What are the differences between certificate programs, certifications and licenses


    Increasingly, people are deciding to enroll in certificate programs, gaining certifications, and applying for licensure to acquire the knowledge, skills, qualifications, and legal requirements needed to apply for a new position or for a promotion. There is a multitude of continuing education programs that vary in the professional development opportunities they offer. Deciding on the right program to meet your career goals demands time spent researching the options available. This article covers what you need to know about certificates, certifications, and licenses.

    The difference between certificate programs, certification, and licenses

    To decide which continuing education option is best for you, it’s important to understand the differences between them. Here’s a breakdown of the key elements of each.


    Often the most accessible of continuing education options, certificates are relatively short education programs that typically span between 3 and 9 months. This is significantly shorter than the 2 year average duration of associate degrees.

    Certificate programs are among the most affordable options and have high completion rates compared to conventional degree programs. These programs are often provided by colleges, and usually comprise specialized education and training for a specific field of work or job type.

    Common examples of certificate programs include marketing and accounting. Such programs often prepare students for certification exams and/or licensure.


    For particular jobs, a certification can be a necessary hiring credential. Certifications include an accompanying exam provided by private organizations. Passing this exam leads to credentialing. MBO Partners, a company which provides talent to the federal government and more than 30 Fortune 100 companies, emphasize the importance of such credentials: “Certifications can differentiate you from other professionals in your field, showing that you have a demonstrated commitment to understanding and excelling in your profession. This can give you an advantage, which is particularly important in today’s competitive market.”

    Some common examples of certifications include certified public accountant (CPA) certification and C/++ programming certifications.


    While certificates help you acquire the education you need, and certifications provide evidence that you have met 3rd-party standards, licenses are a form of government-provided verification. In addition to education, you may also be required to accrue a specified number of supervised working hours.

    Usually discipline-based and requiring an undergraduate or graduate degree, a license legally allows you to perform a specific job in a particular location. Typically, such licenses are mandated in their fields. Licenses are unique because they are not stand-alone credentials. Rather, licensing comes after training programs, degrees, certificates, and certification programs.

    Some common examples of licenses include:

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    Common paths to certificate programs and certification

    Due to the skills gap created by the evolving business landscape, certificate programs and certifications are increasingly sought-after credentials. Due to their short duration and specialized nature, many people are bypassing conventional degrees and earning certificates and certifications instead. This is especially true in booming fields like healthcare, plumbing, and real estate.

    Because they’re in such great demand by employers and employees alike, new certificate and certification programs continue to emerge.

    Because they’re in such great demand by employers and employees alike, new certificate and certification programs continue to emerge. Once the domain of community colleges and vocational schools, these credentials are now offered by some 4-year universities.

    If you’re already enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program, you may have the option to earn a certificate or certification as part of your course of study. This is especially common in business, where certificates and certifications are an opportunity for specialization, such as accounting or another sub-specialty of the field.

    A further option is to follow up your bachelor’s or master’s degree program with a certificate program, certification, or license.

    In some cases, the purpose of this may be to acquire skills and credentials to advance your career or help you gain an edge in the competitive job market. In others, it can be a hiring requirement. Healthcare and engineering positions, as well as trades, frequently fall into this latter category.

    What kinds of certificate courses and certifications are available?

    Certificate programs and certifications are especially common in fields where specific knowledge and skills are needed to successfully perform the roles and responsibilities of a particular job.

    Common certificate programs offered by colleges include:

    • cosmetology
    • phlebotomy
    • emergency medical technician (EMT)
    • firefighting

    For example, if you’re interested in taking a relatively quick path into an in-demand healthcare career, becoming a medical assistant could be an excellent choice. This certificate program provides the skills and experience you need to work as a medical assistant and may include an externship where you can obtain requisite hands-on experience.

    A medical assistant certificate program can prepare you for certification from the appropriate credentialing agencies and to sit the NRCMA exam.

    Common certification courses offered by colleges include:

    • Air Traffic Controller (ATC), credentialed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
    • Project Management Professional (PMP), credentialed by the Project Management Institute (PMI)
    • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), credentialed by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)
    • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), credentialed by the National Association of Practical Nurse Education and Services (NAPNES)
    • Certified Public Accountant (CPA), credentialed by state boards of accountancy

    Why get a certificate or certification?

    Today, higher education is undergoing massive disruption. Real skills are in high demand and associate and bachelor’s degrees are no longer regarded as the only route to employment. Certificate programs and certification programs can also uniquely complement higher education degrees.

    Here are some reasons why a certificate or certification may be right for you:

    • You want to be more employable. Certificates and certification programs can help ensure you have the specific skills and training you need. They also provide evidence of your credentials.
    • You want to elevate your career. If you’re already working in your desired field and want to advance or specialize, a certificate in a micro-specialization can qualify you for new opportunities and position you for success in the job market.
    • You want to change careers. If you’ve already got a degree, a credential can help you acquire the skills and training you need to change course.
    • You want to pursue an academic passion. There are other factors to consider besides money. If you’ve always wanted to learn more about a particular topic, a certificate program can help you do so.

    In comparison to traditional degrees, the lower cost of certificate programs and other alternatives is also a major selling point. The skyrocketing cost of higher education and growing problems related to student loans are further pushing the popularity of certificate programs over degree programs.

    In an editorial for Forbes, investor Ginger Dean asserts, “Regardless of which type of certificate you pursue, there’s a good chance that it will lead to higher pay and more opportunities. In general, when you earn a certificate, you can expect anywhere from a 13 to 25% boost in your annual salary. And given that they require fewer courses to complete, most people can complete a certificate program in under a year.”

    Another reason that may make certificate programs appealing to working professionals and people with other time-consuming obligations.

    In this ever-changing landscape, many ambitious and enterprising jobseekers are taking advantage of new ways to get the skills and training they need.

    The job market is not the same today as it was 50, 25, or even 5 years ago. In this ever-changing landscape, many ambitious and enterprising jobseekers are taking advantage of new ways to get the skills and training they need.

    If you’re looking to join them in strategically transforming your own career, a certificate program and/or certification may be right for you, while a license may be a basic requirement.

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