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Degrees vs. Certificate Programs: What's the Difference?

There are many factors to consider when comparing certificates and degrees including: time commitment, financial aid and purpose of the credential.
A person researching the difference between certificates and degrees on the laptop.

Deciding to pursue higher education can be challenging. There are many factors to consider when choosing which path is right for you, including time commitment and cost. However, two of the most popular types of credentials are degrees and certificates, and each can be significant in helping you achieve your goals. 

Degrees and certificates can be earned through an academic program at a postsecondary institution, such as a college or university. Learning the difference between degrees and certificates — and evaluating how each aligns with your goals — can help you determine what the right path is for you. 

What is a Degree? 

Dr. Alexandru Manu with the text Dr. Alexandru ManuIf you are looking for a complete curriculum developed around a chosen field of study, a degree may be for you. 

“A degree program reflects back into a specific discipline rather than a specific skill, competency or topic,” said Dr. Alexandru Manus, vice president of Innovation Knowledge Management at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and instructor of SNHU's International Business PhD program and Master of Business Administration (MBA) program.

General education courses and electives may also be included depending on your school or program type. The four types of college degrees are: 

  • Associate 
  • Bachelor’s 
  • Master's 
  • Doctoral 

The two undergraduate-level degree programs are associate and bachelor. Associate degrees are the shortest degrees, typically taking two years to complete, and are 60 credits in length. Bachelor’s degrees are more extended, usually taking four years or less to complete, and are 120 credits long.

A master’s is a graduate-level degree that varies in length, ranging from 30-60 credits depending on the program. They are usually only available to those who have already completed a bachelor’s degree. 

William Pena with the text William PenaThe amount of time to complete any degree is dependent on your time commitment, degree level and whether you are enrolled in a part-time or full-time schedule. For online students at SNHU, part-time is one class — or three credits — per term, and full-time is two classes — or six credits — every term. 

The final level is a doctoral degree, also considered a graduate degree. A doctoral degree is a terminal degree requiring an intense level of study in a specific field that can take up to seven additional years. 

William Pena, vice president of academic operations and strategy at SNHU, said degrees, when compared to certificates, are “typically larger in terms of both time commitment and the amount of content and curriculum that must be completed before the formal awarding of the credential.” 

How Much Do Degrees Cost? 

Degree cost varies by institution. Actual tuition costs can vary based on: 

Financial aid, awarded through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), may be available to you if you’re completing a degree program. Filling out your FAFSA every year will help you determine your eligibility for government financial aid programs. In addition, you could reduce your out-of-pocket cost based on the amount of financial aid you qualify for.

Tools are available to help you determine your academic financial situation, such as net price calculators. If you have any questions, look for more information on the school’s tuition and financial aid page or reach out to a member of student financial services. 

What is a Certificate? 

Ryan Johnson with the text Ryan JohnsonA certificate is awarded after completing a shorter program that concentrates on a specific field of expertise rather than an entire course of study. Certificates can be anywhere from 12 to 36 credits in length — but are typically 12 to 18 credits, said Ryan Johnson, assistant vice president of university academic operations & strategy at SNHU. Johnson has worked at SNHU for over a decade and earned an MBA from SNHU in 2013.

While certificates do not result in a degree, they are also awarded at undergraduate and graduate levels. And, you may even transfer credits earned from a certificate into a degree program.

A few examples of the many certificates available include: 

Certificates are less expensive due to their shortened time commitment and course load, but some may not qualify for financial aid. Therefore, it is essential to plan accordingly and ensure that you are aware of your program's costs ahead of time by reaching out to your desired school’s student financial services office.

Are certificates worth it? This question is based on your background and goals. The value of a certificate may largely depend on how it's perceived in the specific work setting you're interested in. By doing your research on the experience valued in the workplace, you'll be able to judge whether a certificate is suitable for you. 

