Should I get a certificate instead of a college degree?

Certificate programs are college training programs that focus on teaching job skills, with an emphasis on those skills that make a student most employable after graduation. College degree programs sometimes include those skills, but also include education in other "general education" areas, such as math and language. If you are changing careers, deciding between a college degree and a college certificate can be confusing.

by Rebecca King

Should I get a certificate instead of a college degree?

When adults have decided to change careers and go back to college, one of the most common questions they have is "Should I choose a college degree or a certificate program?

Certificate programs are college training programs that focus on teaching job skills, with an emphasis on those skills that make a student most employable after graduation. College degree programs sometimes include those skills, but also include education in other "general education" areas, such as math and language.

Cost of college degree vs college certificate

Certificate programs usually take less time to complete than even two year degree programs; many college certificate courses are completed in less than a year. The cost for a college degree is often much higher than for a professional certificate; some certificate programs cost less than $6,000 in total tuition (although some are much higher). Courses of study include healthcare careers such as Medical Assisting, Dental Assisting, Pharmacy Technician, Paralegal, Cosmetology, Personal Training, Auto Repair, Aviation Technician, etc.

As with every other question about college education, the answer depends a lot on the needs of the individual student. Recent high school graduates are often unsure of what they want their career path to be, so for many of those young students, pursuing a four year degree allows them to avoid having to enter the workforce while they sort things out. For adults who are changing careers, however, going back to college is often intended as a means to improved job prospects. Workers who have a college degree or a college certificate both earn more, on average, than workers who have only a high school diploma.

College certificate programs that train adults for new careers are the fastest growing segment of college education, according to a report by the American Association of Community Colleges. Since 2001, the number of professional certificates issued to graduates each year has more than doubled. Certificates are the second most common college credential issued each year, behind only bachelor's degrees.

It's easy to understand why so many students choose a college certificate vs a college degree; four of the six fastest growing careers require a certificate rather than a degree:

  1. Wind turbine service technicians [certificate]
  2. Occupational therapy assistants [2 year degree]
  3. Physical therapist assistants [2 year degree]
  4. Physical therapist aides [certificate]
  5. Home health aides [certificate]
  6. Commercial divers [certificate]

Income for college certificate graduates

Every individual is different, and every certificate program is different, so generalizations about the income generated by a college certificate varies. That said, according to a study by Stephen Rose at Georgetown University, certificate holders do earn more on average than workers with just a high school diploma, and for some fields of study (such as computer science/information technology), they actually earn more than workers with associate or bachelor's degrees:

  • In computer and information services, men working in field earn $72,498 per year, which is more than 72 percent of men with an Associate’s degree and 54 percent of men with Bachelor’s degrees. Women with certificates in this field and working in a related occupation earn $56,664 annually, which is greater than 75 percent of women with an Associate’s degree and 64 percent of women with a Bachelor’s degree.
  • In electronics, men earn $64,700, more than 65 percent of the men with Associate’s degrees and 48 percent of men with a Bachelor’s degree.
  • In business and office management, women earn $38,204, which is more than 54 percent of women with Associate’s degrees and 41 percent of women with Bachelor’s degrees.

None of this should indicate that a college degree is a bad idea, because going back to school for a college degree can be a great move and for some adults changing careers a degree is necessary. However, for many adults the right college program is a certificate program, because of the shorter time of completion, lower cost, and related earning potential.

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