Differences Between a Certificate, Diploma and Degree

There are many types of credentials that can be earned, but there can be major differences between these credentials and what they enable you to do. Find out what separates certificates from degrees and diplomas, and learn which is best for you.

What Separates a Certificate From a Diploma, or a Diploma From a Degree?

Certificates, diplomas, and degrees are all credentials that can serve to prove that one possesses a certain level of knowledge on a subject. Degree programs are considered a form of higher education and are recognized as such by the US Department of Education. Certificates and diplomas, on the other hand, fall under the category of 'post-secondary non-degree awards,' recognizing the completion of an educational program undertaken after finishing high school.

The type of degree most comparable to a certificate or diploma is an associate's degree, which requires at least two years of study to complete, and may be applied towards a bachelor's degree if a student decides to continue their education after receiving it. Certificate and diploma programs often take much less time to complete, possibly a year or less. These courses do not exist for all professions that require full degrees and are not always applicable to continued study if that should be desired later. While degrees can be useful to a wide variety of occupations, most certificates and diplomas are only considered valuable to their particular field, so it is often wise to pursue them only if a career in that field is desired.

Time Commitment Purpose Examples
Certificates 1-6 months Prepares recipient for a specific job Certified Nursing Assistant certificate
Diplomas 6-18 months Provides a comprehensive overview of a field Renewable Energies Technology diploma
Degrees 2 years or more A complete program of higher education with general studies and a focus on a particular field Associate of Applied Science degree

What Is a Certificate?

Certificates are usually obtained from brief programs, ranging from 9 to 30 credit hours, and serve to recognize education on a particular subject. Certificates can be highly specialized, such as focusing on a particular programming language for a computer programmer, and may work in conjunction with a degree that is already held. Many certificate programs exist that require no other education and intend to bring a potential worker up to speed for a particular career, such as those for Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs). Completion of a certificate such as this will often qualify the recipient to work in that field shortly afterward.

What Is a Diploma?

Diplomas are a bit more in-depth than certificates, typically taking 30 to 72 credit hours to complete, although they can take longer. Diploma programs are almost always focused on helping those enrolled become qualified for a particular job afterward. Programs that award diplomas are becoming more common in new and developing fields, like renewable energies, to help educate workers on the necessities of the job and new information that may be relevant but isn't yet common knowledge. Like certificates, diplomas are often so specifically tailored that they will offer little use outside of the particular field in which they were earned.

What Is a Degree?

Degrees offer more versatility than either certificates or diplomas, and programs that offer a degree are considered forms of higher education. Degrees can range from associate's degrees, which take two years and often focus on a particular career field, to bachelor's degrees, which need four years of study at minimum, and beyond, to master's and doctoral degrees. Even outside their field, degrees are seen as proof of commitment, showing that the degree holder can set a goal and see it through over a long term period of time. Degrees can be very general, like a liberal arts degree, or very specialized, such as a master's degree in astrophysics, and always come with a solid basic education in a wide variety of subjects in addition to the specialized major.

How Can I Decide Which Is Best For Me?

The best way to make a decision as to which credentials to earn is to make a decision about the job title you wish to one day hold. Jobs will have commonly required credentials listed in many places, such as job listings and government sites on labor. If you have a general idea of a field you wish to work in, such as medicine, it may be a good idea to look at different jobs within that field and determine which fits your expectations, desired pay, and the time investment you can afford. For example, CNAs, registered nurses (RNs), and medical doctors (MDs) are all healthcare professionals that can work at hospitals with patients. CNAs only require a certificate; while RNs must hold a diploma, associate's or bachelor's degree; and MDs require a doctoral degree. Pay often scales with education, with higher paying jobs requiring the most education, and thus the most time studying. Compare what you need and what fits best with your life to decide the path that's best for you.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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