College certificate programs can help you stand out by: 

  • Broadening your skillset 
  • Building your confidence 
  • Improving your performance 

Find Your Program

The Difference Between Certificates and Certifications 

Infographic with the text 3 Types of Short-Term Credentials" 1) certificates, 2) certifications and 3) graduate certificatesCertificates are not to be confused with certifications. “Even though they sound similar, a certification is usually awarded by a professional association or independent organization to certify someone for work in a particular industry,” said Manus, “... (while) academic certificates are awarded by institutions of higher education for the completion of the selected program of study.”

Take Six Sigma, a business method, for example. You can choose to earn your Six Sigma Black Belt Graduate Certificate, a certificate program that's 12 credits (four courses) and is designed to help prepare you for the Six Sigma Black Belt certification exam. An educational institution offers the certificate program, while the American Society for Quality (ASQ), a professional society, administers the certification exam.

Another difference is that certificates typically do not expire, whereas certifications are often time-based and must be renewed upon expiration. 

You could have credits from certifications or prior experience that are transferrable towards a degree program of your choice. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers a volunteer training certification that when completed could count as credits. So, be sure to bring up any prior experiences with an advisor to see if you may have any credits available to you. 

Can You Get a Job with a Certificate? 

Certificates can bolster a resume, allowing you to stand out in the job market. According to a New America report, long-term certificates increase your employment odds (New America PDF source). However, a long-term certificate usually requires at least one year of full-time study. 

When Adeline Torres started at SNHU, her goal was to find a job in the human resources field. She decided to earn a certificate in human resource management and landed a job within two years of starting.

"Today I work as a human resources manager for a healthcare agency," Torres said. "Though the end of this journey is near, I will never forget each person who assisted in shaping my future."

A Lumina Foundation report notes that healthcare, education and government services are the leading sectors in which some employees lack postsecondary degrees but have obtained short-term credentials (Lumina PDF source).

The increase in the odds of a certificate assisting you in gaining employment is partly due to the spike in the interest of obtaining work-related credentials, such as short-term credentials. According to New America, a short-term credential is a broad category that includes licenses issued by states, certificates awarded by postsecondary institutions and certifications awarded by industry organizations. 

Infographic with text New America reports short-term certificates awarded by community colleges increased 150% from 1995 to 2018Community colleges have seen a growing number of students interested in earning a certificate. New America reports that community colleges' number of short-term certificates increased by more than 150% from 1995 to 2018. By 2010, 41% of all credentials awarded at these colleges were non-degree certificates. Unlike long-term certificates, short-term certificates usually require less than a year of full-time study. 

Certificates are beginning to resonate with students not only in community colleges but also at four-year colleges. There has been an increase of nearly 30% in the number of certificates awarded by public colleges since 2010, New America reports. 

According to the Lumina Foundation, short-term credentials are part of a movement to increase educational opportunities and are designed to prepare Americans immediately for in-demand work and emerging fields.

In October 2023, Marketplace reported enrollment was up for certificate programs, with other short term credentials in high demand, too. In the wake of this growth for certificate programs, Marketplace also noted the importance of transfer-friendly colleges that can help the growing number of certificate students enter degree programs.

Is It Better to Get a Certificate or a Degree? 

Should I Get a College Degree or Certification?

Each type of credential offers a different experience. For example, Pena said that a degree, by design, is “a much more expansive educational experience.” In contrast, a certificate is “more targeted and more specific to a particular domain or field of expertise.” 

It is essential to know that certificates and degrees can supplement your career. Expanding your skillset while working full-time can be challenging, but earning an educational credential while holding a job could be an excellent way to sharpen your skills and apply what you are learning in real time. 

And, if you’re not ready to commit to a master’s degree program, you might choose to earn a graduate certificate to start. Then you could always consider transferring those credits from the certificate into a master's program later. 

Whether you desire the foundational education of a degree or wish to strengthen your skills with a certificate, there is an educational credential out there for you. 

A degree can change your life. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Nicholas Patterson ’22 is a writer and alumnus of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), where he earned his bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing. He is currently honing his craft further as he pursues an MFA in Creative Writing from SNHU. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.