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When high school graduates are considering the next step, usually earning a bachelor's degree or backpacking throughout Europe or Asia comes to mind. And while those are both fine plans, there's another option that often goes overlooked: certificates.

According to the U.S. News & World Report, certificate programs are "mini-degrees" that often focus on "developing a particular skill or furthering knowledge in a more specific area." These programs generally take under a year, according to a report out of Georgetown University, though some can take as long as three years (like a few at UCLA Extension). And they're offered both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Here are some reasons -- and ways -- to earn a certificate.

Why Get a Certification?

There are many reasons to pursue a certificate. According to Berklee Online Vice President of Online Learning & Continuing Education Debbie Cavalier, certificates can help enable a career change, further the knowledge of someone who already has a degree or simply be a resume builder.

"I think certificates represent a knowledge-base that puts you at a competitive advantage to have more opportunities to earn a better income," Cavalier said.

In general, people earn more with some college (including certificates) than just a high school diploma. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2015, people 25 and older earned $73 more a week than those with merely a high school diploma ($741 versus $668).

Many employers also prefer someone with certification, even in careers that don't always require it. That's the case with medical transcriptionists, where having a certificate gives candidates an edge and is very desirable. For other careers, earning a certificate can make you qualified, such as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). And then there are careers where having a certificate versus not having a certificate may earn you more money. That's the case with project managers in construction, who, according to PayScale, on average earn a median hourly wage of $24.00 and with a certificate earn a median hourly wage of $26.31.

How to Enroll in an Online Certificate Program?

Enrolling in an online certificate program is often a similar process as enrolling in an on-campus certificate program.

While students will save money on gas and parking by earning a certificate online, the average costs of both programs are combined in the same data. According to a report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, the average annual cost of certificate programs at public community colleges is $6,780 (versus $19,635 at for-profit colleges).

Enrollment (including cost) varies by program. For example: Enrolling in an online certificate program in leadership in enrollment management at University of Southern California (USC) requires just an application (including basic information, a personal statement, a resume and a letter of recommendation). Compare that to the on-campus certificate program in energy conservation at Community College of Philadelphia -- which requires an application and a placement exam.

What's the Difference Between Online and Campus-based Certificates?

There are a lot of both similarities and differences between online and campus-based certificates.

According to an article on the USC Davis School of Gerontology website, the main similarities are:

  • Course content
  • Time investment
  • Degree of contact with peers and professors

And the main difference, according to the article, is when you "attend" class. Online programs enable flexibility, whereas on-campus programs typically require students to be at a certain place at a certain time.

Cavalier, who studied at both Berklee College and Berklee Online before working there, said the songwriting courses are very similar online as they are on campus. The main difference was that in the online course, she received more feedback on her work than the on-campus course, where more feedback was being crammed in for students each two-hour class.

The format is the main difference between online and campus-based certificates. Online courses may include video lectures and posting in discussion forums, whereas on-campus programs often won't. Otherwise, the requirements and course-load seem to be largely similar between various programs of both formats.

Does Location Matter for an Online Certificate?

According to 2015 data from The Learning House, 65 percent of online students live within 100 miles of their institution. While that may enable the occasional in-person meeting with faculty or fellow students, it's not necessary for most online certificate programs.

"Online programs are a wonderful option for those who can't be a full-time student on campus," Cavalier said.

There are, however, some online certificate programs (referred to as "hybrid programs") that require some on-campus visits. These programs greatly vary in how often you have to be on campus. For example: The University of Arizona's hybrid administrative certification program requires "several classroom meetings" throughout the semester, whereas UC Berkeley Extension's certificate program in paralegal studies allows students to take as many on-campus classes as they want (if any).

What Industries Does Online Education Serve?

According to the most recent data by National Center for Education Statistics (NECS), as reported by the BLS, the most popular disciplines for certificate programs are health care, personal and culinary services, and mechanic and repair technologies and technicians.

Cavalier said in her roles as an active member in the University Professional & Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), she's seen especially wonderful things happening in certificates for health care, business, professional development and executive education. She also mentioned the growing need for certificates in data analytics and cybersecurity.

So, the quicker question to answer is: What industries does online education NOT serve?


  • "Choose Between an Online Graduate Certificate, Degree Program," U.S. News & World Report, Jordan Friedman, October 29, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/10/29/choose-between-an-online-graduate-certificate-degree-program
  • "Career and Technical Education," Georgetown University, September 2012, https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/jd4r0nwvjtq12g1olx8v
  • "How long does it take to complete a certificate program?", UCLA Extension, http://entertainment.uclaextension.edu/faqs/how-long-does-it-take-to-complete-a-certificate-program
  • Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/: Medical Transcriptionists, EMTs and Paramedics
  • Hourly Rate for Certification: Project Management Certificate, PayScale, http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Certification=Project_Management_Certificate/Hourly_Rate
  • Project Manager, Construction Salary (United States), PayScale, http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Project_Manager,_Construction/Salary
  • "Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees," Georgetown University, June 2012, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Certificates.FullReport.061812.pdf
  • Application & Deadlines, Center for Enrollment, Research, Policy, and Practice, University of Southern California, https://cerpp.usc.edu/certificate-program/apply/
  • Energy Conservation Academic Certificate, Community College of Philadelphia, http://www.ccp.edu/college-catalog/degree-and-certificate-programs/academic-certificates/energy-conservation-academic
  • "A Comparison of Online and On-Campus Learning," USC Davis School of Gerontology, University of Southern California, http://gerontology.usc.edu/students/what-to-expect-in-online-learning/
  • "Online College Students 2015," The Learning House, http://www.learninghouse.com/ocs2015-report/?utm_source=2015_7_Ed_Dive&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=&utm_campaign=OCS_2015
  • Hybrid Administrative Certification Program, The University of Arizona, https://www.coe.arizona.edu/epsp/edl_certonly
  • Certificate Program in Paralegal Studies, UC Berkeley Extension, http://extension.berkeley.edu/cert/paralegal.html
  • "Certificates: A Fast Track to Careers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, winter 2012, http://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2012/winter/art01.pdf

Online Certificate Programs