January 18, 2018

Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees: What’s the Difference?

Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees - Photo copyright Rick Sherrell

Would you like to continue your education, but you’re not sure where to start? When people talk about “going back to school” it doesn’t have to be for a four-year degree. There are certificates, diplomas, degrees and even individual courses veterans and other mature students find enriches their lives and helps them on their career paths. But what’s the difference between these options? Read on to find out.


Students are awarded certificates for a short- or medium-term vocational program. These programs usually focus on a specific skill and are practical in nature. Some programs might be only a day or a weekend, while others might take a year or more to finish, depending on the complexity of the topic you study and the level of expertise you gain when studying for the certificate.

Scholarships for veterans and other financial aid can be applied to most certificate courses and the courses for diplomas and degrees, but if a certification course is very short or isn’t recognized by the proper authorities, then you may not be able to apply your aid money to it. Check with the admissions people at the school about your individual situation before applying. However, since certification courses are usually less expensive than diploma or degree courses, financial aid might not be as important a consideration.

People often take certification courses to supplement other diplomas or degrees. For example, job seekers may earn computer certifications to make themselves more attractive to potential employers. Or, people wishing to change careers might take a certification course in a subject related to their new field to see if they like it before making the switch official.

Often, certificates are awarded in stages, so to finish the requirements for a certain line of work you may need to earn several certificates, one after another. Other times, certificates expire after a specific date, and you’ll need to retake certain tests or courses to renew them. Many first aid courses’ certificates, for example, will expire. To keep first aid responders at their top skill level, the certificates limit validity so people will get ongoing training and keep up with the latest techniques for saving lives.


Like certificates, diplomas are usually thought to be more specific and practical than degree programs, which can be more concerned with theory. However, diploma courses are often — but not always — longer than certification courses. Some schools or training institutions use “certification” and “diploma” interchangeably, but most do not. The word “diploma” can also refer to the piece of paper that proves you have earned a university degree, so it’s best to be very clear about what kind of qualification you’re earning before you enroll at a school. Ask the admissions officer if you are uncertain.

In the field of health care, it’s common for nurses and other health care professionals to seek two-year diplomas. These are often a mix of theory and practice, and may be offered as specialties for certain areas of medicine.

If you’re thinking of enrolling in a diploma program, it’s worth checking out to see if any of the credits from your program will be transferrable to a degree program later, if you so choose. This is often the case and can be helpful in your long-term planning.


Degree programs are what you commonly find at community colleges and universities. They are typically two- or four-year programs made up of multiple courses covering a variety of subjects. In the United States, most degree programs require students to earn a broad base of knowledge surrounding their specialty, which is called a “major.” So, when someone studies for a bachelor’s degree in economics, they’re really studying a number of subjects over the course of four years, with an emphasis on economics. Many students also add a “minor” or secondary emphasis. It’s common for students to pick minors and majors that go together — a major in marketing with a minor in communications, for example — but this isn’t absolute. Of the three kinds of programs, degree programs are almost always the most expensive because they take the most time. They also provide a broader foundation for students and greater flexibility of employment after graduation.

About the Author: Debra Sorenson works in the admissions office of a community college in New England. She blogs about gardening and continuing education, and teaches a certification course to seniors on first aid.

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