Nov 17, 2019 10:33 PM EST

Certification vs Degree Program: Which Is Right for You?

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Certification vs Degree Program: Which Is Right for You?

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Looking for alternatives to a traditional college degree? Still unsure of how to pursue more education? Look at a rundown of certification vs degree programs.

Whether you're a teen freshly out of high school or an older adult looking for a career change, deciding on the right program for your next steps is an important decision. But the vast number of degree and certification programs available in each industry can be overwhelming. 

If you're wondering about the merits of certification vs degree programs, check out our guide to choosing which path is right for you.

Certification Programs

With the average cost of a college degree coming in around $35K, it's no surprise that people are looking for alternative solutions. Besides the tuition, there's also the cost of books and housing, not to mention the time most programs take to complete. Between time and financial constraints, there are a lot of people looking for higher education that prefer to complete certification programs instead of pursuing a college degree.

A certification program provides the student with a professional certificate designed to fill in gaps in education that can help with future career goals. Because these programs don't require the same financial and time commitments a degree entails, they're available to more people wanting to beef up their resume without the means to pursue traditional two and four-year college programs.

However, a surprising number of certificate holders also hold an Associate's or Bachelor's degree, indicating that certificates can also be a way to continue education in your field. 

What Kinds of Certificate Programs Are Available?

Certificates can come from specific trade-type schools, local community colleges, and even bigger universities. Different schools offer different programs, but most certificate programs generally fall into the following categories.

  • Programs that offer specific job training, such as trade programs like electricians and plumbers

  • Programs that provide continuing education in a field and allow the certificate recipient to step into a higher position or salary bracket within their current field. These types of programs mostly show the recipient has specific credentials that set them above their peers

  • Programs that aren't necessary for a job and instead allow the recipient to gain knowledge in an area they're passionate about, like modern art

  • Programs that provide knowledge for a new specialty area of study where a college degree program doesn't explicitly exist, such as the world of social media or internet marketing

Since every school is different, going online to view programs is an excellent place to start to see what might be available in your chosen area of study.

Traditional Degree Programs

A traditional two or four-year college degree, however, may be the only option you have, depending on your position of choice. While most fields have entrance levels that only require a certificate, to reach a higher position, you will be required to have a degree.

A good example of this hierarchy is nursing. Only a certificate is required to be a CNA or certified nursing assistant. However, there is no ladder to climb, holding only a certificate, and your pay raises will be the standard at your job. To start climbing the rungs of the ladder, you would be required to have, at minimum, a two-year Associate's degree.

Even degree holders must sometimes pursue further education. For example, a nurse would have to go to a Master's program to earn a higher position as a PA, or physician's assistant.

Things to Consider 

When trying to decide which path to pursue on your road to higher education, keep the following things in mind.

  • Does my position of choice require a degree over a certificate?

  • Can I earn a certificate to begin work in my field while I complete a degree?

  • Within my field, what are the different positions available, and what do each of them require?

  • Will I be required to earn further certificates or degrees to continue to advance my career?

  • Is there a ceiling on my advancement or earning potential if I only have a certificate?

Also, remember that while a certificate program is less expensive than a college degree, you'll still be investing a certain amount of time and money into the program. And unlike traditional colleges, for which there are scholarships and federal programs to help finance your degree, you won't be receiving similar financial aid for a certificate.

Certification vs Degree: How to Choose Your Career Path

There are a large number of people in the workforce today who have a degree they don't use. To avoid being one of them, make a plan to choose your career path, and the steps it will take to get to your ultimate goal.

1. Choose your field. Perhaps you already know that you want to practice law or medicine. Maybe you are just beginning to look through median salaries and job descriptions. Either way, choosing an industry to be part of is the first step.

2. Look at the positions available within that field. Once you know the industry you want to work in, you need to know what job you want to end up in ultimately. Then you can educate yourself on the requirements of that position.

3. Create a plan to get you to that position. Once you know the requirements, you can plan how you'll get there. Perhaps it makes the most sense to pursue a degree immediately. You might decide to complete a certificate, so you can begin work in that field while attending college is the best first step. At this point, you'll know exactly what you need to do, including any furthering education you might need to pursue even after finishing a degree.

Time to Decide

Deciding between a certification vs degree should be a well thought out and planned decision. You don't want to invest time and money into a degree you won't use, but you need to make sure that a certificate will be enough to get you where you want to go in your career.

Looking for further career advice? Check out the rest of the informational articles on this site!

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