardless of which school you choose when you are earning a practice or technical certificate, but other certificate programs may only require on-site components at some schools.

Flexibility

Another important consideration in choosing your program is the flexibility that it offers. Some programs may allow you to take as many or as few courses each semester as you like, but other programs are structured in a specific way. Consider how long you would like to spend completing your program and what number of credit hours will work with your schedule.

Cost

The cost of online graduate certificate programs vary by school and subject area. Most schools separate costs into tuition and other fees, with tuition being the largest cost. Tuition can range from $300 per credit hour to more than $1,200 per credit hour. Compare the tuition and other fees of your school and program choices to determine the total expense of your program.

In-State vs Out-of-State

When choosing your program, you should consider the differences between attending an in-state school and an out-of-state school. Many schools offer flat-rate tuition to all students, but some schools offer discounted tuition rates for students living within the state. In addition, if you're in a program that leads to licensure (such as teaching or nursing), graduating from an in-state program may simplify the licensure process.

Public vs Private Schools

There are a few differences between public and private schools, but both types can provide excellent academic experiences. Public schools are often less costly than private schools and may be much larger. Private schools, however, are known to be more rigorous in preparing students for their future, and their smaller size can mean more individualized attention.

Online or On-Campus?

As discussed previously, on-campus programs enable students to ask questions and discuss topics within traditional classrooms, and they also enable students to have regular schedules. Online programs, on the other hand, provide greater flexibility and typically allow students to complete coursework at their convenience.

What Can You Do with an Online Graduate Certificate?

The careers that online graduate certificates can lead to vary based on the subject studied. Graduate certificates can help students to advance their current careers or enter into new ones. For example, someone might obtain a certificate in business to enter an administrative role in their current field, while another individual working in business may obtain a healthcare certificate to transition to a new role in healthcare. Some of the many positions available to online graduate certificate alumni are listed in the table below.

Job Title Certificate Fields (examples) Median Salary (2018) Estimated Job Growth (2018-2028)
Information Security Analysts *Computer science //*Business administration $98,350 32%
Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers *Elementary education $57,980 3%
Special Education Teachers *Special education $59,780 3%
Human Resources Managers *Human resources
*Business administration
$113,300 7%
Medical and Health Services Managers *Health administration
*Business administration
$99,730 18%
Financial Analysts *Finance
*Economics
$85,660 6%
Market Research Analysts *Market Research/Marketing
*Mathematics
$63,120 20%
Database Administrators *Computer Science
*Database Management
$90,070 9%

All salary and outlook data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics