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Why You Should Consider Earning an Online Certificate

Certificate programs are gaining attention from educators, students, and employers as a way to get college experience and academic credit without having to complete a full degree program.

These higher education alternatives, shorter in duration than most degrees, are offered by both for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, and often include online learning options.

The wide variety of certificate programs available means there isn't a standard format. You'll find non-credit options, different program lengths and requirements, and curricula focused on career and workforce development, as well as lifelong learning pursuits. Most focus on specific areas of study, and from auto mechanics and project management to software testing and musical performance, chances are you can find an online learning option to meet your needs and interests. 

Increasing Opportunities

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) published a study of postsecondary certificates earlier this month. One of the goals of this project was to fill the gap in research about these programs and the students enrolled in them. The findings include:

  • One million certificates are awarded annually.
  • "On average, certificate holders earn 20% more than high-school educated workers."
  • "More than 60% of certificates have a clearly demonstrated economic payoff over high school diplomas."
  • Certificate completion may lead to additional educational attainment. Approximately one-third of those who earn certificates already have a college degree. Two out of three complete their certificates before earning their degrees.

While the CEW study addressed only certificates "from business, vocational, trade, and technical schools, and technical and non-degree awards from two- and four-year colleges," there are many bachelor and graduate-level options available. I completed a graduate certificate while working on my doctorate. This was a great way to add a second area of specialization to my degree. Having the certificate as part of my academic transcript also served as a complement to my previous practical experience in the field (career counseling) and helped me market myself during a future job search.

Let's take a closer look at what you can expect from a certificate program and some of the information you'll need to gather before you make a decision about enrollment.

Benefits and Expectations

My motivation for earning a certificate mirrors that of many other students. Career advancement, changing careers, and attracting employers' attention are all incentives to enroll in a certificate program, whether you are new to the field or a seasoned professional. If work-related goals are part of your interest in earning a certificate, selecting a field of study is a critical part of the part of the process. According to the CEW report, studying and working in the same field is "one of the most important factors that affects earnings." 

In addition to the career development opportunities provided by many certificate programs, there are other benefits to consider:

  • Earning a credential: Certificates are considered academic credentials by schools and employers. Involving more than just taking a few classes, they are designed to provide a cohesive set of learning experiences and may involve course work as well as practical activities, similar to an apprenticeship or internship, depending on the topic of study.
  • Exploring postsecondary work: Certificate courses are an opportunity to try out college-level work and there are many programs designed for those entering with a high school diploma. If you aren't sure if a full degree program is right for you, a certificate could be a good way to test the waters and may apply toward degree requirements should you decide to apply later on. In fact, many programs hope you'll do just that – join for the certificate and stay for the degree.
  • Enhancing professional development: What does your professional development plan include for the coming year? A certificate may be an interesting alternative to consider that could apply toward formal requirements such as continuing education units mandated in your field. Check with your employer to find out more about the skills needed in the organization and possible financial assistance with tuition and fees.
  • Saving time and resources: Certificates usually consist of five or six courses, but can be more or less depending on the program and curriculum. The CEW study found that "certificates almost always take less than two years to complete, and more than half take less than one year." Costs vary, as they do with all other academic programs, and the per-credit cost may still be the same for a course that is offered as part of related certificate and degree programs. Fewer courses, however, may mean less tuition overall.
  • Finding convenience and flexibility: Through an online or blended program you will complete course requirements via the Internet. This makes certificate programs attractive for some of the same reasons students choose online degree programs – any where, any time access.

Before You Apply

Is a certificate program right for you? Conduct your own self-assessment and additional research to answer the following questions:

  • What are your education and career goals? Field of study and potential for earnings vary widely. Know the trends in your industry, and employers' expectations and acceptance of certificates, before committing to a program. While many are focused on work and career related outcomes, there may be a topic you are interested in learning for learning's sake. Include non-credit options in your search.
  • What are the program outcomes? Do you need a certificate or certification? These terms are sometimes uses synonymously, but from academic and employment perspectives are very different. Certification requires additional assessment or testing, and a certificate program may help you prepare for certification, but this isn't always the case.
  • Are the school and/or program accredited? Also ask school representatives for additional information about accreditation that may impact how marketable their certificates are. How have their certificate graduates fared on the job market? The New York Times profiled certificates late last year and shared several examples of the importance of accreditation in an ultrasound technology certificate program, and American Bar Association approval for paralegal programs.
  • What are your options? With so many students enrolling in certificate programs, there are more and more choices available. Identify multiple schools and programs that are offering certificates in your field of interest. Compare your options in terms of affordability, accreditation, marketability, academic preparation, support services, and program requirements.

I have to admit that I do think about pursing additional certificates. Over the years I've considered programs related to project management, web design, and multimedia development to boost my skills as my employment changed. With so many specific fields of study available, finding an interesting program isn't a difficult task. As you think about the options, remember to focus on your future goals, and do your research to make an informed decision.

Have you been an online certificate student? Your experiences and advice could be very helpful to our readers. Consider adding your input through the comments area of this post.

Image credit: Enokson, Flickr, CC-BY