Student's Guide to Certificate Programs

By Krystal Ndoni · May 18, 2022 · 10 minute read

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Student's Guide to Certificate Programs

College is not a fit for everyone. But there are options.

Certificate programs are a way to get the skills and expertise you need without a college diploma. They’re also for professionals looking to advance their skills and knowledge in their field or switch careers. They are offered online and in person–typically through higher education institutions or professional associations.

What Is a Certificate Program?

Certificate programs are courses or vocational training provided by colleges or professional associations that last less than two years. The two most common certificate types are undergraduate and graduate.

Undergraduate certificate programs prepare you for immediate placement in trade, technical, and vocational careers. Trade schools prepare you for jobs such as welders, electricians, and cosmetologists. Vocational schools focus on in-demand jobs that can be trained in two or fewer years, such as working as a paralegal or a dental hygienist.

Technical schools teach skills for one trade and typically involve an apprenticeship. Programs include HVAC, auto repair, and some nursing certifications.

“Certifications” are the outcome of certain certificate programs to prove successful mastery of the program. Exams are officiated by state or authorized organizations and formal licenses, diplomas, and certificates are awarded on completion. Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Project Management Professional (PMP) certifications are a couple of examples.

Graduate certificates are career training programs for bachelor’s degree holders to expand a student’s expertise without earning a degree. For instance, a marketing professional can enroll in a social media marketing course, a niche area of marketing, to broaden their skillset. Some pursue graduate certificate programs in order to advance their careers, like in promotions, for instance.

Certificate Programs vs College Degrees

Certificate programs and college degrees differ in curriculum, program length, cost, and program outcome.

Colleges require a general education curriculum besides vocational curriculum. In contrast, certificates teach only the skills for a trade or subject. No academic courses, such as humanities, are included in the training.

Certificate programs are shorter. College degrees are a minimum of two to four years for full time students. Certifications can sometimes be four weeks, but are three to four months on average for one-off courses. Training programs for certifications are usually one to two years.

A college education has a substantial price tag. The average college tuition in 2022 costs $35,331 per student per year, according to the Education Data Initiative, compared to a certificate programs that can range in price from $1,000 to $5,000 (though some may be more expensive). Certificate programs may have a few credits per program, in contrast to a bachelor’s program which may vary from 120 to 130 credits or more.

Finally, program outcomes differ. Certificates train students for a specific skill and immediate placement in careers with those skills. College programs provide an extensive and expansive education that can provide opportunities in multiple disciplines within a field. For instance, someone who earns a bachelor’s in economics can enter finance analytics, business consulting, and various disciplines in financial-related fields.

How Long Are Certificate Programs?

Certificate programs can range from a few weeks to two years. San Diego University’s paralegal program can take four to eight months to complete in-person, for example. A cosmetology program at Fullerton College in California requires 1600 hours at a student’s own pace — so the program length depends on you and the field you are planning on studying.

Types of Certificate Programs

The two most common types of certification programs are undergrad and graduate. They follow compulsory education, and outside of a degree, provide education needed for specific fields such as business, administration, and healthcare.


Undergrad programs build technical skills and subject mastery via career training programs or one-off courses. Enrollees usually must have a high school diploma for certain courses. They can often be completed in one academic year or less.

Some programs, such as cosmetology, award a license at the end of the program. Ensure your program is formally accredited by the state or professional organization and will prepare you for required license exams.


Graduate courses enhance a college degree. Students test and earn a certificate to satisfy course completion without earning a degree. Some courses require prior knowledge of a topic. For example, students employed in computer engineering can earn a certificate in a new computer language.

They are offered by universities and colleges and programs are credit-based. Some programs’ credits can be transferred to other colleges.

Online Certificate Programs

Certificate programs online offer multiple advantages.

They’re convenient. A student has the world’s universities at their fingertips. The online universe is a library of extensive certificate programs, and prestigious courses are accessible to everyday learners. For example, eCornell has a large library of graduate courses. Also, MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer free and paid programs from universities, non profits, and for-profit companies. For example, Microsoft and IBM offer Excel courses on Coursera, a MOOC, for working professionals.

Online courses also offer flexibility. Asynchronous courses, those that don’t have a specific meeting time, allow students to take a course at their own pace. You can access pre-recorded content anytime and follow class discussion on comment boards. On the other hand, synchronous online programs are a little more restricted to a schedule. They work like in-person courses where students attend live online lectures and engage in online class activities.

Finally, online courses are usually inexpensive. Cutting the commute, certain campus fees, and meals, can result in cheaper overall prices than in-person learning.

Not all certificate programs offer online learning, however. Hands-on vocations such as landscaping, plumbing, or electrical engineering often require apprenticeships to demonstrate material understanding and to meet minimum requirements.

Is a Certificate Program Right for You?

Certificate programs might be a good fit for someone who wants to try a trade career. They are an affordable way to test out vocations without incurring student debt. And, college credits from some courses can be put towards a formal college degree, if you decide to pursue a bachelor’s.

