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What is the distinction between a certificate, a diploma, and a degree?

Certificates, diplomas, and degrees are all post secondary study options. The main difference between these three options is the length of study and the amount of credits required for their completion.

In terms of educational components, certificates and diplomas do not require general education or liberal arts courses for their completion, which shortens the time it takes to complete them. They are often found in technical disciplines but they are also found in broader disciplines, such as business, IT, project management, literature, among others. Certificates are given to individuals once they have taken several courses on a specific topic or discipline. Many people take certificates to update their professional skills after they are already working in a particular field. For example, a certificate in project management have become desirable in the eyes of employers. Those project managers that want to enhance their skills can take a certificate in this discipline at a college or online.

Diplomas are often awarded by community or technical schools and, like certificates, are given to an individual who has completed a specific number of courses in a particular topic or field. Some diplomas are given at a graduate or postgraduate level, and they require at least one year of study and enrollment at an accredited post secondary institution. Therefore, diplomas often require acceptance to a university or college and enrollment in a specific program; certificates often do not require this.

A degree is given by an accredited two- or four-year institution, requires individuals to complete a specific number of course credits, requires specific core or general education courses, and takes longer to complete than a certificate or a diploma. Employers tend to prefer university degrees over certificate and diplomas; in fact, many jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant discipline.

What should you choose?

When deciding whether further education is a good choice for them, individuals have to take into consideration various factors. One of them is the high cost of education in the United States: alternatives range from attending community college and later transferring to a four-year university, to taking student loans, to opting for a short certificate training course. Another factor is the popularity of the field they wish to pursue a career in. For example, technical careers can be on demand; there is always a need for contractors and plumbers like there is a need for doctors and lawyers. However, one word of caution: in-demand fields can get over saturated, making it difficult to later get a job in that field. Finally, individuals must consider the impact of entering education on their personal and professional lives. Do they have the time to manage a job and studies at the same time or do they have to pursue their studies full-time? How will pursuing a diploma or degree impact the relations and roles within a family? All of these factors should be considered when deciding to enroll in post secondary education.