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What is the Difference Between a Certificate and a Degree?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon350529 — On Oct 06, 2013

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

By TwistedTwig — On Aug 14, 2010

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.

By surflover00 — On Aug 14, 2010

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

By sunshine31 — On Aug 14, 2010

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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