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Certificate vs Degree: What’s the Real Difference?

09.20.2022 • 10 min read

Nick Griffin

Subject Matter Expert

Learn what a certificate and a degree are, the differences, and what to consider before studying each of them. Also included are job examples and the different types of degrees.

In This Article

  1. What Is a Certificate?

  2. What Is a Degree?

  3. 5 Key Differences Between a Degree and a Certificate

  4. What To Consider Before Choosing

  5. Certificate vs Degree FAQs

  6. Deciding Between a Certificate or Degree

Students who complete any college education make more money on average than high school graduates, according to a 2022 National Center for Education Statistics report.

Knowing that further education is beneficial is just the starting point when pursuing advanced studies. While many students are on the path toward a college degree, there’s another excellent option—certificates.

Google found that 75% of their Career Certificate graduates report career improvement within 6 months of completion. Many certificate programs can be done in as little as 3 months with only a 10-hour-per-week commitment.

Certificate programs are available in a variety of fields that are in high demand today. These programs can offer students a lower-cost alternative to a traditional college degree. This can get you into the job market with a new career a lot earlier or help you to level up in your current job right now.

Understanding the differences between certificates and degrees will help you decide which is best for your personal career goals.

What Is a Certificate?

You can earn a certificate by taking specific training courses in a particular field. The coursework is mostly related to a job or industry you plan on going into.

​​The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by 2029 several high-demand careers will require a certificate.

The most common jobs people earn certificates for are in skills-based professions, where you practice the specific skill set the job entails. The credential you earn proves a high level of competence in your career field.

Some examples of certificate-based jobs are:

  • Nurse

  • Plumber

  • Cybersecurity Officer

  • Massage Therapist

  • Data Analyst

The timeline is great too. You can typically earn certificates at a community college or a specialized technical school within a year of study. These schools are often located in a wider range of communities, making them more accessible.

There are also “boot camps” for careers such as computer programming, where students learn coding either in-person or online and are ready to work after just a few months of intensive training.

Several professions require an applicant to have a certificate before starting the job. These certificates are commonly a licensing requirement as well.

Someone with or without a college degree can earn a certificate. Online certificates—like Outlier’s College Foundation—work for those interested in a college degree who wish to take foundational classes at a lower cost and at their own pace.

What Is a Degree?

A degree, or diploma, is earned through a college or university to study in a specific field. Many people think of 4-year degrees, but there are several types of degrees that you can earn in less time.

Associate Degree

These degrees usually take 2 to 3 years to complete depending on credit hours, but some intensive programs can be done in as little as one year. They require a high school diploma or GED for enrollment. With an associate degree, you take courses that revolve around both theory and practice in a specific field of study.

Many students who earn an associate degree ‌complete a bachelor’s degree program. They first take courses through a community college with reduced tuition costs. Then they transfer those general education course credits to a 4-year institution.

You can do several jobs with an associate degree such as:

  • Accountant

  • Computer Programmer

  • Police Officer

  • Registered Nurse

  • Air Traffic Controller

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree from a university or college. These are the typical degrees people think of when they consider post-secondary education.

Students studying for a bachelor’s degree will take courses on a broad range of topics as well as courses related to their major. Students will usually take more courses related to their major field in the latter half of their college education.

While a bachelor’s degree provides you with key skills that can transfer into many fields, some common bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Teacher

  • Engineer

  • Marketing Manager

  • Architect

  • Information Technology Manager

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree, or graduate degree, comes after attaining a bachelor’s degree and offers more specialized training in a specific field. These degrees take anywhere from 1 to 3 years to complete and are offered through a college or university.

All graduate-level courses taken for a master’s degree program are within the student’s chosen field. Often a requirement of a master’s program is an internship experience—working in the field as a part of their education—and writing a thesis paper on a chosen topic.

Some jobs that require a master’s degree are:

  • College or University Teacher

  • Counselor or Social Worker

  • Business Administration

  • Dietician

  • Occupational Therapist

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is a degree above a master’s degree, including a Ph.D., M.D., or an Ed.D. These are the most advanced degrees you can get in a chosen field at a college or university.

Getting a doctoral degree can take anywhere from 2 to 6 years, depending on the program. They often require the writing of a dissertation following new research in the chosen field. Most doctoral degrees also have a hands-on component where you learn the key skills while getting real-life experience.

Jobs that require a doctoral degree include:

  • College Professor

  • Lawyer

  • Doctor

  • Veterinarian

  • Psychologist

5 Key Differences Between a Degree and a Certificate

Beyond understanding which career you wish to pursue, there are several other differences to consider when choosing between a degree and a certificate.

1. Completion Time

Earning any degree is a commitment to learning for a period of time. While many people work and go to college at the same time. It’s not easy to do this for multiple years.

Most certificate programs take less than a year to complete. This means that you can begin a new career in a lot less time.

Earning a degree is often a full-time commitment—your education will be your primary job for several years until you can graduate and enter the workforce.

2. Course Content

It is important that you are interested in what you are learning about. Staying interested means you will get much more out of your education.

A certificate provides you with content related to your desired field. And a lot of the work is hands-on.

