What is the Difference Between a Certificate and a Degree?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

There is a big difference between a certificate program and one that one that comes with a degree. Yet this difference isn’t always important. Sometimes training for a job will only come in the form of certificate programs, and they may be more highly rated than would be a degree. There are a number of programs that offer certificates of completion that are really the only way to be trained in specific areas. Most people don’t become skilled plumbers, for example, by getting an associate's or a bachelor’s degree. In other professions, a degree is much more desirable, more helpful or required; it really depends upon profession chosen.

Skilled plumbers often get certification through a trade or vocational school rather than earning a degree from a university.
Skilled plumbers often get certification through a trade or vocational school rather than earning a degree from a university.

Generally, the certificate means that a person has completed some type of training program, and there are numerous places that may offer these. These include trade and vocational schools, junior colleges, and even four-year colleges that offer adult or extended education classes. What completion certificates tend to share in common is that they usually don’t require a broad base of general education studies before specializing in a certain field, though there are some exceptions.

One difference between a certification and a degree program is that the latter requires more broad-based knowledge.
One difference between a certification and a degree program is that the latter requires more broad-based knowledge.

Most people who possess associate's or bachelor's degrees study other things outside of their field. They will take basic liberal arts programs that assure competence up to a certain level in mathematics, English, science, humanities and history prior to taking specialized courses that earn them a degree in their chosen major. Most certificate training won’t require this broad-based knowledge first. However, some programs may offer options to earn a degree, and others may require that a person be in possession of certain skills before entering a program. Students wanting a certificate in computer programming might have to demonstrate a certain level of skills in mathematics, and those seeking specialty training as paralegals or secretaries may have to prove competence in writing.

Teachers usually require at least a bachelor's degree.
Teachers usually require at least a bachelor's degree.

In some instances it can be advantageous to hold a degree and a certificate. A person who has been through a secretary training course, and who also has a liberal arts or business degree might be considered a more desirable employee. Some people find they’ve taken a degree in a subject that really doesn’t offer many employment options, and thus they pursue a training course that will help them find work in a certain field. There are a number of training programs that may only be open for applicants with a degree, including many teacher-training programs. People who get teaching certification do not usually have to get an advanced degree, beyond the bachelor’s degree to do so, but they may not be able to enroll in teacher training classes without one. The training program may merely result in certification, but not in a master’s degree, though this route is also available at many colleges.

Often, schools with a vocational emphasis, also known as trade schools, offer certificates of completion upon fulfilling class requirements.
Often, schools with a vocational emphasis, also known as trade schools, offer certificates of completion upon fulfilling class requirements.
Unlike traditional colleges, vocational schools do not focus on academics, but on training students for a specific career.
Unlike traditional colleges, vocational schools do not focus on academics, but on training students for a specific career.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon350529

Is four years BE certification course best or four years BE degree best? Please tell me. I want to do it.

TwistedTwig

surflover00-It really depends on what type of certificate you want to receive. Some certificates are highly specialized and can only be received from a traditional university. For example, I have a certificate in teaching English as a second language (TESOL). Many of the courses I had to take to receive this certificate required me to actually teach lessons to other students. I could not have done that in an online setting.

Other certificates, such as medical billing and coding, can often be acquired through an online program.

surflover00

sunshine31- Thank you for the helpful information. Do you know if it is possible to receive a certificate through an online school?

sunshine31

A certificate demonstrates that you have completed a program related to specific skills for a specific occupation. A degree is a formal course of study that can be completed as a bachelor’s degree, Masters Degree, or doctorate degree. These formal programs usually result in a course of study for a period of four years for the bachelor’s degree, an additional two years for the Masters Degree and additional fours years beyond the Masters. There is no guarantee of employment upon finishing these programs, but generally people with college degrees earn higher salaries.

The certificate offered at most trades schools allows you to obtain a job immediately in that field with minimal study requirements. For example, many medical coding programs are only about nine months long. Many certificate courses offer interships and job placement upon completion.

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