If you want to learn a new skill for work, graduate certificate courses are one alternative to a masters or professional degree. For instance, some companies will pay employees to get a Project Manager Professional (PMP) certificate to better skill their employees and improve workforce productivity.

Programs are a great way to kick-start a career change. Some popular certificate programs for career changes include business analysis, law, human resources, and accounting. They are offered by professional organizations such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants for accounting.

Program Type

Certificate Programs

Certification Programs

College Degrees

What do you gain? Add skills with specific courses for your current job Fast-track into trade careers or career advancement Gain career opportunities not limited to trade vocations
How long do you study? Programs last a few weeks to a few months Programs last a few months and up to two years Programs for full time students last two to four years
How many credits are programs? 15-30 credits, though requirements may vary 4-30 credits, requirements may vary 60 for associates, 120-130 for bachelor’s, and 30-60 credits for graduate programs
This program is good for… Kick-starting a career change; adding skills to your existing job Starting a new career (usually in trade vocations); advancing careers into management Starting a new career or changing a career


Certificates can propel students directly into the workforce with on-demand skills. According to a Georgetown University study, “about 94% of certificates…are awarded in career-oriented fields.”

Future success in earnings depends on the trade field you choose. For instance, the median earnings for a dental hygienist was 77,090 per year in 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In comparison, the median wage for cosmetologists was $27,380 in 2020 according to the BLS.

Certificates can also complement a college degree or help a professional acquire skills to advance upward within a field. A marketing professional can expand his or her skillset with an InDesign certificate — often a skill needed for content marketers. And it pays to learn. A total of 87% of Coursera students reported promotions, raises, and career changes.

Certificate programs also can save time and money. Programs are fewer credits and are shorter in length, so cost substantially less than a degree.


Certificates alone can increase income value modestly — and the gains can be diminished in a rapidly evolving workplace. Some studies even show negative returns for certificate holders without a college degree, according to the non-profit New America.

One BLS report shows bachelor’s degree holders earn median weekly earnings of $1,248, while “some college, no degree” earners make $833 per week on average.

Furthermore, more vocations require a college degree. According to BLS, a bachelor’s degree is required for 169 occupations while an associate’s degree or a postsecondary nondegree award is required for only 100 occupations.

While certificate programs equip you with skills to land an entry level job after a short time, it may not pay off in the long run.

What to Look For in a Certificate Program

Evaluate programs by accreditation. Quality courses are accredited by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. They might also be verified by certifying bodies within that industry, such as HRCI for Professional Human Resources certification.

Determine flexibility. Some learners might benefit more from in-person courses — while an online course can give busy learners an opportunity to gain valuable expertise and skills. Furthermore, an asynchronous program can provide further flexibility for students who have unpredictable schedules.

Look out for for-profit institutions. For-profits are often synonymous with poor training for exorbitant costs. In short, it can be a scam. The College Scorecard is a government tool that can tell you whether your school is for-profit. On your school’s page, you will see its designation such as “Private For Profit.”

What Certificate Programs Are in Demand in 2022?

There’s no shortage of demand for certificate programs. The National Center for Education Statistics, says the number of certificates awarded increased by 22% 2018–19 compared to 2009–10.

According to the BLS’s latest Occupational Outlook Handbook — hairdressers, hair stylists, and cosmetologists; medical assistants, and audio and video technicians each have a projection of 50,000 or more new openings deemed faster than the average — of which programs will be available.

For graduate programs, Coursera’s top 10 courses include UX Design, project management, Python Programming, and English as a Second Language. MOOC edX, founded by Harvard and MIT, top 12 courses include Intro to Computer Science, Data Science, and Basic Spanish.

High Paying Certificate Programs

The highest paying programs are in IT. Earners can make six figures or more with a Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) certificate, for example.

How to Pay for Certificate Programs

When deciding how to pay for certificate programs, it’s important to explore all your options. Some options might include savings, student loans, or other forms of financial aid. Some universities offer financial aid assistance for certification programs. St. Johns University in New York offers aid if students fill out a FAFSA® and apply.

Employers offer tuition assistance. Companies can offer up to $5,250 towards employee’s tuition. Some companies provide even more to employees. Verizon offers up to $8,000 per employee, for example.

You can request a payment plan. eCornell offers a monthly “Pay as You Go” plan for students unable to pay in full.

And it doesn’t hurt to ask for available discounts. Military active and veteran members may be eligible for discounts.

Finally, certificate programs that cost $10,000 or more can be covered by a private student loan.

The Takeaway

Certificate programs can start, enhance, or change careers for learners. Undergraduate programs prepare students for immediate placement in a specific trade without a college degree. Both undergraduate and graduate programs enhance careers or offer training to change careers without earning a college degree.

Certificate programs are less expensive and shorter in duration than college degrees. College financial aid and employers can pay for certificate programs to gain valuable employees — but sometimes the bill can run up to $10,000 out of pocket.

SoFi can help cover the difference with a private student loan, that offers competitive interest rates for qualifying borrowers, flexible repayment plans, and no hidden fees.

Find out what rate you qualify for in just a few minutes.

Photo credit: iStock/PeopleImages

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