Earning a college degree involves learning about a wide variety of topics beyond your chosen major. This diverse education is beneficial and helps you to become more well-rounded for a variety of jobs. Here’s a forewarning though—these courses may not be of interest to you.

3. Admission Requirements

Most certificate programs require that you have a high school diploma or GED to enroll. Degree programs often have several requirements to get started.

Consider tests like the ACT, SAT, GRE, and others that you need to take before being accepted into a college program. These assessments require a time commitment to study for them if you want to perform well and cost money to take them.

The degree track itself has requirements as well. An associate’s degree requires a high school diploma or a GED. If you are pursuing a career that requires a master’s degree you must first earn a bachelor’s degree first.

4. Program Cost

Each school and type of program has different costs.

Most certificate programs are far less expensive than degree programs at a college or university. This is because they take less time and you can enter the job market earlier.

In contrast, a traditional degree in a specific subject area will take years to complete before beginning your new career and costs ‌ more.

With both certificates and degrees, there are grants and scholarships available. Take advantage of this financial aid and the opportunity it provides to fund your education with less debt.

5. Earning Potential

Knowing the career outlook for your field of interest can help you decide how much money and time to invest in your education. College degree jobs that are high paying may be worth the extra time commitment, effort, and money involved.

Degree TypeAverage Weekly Earnings
Associate’s Degree$963
Bachelor’s Degree$1,334
Master’s Degree$1,574
Doctoral Degree$1,909

The majority of students take out student loans to go to school. If you do this, choose wisely. This is money you will need to pay back with interest in the future.

Know your salary potential before entering a program. Once you have this number, you can do the cost analysis. Will the degree or certificate be worth the financial investment?

What To Consider Before Choosing

Your Interests

The most important factor in choosing between a certificate or a degree should be your interests. Think about what you want to do as a career and figure out a way to get there.

Changing careers is quite common these days. In fact, the average American has around 12 jobs in their working lifetime. Make sure that the money you spend on education is for something you really want to do.

It could be wise to test the waters first: For example, if you are interested in a healthcare career but don’t know what position yet, there are many certificate programs you could complete first. This way you can start working full-time earlier with a new skill set and figure out if you are interested in moving into other positions later on.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you go to school, for one thing, you have to stay in one job forever. You’ll likely learn skills that will continue to be relevant across a variety of jobs.

School & Work-Life Balance

Choosing to get an education means committing a portion of your life to learning something new. While this can be really exciting, you will need to make room for this new endeavor.

When thinking about a certificate or a degree program, consider the sacrifices you must make in the short term to get what you want for the long term. It is possible to work, study, and have a good life while in school, but this requires discipline. Lots of it.

One great option exists. Outlier has partnered with Golden Gate University to offer students an associate degree to fit their schedule. With the Degrees+ program you can earn a 60-credit associate degree at the fraction of the cost of attending college in person.

Your Career Goals

A certificate is a great way to get started on a career quickly. If you’ve already been working for a while, they’re a quick way to level up your career, or change careers entirely without having to give up your job.

A degree program will offer many more opportunities for advancement and changing career paths in the future, but take significant time and effort across numerous years. Degrees tend to result in higher average salaries than certificate programs as well.

Take the time to write out your goals and then look through them. As circumstances change in the future, your goals should still be relevant. Does a degree or certificate fit better based on your goals?

Certificate vs Degree FAQs

1. Can you get a certificate and degree at the same time?

Many schools offer both degrees and certificates at the same time or independently of each other. The most common way to do this is to combine credits for the degree and certificate. This way the classes you take will apply to both.

There are also certificates that can lead to degrees, like Outlier’s Business Foundation Certificate. This certificate program teaches you the foundations of a business degree while earning transferable credits at a low cost.

2. Is it better to have a degree or a certificate?

A degree is a much more rounded education than a certificate program offers. This makes you far more marketable in a variety of job fields.

Certificate programs are much cheaper and faster. This allows you to enter the workforce and start making money in your chosen career sooner than in a degree program. Certificate programs also help you to level up in your current career or change careers much quicker than traditional degrees.

Both certificates and degrees have their benefits. The choice between them depends on the individual and the type of job desired.

3. Is a certificate equal to a degree?

Certificates and degrees both help you to start working in a new career. Certificates are much more specific to the chosen field than a degree. Earning a degree will help you gain the skills to do a variety of different jobs.

From a time and cost standpoint, degrees cost significantly more and take several years to complete. You can complete many certificate programs in a few months.

Deciding Between a Certificate or Degree

Making decisions about your career goals and how best to achieve them is a complex undertaking. Take the time to really think about this and seek some guidance. Ask friends and family what they think you might be good at. Speak to a college counselor or advisor if you have access to one. Then make a list of jobs that are interesting to you.

One idea is to seek out people who currently work in these fields and interview them. This is a great way to learn more about a new field from someone who does the work. Add some pros and cons to your list of jobs to take into consideration.

Before starting on your new educational path, it may be worth taking a few classes part-time. You can go to a community college or online college to see how interested you are in a certain field. Programs like Outlier’s College Foundation and Degrees+ allow you to take courses with transferable credits at a fraction of the price of a university.

Most importantly, be patient and kind with yourself. The opportunity to enter a new career should be exciting. Remember that no matter what you choose, you are on your way toward a fresh start.

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