Choose Between an Online Graduate Certificate, Degree Program

Adults should consider cost and career goals when making the decision.
Those pursuing online certificates as opposed to online degrees typically seek a quicker return on their investment, says one expert. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
When it comes to making a decision about graduate online education, many may wonder whether to select a certificate or degree program.
Online certificates, which typically take a year or less to complete, often focus on developing a particular skill or furthering knowledge in a more specific area, experts say. For instance, somebody with a bachelor’s degree in education might pursue a certificate in administration and supervision, as is offered at the University of Phoenix.
In contrast to certificates, online degree programs are “going to be broader,” says Vickie Cook, the director of the University of Illinois—Springfield‘s Center for Online Learning, Research and Service.
Degrees “will have skills embedded into the curriculum and will introduce students to a broader approach to their field of study,” Cook says. “In many cases, it may introduce them to skills not specific to a particular career – more transferable skills like writing, advanced reading and critical thinking.”
So, how do adults decide between pursuing an online degree versus an online certificate? Experts point to a number of factors that can influence the decision.
1. Career Goals: Career aspirations are a key to making the decision.
Those who pursue online certificates as opposed to online degrees are typically seeking an immediate return on investment, says Robert Hansen​, CEO of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.
“They want a short-term, targeted educational experience that gives them certain skills,” he says. “In general, they are interested in a quick promotion or getting another job. The bottom line for them is career advancement.”
Lou Chitkushev,​ the associate ​dean for academic affairs at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, which offers online and blended learning, notes that those who pursue certificates are oftentimes career changers. As an example, he points to people who first pursue computer science or programming but then want to focus more specifically on health informatics.
“I would say the master’s degree will give you the needed requirements for career advancements, ​and certificates will give you a credential which states your expertise in a focused area of interest,” he says.
2. Time: Online certificates also usually take fewer years to earn than online degrees, experts say, making a person’s available time another major factor in determining which to pursue.
Robbie Melton, the associate vice chancellor of mobilization and emerging technology ​for the Tennessee Board of Regents​, says certificate programs typically don’t last more than a year, while degree programs can take a few years or more to finish.
Melton herself has earned seven certificates, all within the field of teaching. Each took less than a year to complete and allowed her to specialize in areas such as special education, counseling and diversity.
“You’re in the same area, but it’s just the advancement of that content and more research,” Melton says.
According to Chitkushev​, certificate programs usually consist of four to six courses. Degrees can require eight to 12 courses or more.
3. Cost: Online certificates and degrees generally differ in cost as well. Because online certificate programs are shorter than degree programs and many certificate programs consist of noncredit courses, they’re usually cheaper.
For instance, an online nurse administrator or nurse educator certificate at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus ​would cost around $7,000, while an online nursing graduate degree would cost around $29,000, according to the school’s website.
Cook says that it’s very important to compare the costs of online certificate and degree programs, and to align those costs with your ultimate career goals.
Chitkushev, with Boston University, agrees. “With certificates, you have to pay a fraction of the price, but on the other hand you get a fraction of the credential,” he says.
4. Employer financial support: Chitkushev says that traditionally, employers were more inclined to financially support employees who were pursuing an online degree rather than individual courses. But that may be changing with the growing popularity of the certificate, he says.
“Both employees and employers are looking for a faster way of acquiring specific skills and online certificates can provide that,” he says. “At the same time, they are not like separate individual courses but require students to be admitted and matriculated.”
Whether an employer will be more willing to financially support you in earning an online certificate versus degree will largely depend upon the field you’re in, Cook, with University of Illinois—Springfield, says. In business, for example, you would usually be encouraged to enroll in a Master of Business Administration program rather than a certificate, unless you wish to pursue a certificate in a highly specialized area like human resources.
“I think of it more in terms of scaffolding,” Cook says. “The employee might first earn a certification, and then later add courses needed to meet the degree requirements.”
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.