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Certificate or Certification?

Sometimes these words are used interchangeably. What does is mean to complete a certificate program or to be certified in a specific field? When looking at online programs, what will you need to reach your goals? These goals may be academic or career in nature, and it's a good idea to get clarification about the programs you are considering and, perhaps need for advancement in your career field, before you enroll.

Certificate Programs

Certificate program are often marketed to adult learners who are busy with personal and professional commitments, but are interested in higher education. Compared to degree programs, certificate programs are often much shorter, in terms of time to complete, and have few requirements, in terms of total credits and numbers of courses. They allow you to immerse yourself in a specific academic topic to gain knowledge and skills in an area of interest to you. Professional organizations also offer certificate programs as a source of professional development and continued education.

Certificates usually go through a development, review, and approval process conducted by the institutions that offer the programs. Development of the program may also include a review of accreditation requirements. You can find certificates at both undergraduate and graduate levels and assessment of your learning takes place within the courses as you complete assignments and exams.

There are many reasons why a certificate program may be right for you.

  • You want to explore a subject in detail within a formal academic framework.
  • You need to complete continuing education requirements for your job. This is often the case with careers in teaching, medicine, and project management just to name a few. License and professional credential requirements in these fields want to ensure that practicing professionals are current in their fields.
  • You are interested in learning new skills to increase your marketability in a job search or to prepare for a career change.
  • You would like to try out a school and academic discipline before making the commitment to enroll in the full degree program.

Certification Programs

Certification programs are sometimes synonymous with licensure, however licensure refers to the ability to legally work in a specific field. Licensure is monitored and issued by a government agency. Certificate programs often include a combination of requirements, such as academic course work or vocational training, documented practical experience, and formal assessment of your skills. This assessment usually takes place in the form of an exam and may lead to licensure as well.

There are many reasons why a certification program may be right for you.

  • The certification credential is required for you to work in your chosen field. This requirement could include licensure that is issued by national or state government authorities.
  • Certification is highly desired by potential employers in your field and completing certification would make you more marketable in a job search.
  • You are seeking official verification of your practical skills in your chosen field.

Certificate and Certification Examples

Higher Education – Accounting

  • Certificate – Take a look at the University of Miami's information related to an undergraduate certificate in accounting. This certificate program consists of 8 courses. Once completed, the student will have a Certificate in Accounting from the University of Miami.
  • Certification – Additional requirements must be completed to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the State of Florida.These include a significant amount of additional coursework and successfully passing the CPA Exam. Certification is part of the process of achieving the CPA license.

Professional Organization – Training

  • Certificate – The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) offers a series of two-three day certificate workshops designed to help training professionals enhance and expand their skills in areas such as elearning development and presentation delivery.
  • Certification – ASTD also offers Certified Professional in Learning and Performance Certification (CPLP). This process is more involved including required learning materials, a comprehensive exam, and assessment of work samples. The CPLP is not a required credential for trainers, but is recognized by many training professionals and employers as a measure of competency.

Industry – Information Technology

  • Certificate – Many higher education institutions offer Certificates in Information Technology. These programs primarily consist of course work, and in some cases, an internship or other field practical experience. The University of Massachusetts is one example.
  • Certification – Cisco offers five levels of certification in a wide range of skills and career paths in information technology. These certifications range from entry-level to expert. The learning programs and assessments have been standardized and include exams. Employers who are looking to hire individuals with these certifications are seeking specific skills sets that have been demonstrated and verified.

Which program is right for you?

This answer to this question depends on your needs and goals. It is important for you to ask questions of the institutions offering the programs and to conduct your own research.

Ask Questions

  • Is the program accredited? If so, by which specific organizations? If not, are there plans for future accreditation?
  • Are all of the courses completed in the program transferrable to another program?
  • Will any of the courses I have completed in the past be counted as transfer credits toward completion of the program?
  • Will I be able to receive any credit for my professional experience related to the program's academic focus? (Sometimes called prior-learning credit or lifelong learning credit.)

Do Your Own Research

  • Are there licensure (national or State level) requirements related to working in the career field I am interested in? Contact your local State Employment Office for more information.
  • What types of courses and programs count toward required Continuing Education requirements in my field? Check with the agency that monitors your profession to be sure.
  • Are there professional organizations that establish requirements to be met for you to work in my field? Often these organizations can advise you on programs and provide you with a list of specific requirements.

There are advantages to both certificate and certification programs. Choosing one over the other depends on your needs and goals. And sometimes, certificates are part of the process that leads you to professional certification. As with most types of educational endeavor, you can also expect the opportunity to grow your network though interactions with your classmates and instructors. Certificates and certifications will also help you stay current – an important consideration during times when our work and world change so quickly.

Explore the options that are available to you and do your research! Which is right for you?