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Degree vs. Certificate Programs: What’s the Difference?

By Ashley DiFranza
April 24, 2019

Higher education is more valued in the workplace today than ever before. In fact, it’s been reported that individuals with bachelor’s degrees have 57 percent more job opportunities and earn 56 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. This type of data has encouraged many of the 36 million adults who dropped out of college before completing their bachelor’s degrees to go back to school and continue their education.

With the benefits of going back to school so clear, the more difficult question returning students will face is not if they want to continue their education, but how they want to do it—a question made all the more difficult to answer considering there are many viable avenues for doing so.

Degree and certificate programs are two of the most common choices for students returning to the classroom. These two educational paths are designed to expose students to a specific field or skill set that can help broaden their knowledge in that subject area. At their core, the purpose of both program types is to help students in understanding the depth of their industry, and to walk away with the tactical skills and experiences needed to expand their career options, advance at work, or even switch to a new industry altogether.

As similar as the educational goals of these types of programs are, however, the format, cost, and curriculum of each are so different that students often find themselves more drawn to one or the other depending on their own needs. Throughout this article, we explore these differences between degree and certificate programs to help you identify which is the right choice for your continued education.


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Degree vs. Certificate: What You’ll Learn

Perhaps the most important factor to consider when weighing these options is what is actually covered in the classroom within the curriculum of certificate and degree programs.

What You’ll Learn in a Certificate Program

Certificate courses are narrowly focused and explore the actionable skills needed to work in a particular industry. Depending on the type of the certificate, classes may only cover a broad view of essential industry-related topics or practices to ensure you have a working knowledge of the field. More advanced certificate programs dive more deeply into the subject or review more sophisticated methods for the work. In either type of certificate program, however, graduates leave with skills well-developed enough to apply what they’ve learned to your field or, in some cases, expand that base knowledge into an advanced degree later on.

What You’ll Learn in a Degree Program

Courses outlined for the completion of degree programs cover far more than the base-level of knowledge required for you to complete your work-related tasks. Degree programs are often interested in producing “well-rounded” students with an understanding of their industry and the world as a whole. To achieve this, degree-granting institutions include “core classes” alongside the major-specific courses required to graduate.

For example, of the 120 semester hours required to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Accounting Management at Northeastern, 83 of those courses are not major-specific. Instead, they include foundational classes and other electives of the student’s choice.

Although at first glance it may seem less productive to spend your time in school learning about a subject that does not directly correlate to your work, many universities consider the inclusion of core classes within their curriculum a vital part of undergraduate education. A 2011 study explored this trend among higher education institutions and discovered that most choose to include such classes in hopes of providing students with “broad, foundational skills and knowledge…constituting an education with the intellectual backbone for lifelong learning and informed citizenship.”

Institutions believe that this broader approach to the required curriculum allows students to explore subject areas they may never have otherwise encountered, hone their analytic and critical thinking skills, and, from a practical sense, gain a broader array of knowledge than their major alone could provide. This is important, the study emphasizes, as “the Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that workers will hold an average of 10.8 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 42 alone.” Research has found that exposing students to other subjects and ways of thinking has proved useful for those individuals that do end up switching positions multiple times in their career.

For many students hoping to get more than just a basic understanding of their industry out of a continued education program, the benefits posed by the inclusion of core classes are a substantial draw to the pursuit of a full degree.

Degree vs. Certificate: Time Commitment

One of the biggest draws of a certificate program is the speed at which you can complete it. Unlike a degree—which can take between two and four years to finish—certificates require as little as a few months to a few years to complete. This variation in length is due to the flexibility of certificate programs, including that they allow you to take as few or as many courses at a time as needed.

The pursuit of degrees has become a lot more flexible in recent years, as well, especially with the introduction of options like online classes, which allow students to work from anywhere at any time. However, more often than not, these programs will require a slightly more rigid timeline for completion due to the sheer number of credits needed to graduate and the different semesters in which certain required classes are offered.

Degree vs. Certificate: Price

The price of education boils down to the cost per course and, depending on the university, these prices can vary. While courses required for a degree and courses required for a certificate likely cost around the same amount, a cost difference occurs due to the number of courses students must take in order to graduate from each program. There are far fewer courses required to complete a certificate program than a bachelor’s program. Although there are dozens of financial aid options for both—including scholarships, grants, tuition reimbursement, and more—some find the lower price associated with a certificate is enough to lead them down that path.

Real Life Example: Accounting Programs at Northeastern

Northeastern University offers both a certificate and a bachelor’s degree program in accounting.

In the certificate program, the cost is measured per course and, to graduate, students are required to complete six classes total (assuming all prerequisites have been passed.) Each of these courses cost $1,590 based on the number of credit hours. If a student were to complete the six required courses in this program at $1590 per course, they would pay a total of $9,540 for their education.

The Bachelor of Science in Finance and Accounting Management degree program requires 120 semester hours for graduation, including 37 courses toward the specific major. The cost per class for this degree is also $1,590 based on the number of credit hours. For the major-specific courses offered in this degree program, this adds up to a total cost of $58,830, with an additional charge for all foundation and elective courses as required by the university.

These differences in price, as well as the number of courses required for completion, may cause certain students to automatically favor one program type over the other; however, it’s important to consider all the different factors that make up these programs when choosing which to pursue—including career advancement and increased marketability associated with each.

Degree vs. Certificate: Job Opportunities

No matter which industry you’re in, choosing to continue your education through either a degree or certificate program can make a substantial positive impact on your career. In fact, a recent study revealed that 45 percent of employed adults are opting to invest in further education to keep up with the changing needs of their field, proving that even those who already have training can benefit from lifelong learning.

For individuals that fall into this group, a certificate may be all that you need to supplement your existing degree with a new skill set or obtain an industry-required accreditation. Those who are looking to directly correlate their continued education into new job opportunities, however—whether that be an advanced role in your current industry or a move to an entirely new field—may benefit more from obtaining a full degree.

A bachelor’s degree is often the minimum requirement for entry-level positions in today’s job market. What’s more, even though some may be able to obtain work with a certificate alone, a lack of degree can limit opportunities for advancement in your field. For this reason, those who wish to set themselves up for long-term success in their career should invest in the extensive knowledge, exposure, and industry-insight that can be obtained during the pursuit of a full degree.

Whatever avenue you choose for continuing your education, your career outlook will be better for it. Consider any of Northeastern’s bachelor’s completion and certificate programs—at both the undergraduate and graduate levels—and take the next step toward achieving your goals today.


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About Ashley DiFranza

Ashley DiFranza is a content marketing producer for Northeastern University’s Lifelong Learning Network.