Certificate vs. Degree: What’s the Difference?

Continuing education helps students and job seekers to build new skills and find better jobs. Fostering a love of continuous learning helps people move up in their existing companies or find joy in new fields with a mid-career switch. Bachelor’s degree holders make around $65,000 per year1, while the right certificate could add more money to a salary or help a resume stand out.

This guide explores the differences between degrees vs. certificates, allowing students and job seekers to make the right decision for their education and career needs.

What Is a Degree and a Certificate?

Degrees and certificates both allow students to learn new skills in a specific field. However, they do feature some key differences.

What Is a Degree?

Degrees make up the traditional pathway for education. Students can choose a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree to begin. Associate degrees take two years of full-time study to complete, and that includes state-required core courses. Bachelor’s degrees take four years with the same parameters.

College degrees require the student to take a variety of courses that don’t necessarily relate to their chosen major. These core courses broaden a student’s horizons and offer the chance to explore topics they might not have before. However, these courses can slow down a student who wants to make a career change quickly.

What Is a Certificate?

Certificates typically take less time than degrees to complete. Many professional certificates take anywhere from several weeks to a semester for students to complete. For some complex or multi-part certificates, they can take a much as a year.

Certificates don’t have core courses. Instead, they focus solely on the skills and tasks students need to master their subject. They’re a faster, more efficient option for students looking to upskill or for those who don’t want to take four years for a full degree. However, they may not always offer the full breadth of training students might get from a full degree.

How Can I Use a Degree or Certificate?

Both degrees and certificates can advance a student’s career when leveraged in the right field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), certificate holders are much more likely to be employed than those without2. This offers good news, considering students can even find some free certificate choices.

Bachelor’s degree holders experience the same. Bachelor’s degree holders are far less likely to remain unemployed, even during the disruption of the 2020 year3. While associate degree holders don’t garner the same level of employment as bachelor’s degree holders3, continuing on to graduate work does pay off in employability for most fields3.

Degree and Certificate Courses

Courses for both degrees and certificate programs do have some similarities.

Online Courses

Both degree and certificate programs often offer online courses. In some cases, online courses happen asynchronously or on the student’s own schedule. Teachers set loose deadlines, and students complete work by those deadlines.

In other cases, students complete courses in a synchronous pattern. These courses happen live and at a prescribed time, much like in-person courses. Students then complete the required coursework by the assigned deadlines on their own time.

Core Courses

Certificates do not have core courses, but associate and bachelor’s degrees do. These cover a variety of subjects, such as mathematics, social science, and biology, to offer students a well-rounded education.

States require different combinations of core courses, so students should keep in mind the required courses they need to graduate. Some core courses may transfer from state to state, but not always.

Concentration Courses

Students take concentration courses specifically in their field of study. For degrees, these include the required courses of their major. In certificate courses, these are the contents of the certificate’s educational structure.

Higher degrees such as master’s or doctoral level options, as well as professional degrees, also include only concentration courses. Students master these higher-level courses as they complete these advanced degree paths.

Project-based Courses

In some certificate pathways, students complete project-based courses. They tackle a real-world problem through collaboration with their peers. At the end of the course, students have a full portfolio of work to share. For example, in web development certifications, a student may complete a website as part of their portfolio.

Degree and Certificate Types

Students can participate in several types of degrees and certifications.

Degree Types

For full degrees, students can choose the path that’s right for their studies.

Associate, Bachelor, or Master of Arts

Students typically pursue degrees in the liberal arts in fields such as education, philosophy, or literature. For bachelor’s degrees, this also means that students must also take a foreign language requirement with fewer mathematics requirements.

Associate, Bachelor, or Master of Science

Science degrees encompass many of the hard sciences, including mathematics, computer science, biological sciences, and engineering. Students pursuing these degrees focus less on language components and more on the mathematics that underpins many of these fields.

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees make up the highest tier of education. Some of these degrees require a thesis, while others focus on projects or portfolios. They take an average of 5-7 years to complete on top of other advanced degrees.

Professional Degrees

Professional degrees include degrees in law, medicine, or other specialized subjects. They exist separately from typical advanced degrees because they require specialized training to complete.

Certificate Types

Students can choose from three basic types of certifications.

Professional-wide Certifications

Some certificates train students for a specific field. For example, those breaking into data science might earn a data analytics or machine learning certificate. Someone wanting to work in law might earn a paralegal certificate. They can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or two to complete.

Product-specific Certificates

Instead of focusing on industry training, some certificates showcase a student’s mastery of a certain product or service. For example, students in business or project management can receive a Six Sigma certificate. Or students in computer science could earn a certificate in Microsoft Azure.

Internal or Corporate Certificates

For enterprises or large corporations, internal certificates prove that employees have mastered critical tools or policies required for their employment. They may also allow students to move up in the company, taking continuous learning seriously and helping corporations identify leaders from among their ranks.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Degree or Certificate

Associate degrees take two years, and bachelor’s degrees take four years of full-time study, including state-required core courses. Master’s degrees require 1-3 years after completing a bachelor’s degree. Doctoral degrees take 5-7 years beyond the master’s degree on average to complete.

Certificates offer a wider range of completion times. For many product or service-specific certificates, students need only sign up for the exam and receive a passing grade. For those accompanied by a course, they typically take a few weeks to complete.

Professional industry courses can take anywhere from several months to 1-2 years. Students can also take advantage of either full-time study, part-time study, or accelerated options that reduce the number of courses without increasing the time needed to study.

Discover More About Degrees and Certificates

Q. What is the application process for gaining degrees?

Undergraduate degrees typically require a high school diploma or GED. Students should follow the application requirements for their chosen program. Graduate degrees require a bachelor’s degree. Certificates have different requirements. Some require only sign up, while others have a sign-up process based on work experience or other qualifiers.

Q. Are online degrees or certificates available?

Yes. In the technological age, students possess plenty of choices for online certificates, degrees, and graduate degrees. These choices make it possible for students to find programs that offer exactly what they’re looking for without uprooting their entire lives.

Q. Are scholarships available for either degrees or certificates?

Students should check with their degree program to find available scholarships for their chosen department. For certificates, current employers might offer scholarships for continuing education. In both cases, students who belong to groups traditionally underrepresented in their chosen field might check for scholarships available to level the playing field.

Q. Do certificates look good on resumes?

Certificates showcase a commitment to continuous learning. Certificates for in-demand skills such as project management, IT skills, or data science could stand out on resumes and encourage employers to reach out.

Does location matter for receiving certificates or degrees?

Luckily, online options make it easier for students to choose the right program for their career goals. Potential job seekers can use online certificates and degrees as a way to level up their skills and subscribe to the lifelong learning employers look for in ideal employees.

Q. Are certificates or degrees necessary for employment?

While some fields still hire without a certificate or degree, the BLS notes that certificate and degree holders are more likely to possess jobs2,3 and experience less unemployment even during disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic.


[1] PayScale. (2021). Bachelor’s Degree Salary.https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Degree=Bachelor%27s_Degree/Salary

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat49.htm

[3] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Data on Display: Education Pays, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm