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Online Certificate & Diploma Programs

Over the past decade, advances in technology have helped make online education an increasingly popular option for students. And you’re here, then you are looking

for options for online programs! You may already be familiar with some of the different degree options offered: Associates degrees, Bachelors degrees and so on. It is possible that you may not be aware of another less familiar option for education: Online Certificate Programs. So what is an Online Certificate Program? And what makes pursuing a certificate different from pursuing a degree? Well, let’s start with some of the basics. 

Certificate vs. Certification

Not all certificates will end with earning a certification! A certificate is typically an educational program developed by a school. It is usually geared towards a specific subject. A certification is an industry credential. It usually will require re-certification from time to time. Some individuals may pursue a certification after earning a certificate. For example, after completing a medical assisting program, a student may test to become a Certified Medical Assistant. A certification offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants.

Topping off the confusion, colleges and universities frequently offer 2 different kinds of certificate programs: for credit certificate programs and non-credit certificate programs. Some subjects — like Project Management, for example — can be studied within both kinds of programs.

Below are some general facts about both non-credit certificate programs and for credit certificate programs. Remember, the various options aren't "better" or "worse." They just benefit different people in different ways. If you have specific questions about your education, the best idea is always to contact an admissions counselor at the school you are considering.

Credit vs Non Credit Certificates


  • Both types award students with a certificate after successful completion of the program
  • Both can be delivered online or on campus, and both come in varying timeframes
  • Some subjects are offered in both formats (Project Management, for example)
  • In some cases, both can qualify students to take national or professional certification exams



For Credit Certificate Programs

  • Students usually receive a grade for each class (A-F)
  • Students receive college credits for each class that can be used towards a degree, if they choose
  • Classes may cost more than Non Credit classes taken through the Continuing Ed. Dept.
  • Classes may last as long as a traditional semester class (about 16 weeks)
  • Instructors may have higher credentials than non credit course adjuncts or lecturers
  • Course content may involve more theoretical learning than applied, or "hands on" learning

Non Credit Certificate Programs

  • Students do not receive college credits for each class, which means classes cannot be counted towards a degree
  • However, students may receive CEUs, or Continuing Education Units, which may be used to fulfill some professional requirement
  • Classes are usually taken through a department called Continuing Education, Continuing Studies, or Professional Studies

Online Certificate Programs vs. Degrees – What’s the Big Difference?

Online certificate programs are usually more specialized and do not provide a broad overview of a field of study. For instance, you may pursue a certificate in software engineering, but the certificate will not go into the broader aspects of computer science. For this reason online certificates may be pursued by professionals already in a particular field who would like to become more knowledgeable about a particular area of their work. Following the previous example, an information technology specialist who already has a broad knowledge of computers may want to earn earn a software engineering certificate to enhance his career.

,At the same time degree seeking students may earn a certificate (online or otherwise) by taking similar courses covering a narrow subject matter. Online certificate programs are generally less time consuming than degree programs because a general overview of the field is not required.

Generally, the biggest difference between Online Certificate Programs and Degree Programs is the amount of time they may require to complete. While it is not a hard and fast rule, some certificates may be earned by taking as few as three or as many as ten courses[ii]. By comparison, Associates Degree Programs might take more than 30 courses to earn the required amount of credits for graduation. 

Even though it may take fewer courses to earn a Certificate doesn’t mean that these programs are potentially any less challenging or demanding than some Degree Programs. Often Certificate Programs focus on very high-level subjects, and students may need a Master’s Degree in order to enroll.  Others, may be available to  students who are in the process of earning a degree. 

Certificate Programs VS Diploma Programs

Online diploma programs do contain the more general overview of a particular field. They are lengthier and more in-depth compared to certificate programs, but typically not as long as an associates degree program. Diplomas are often pursued by individuals after high school to obtain the education that may be needed to pursue an entry level profession. They are also sought by current professionals looking to pursue a career switch.

Online Certificate Programs tend to be aimed at those seeking to enhance, rather than jumpstart, their career. Some programs might even require their students to already be working in a certain job. For example, some Education Certificate Programs require students to already have a teaching license and regular access to a classroom[vi]. All programs  may not be so demanding, but  some may require you have earned a few credits in a related field. [iii]

Potential Coursework for Online Certificate Programs

Earning an online certificate provides a convenient, flexible way to learn. Though, the rigors of the coursework are certainly no less and no easier than the traditional classroom experience. Students can expect to spend approximately two and a half hours each week corresponding with instructors and classmates, as well as working on assignments. A range of portable media are used in online certificate programs, such as videos, podcasts, and ebooks. Legitimate, accredited academic institutions offering these programs have been evaluated by either a national or regional accreditation agency. Every accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) conducts a regular review of faculty, curricula, and administrative practices to ensure that schools uphold certain educational standards.

Enrollment into an online certificate program varies by level and topic of study. Schools offering online certificates and diplomas also vary in their course requirements, such as class schedules, assignment deadlines, and classroom participation.

When looking into earning an Online Certificate Program, you may also want to investigate the specific outcomes available from each program. Some programs, in addition to offering a certificate upon successful completion, may also provide credits to students. In certain cases, these credits might be able to be applied towards earning a degree[ix]. Of course, these situations vary between schools and certificates, so you should request information from the school regarding the exact program you’re interested in.

Another possible outcome upon successful completion of a Certificate Program is that it might make you eligible to earn a national or professional certification. In these cases, courses may be designed to prepare you for exams for various organizations. 

Just because an Online Certificate Program may not offer credits or possibly eligibility for certification exams, though, doesn’t mean it may not be useful. These types of programs may offer the potential to enhance your career by sharpening specific skills or honing your expertise in an area of focus. 

Choosing the Perfect Online Program for You

So now that you may have gotten some of the basics of Online Certificate Programs down, you’re probably interested in finding one that might help enhance your career and education. The good news is that online certificates are typically available in a wide range of concentrations ranging anywhere from Business to Education. Since the focus of certificates  may often be so specific, there could be  a ton of possibilities!

Taking the Leap

Whether you think you’re looking for the primer offered by a Diploma Program, the specific focus of a Certificate Program, or the full scope of a Degree Program, get started by checking out the listings on!

[i] [i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi] [vii]