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What is a Certificate or Diploma? | A GetEducated Guide

Certificate and Diploma icons hover in air over a laptop

These days, the vast number of online educational programs presents a challenge for students who want further their education. On top of that, many programs use various names for their awards, such as diplomas, degrees, etc. You might stumble upon a nursing diploma, a nursing degree, and a nursing certificate — what gives?

Today, let’s answer one of the most common questions online students ask: what is a certificate or diploma? We’ll also break down the similarities and differences between these award types. By the end, you’ll know exactly which course of study you should pursue and why you might acquire a certificate or diploma in the first place.

Certificates Explained

A certificate is an award received for completing a certificate program — easy enough to remember! These are post-secondary programs, meaning that you take them after high school. Typically, certificates require from a few months to a few years of study.

In many cases, certificate programs only include one or two classes, often offered part-time. Due to their flexibility and short time requirements, certificate programs are popular educational pathways for online learners.

Some people take certificates to advance within their professions. Others take certificate programs to enter a new trade or profession such as plumbing, carpentry, and more.

Most certificates revolve around the study of a single topic or specialty. For example, an IT worker may take a certificate class to become proficient in a new programming language. Students can collect as many certificates as they like without the need to pursue an additional program or degree pathway.

Additionally, certificates are available both at the post-secondary (after high school) and postgraduate (after a bachelor’s degree) levels.

In some cases, individuals with graduate degrees may not wish to take yet another full degree program. They can pursue certificate programs to add to their skills and boost their credentials.

Certificate Examples

Diplomas Explained

Diploma programs confer diplomas through a post-secondary program similar to certificate programs. However, diploma programs typically require more time and effort than certificate programs.

In most cases, you will find diploma programs offered by colleges (such as community colleges or online schools), technical or trade schools, and so on. Some universities may offer diplomas, although universities more frequently offer certificates or degree programs instead.

Think of diploma programs as lengthier than most certificate programs but shorter than a typical four-year college degree program. Diplomas are often required to enter a specific type of work, like nursing or certain types of medical positions.

Diplomas frequently take between one and two years to complete, though some are shorter and some are longer. Many diplomas require the fulfillment of multiple courses. Depending on the diploma program, your course of study might entail some in-person work.

In general, diploma programs cater to the pursuit of knowledge focused on a particular career. Additionally, many diploma program class credits count towards a degree program in a similar field.

High school graduates receive a high school diploma. But this diploma differs from a post-secondary diploma, which involves completing a college program.

Related Resource: Exhaustive Guide: Online High School Diploma for Adults

Diploma Program Examples

The Difference Between Certificates and Diplomas

As you can see, certificates and diplomas carry many similarities between them. However, they also have several notable differences that can help you choose between the educational pathway best suited to your needs.


For starters, certificates and diplomas vary heavily in terms of time requirements. Generally, certificate programs are shorter than diploma programs.

Certificate programs typically take anywhere between three months and three years to complete. Many take only a few months from start to finish to receive your certificate.

In contrast, diploma programs take between one and three years to complete. Some common diploma programs, such as nursing or accounting, take up to two years to complete.

Depending on prior experience and certificates, students may shorten the time requirements for their diploma by a few months with transferable credits. Diploma programs are often available for part-time students in both in-person and online contexts.


The time differences directly affect the cost between diplomas and certificates. Because certificate programs are shorter, they almost always cost less than diplomas. However, this may not necessarily be true on a class-by-class basis.

For example, a single class needed to complete a certificate program may be more expensive than a single class included in a diploma program. But in aggregate, the diploma program will still be more costly than the certificate program due to more coursework.

When you choose between certificates or diplomas, consider financial aid options as well. Because diplomas are longer educational journeys, students have more financial aid options. It’s usually more difficult to acquire financial assistance to take a certificate program, though it is not impossible.

Rigor/Academic Intensity

Both certificates and diplomas teach their students something new. But they can vary in terms of their academic intensity and subject load.

Because they are more extended and in-depth, diploma programs typically include more academic intensity. The rigor of a certificate depends on the class(es) required. Accredited and qualified diploma programs are every bit as rigorous as college degree programs.

In addition, many diploma programs require in-person attendance or practical experience before graduation. For example, a nursing diploma program will usually require graduates to work a certain number of hours before receiving the diploma.

On top of that, diploma programs usually require one or more exams or tests to be completed. For example, to become an accountant, the student must complete a diploma program. Then they must take an exam for licensure to practice accounting in their state.

Certificates also require a final exam or test after the program of study. But these tests usually just cover the material presented through the coursework. They do not necessarily prepare students to open a practice or start a new profession. They do not lead to licensure.

Employment Opportunities

Certificates and diplomas open up different employment opportunities. Generally speaking, certificates allow professionals to rise in their current industry or qualify for higher-paying positions. On the other hand, diplomas will enable you to start a new profession or enter a new sector.

For example, an IT (information technology) specialist may wish to acquire a higher-paid position at their company. They take a certificate program to become fluent in another programming language. This qualifies them for the promotion, and they receive a pay bump as a result.

In another example, a fast-food burger flipper decides to become a nurse. They take a nursing diploma program to qualify for nursing positions in their state. They leave their burger-flipping job and enter an entirely new profession upon completion of their diploma.

Therefore, choosing between online certificates or diploma programs should be easy, depending on your professional goals. Do you want to stay in your industry or broad profession but qualify for higher-paying positions? Try a certificate program.

Do you want to try a new industry or shift your career trajectory? A diploma program may be a better choice, especially if a university degree program is on the horizon.

Reasons to Get a Certificate

Not sure whether a certificate program is right for you? There are many reasons why certificate programs are excellent educational avenues for millions of students just like you.

New Employment Position Options

As noted above, certificates can open up new choices for you without the need to take a lot of time off work or change positions entirely. Say that you’re a manager at a firm but want to take on increased business responsibilities. You can’t take time off work to complete a master’s degree.

However, you might be able to simply take a certificate program to qualify for increased management responsibilities. In this way, you can complete the certificate quickly, get the pay raise you’re looking for, and become more knowledgeable about your field at the same time.

Higher Wages

Many people pursue certificate programs precisely for the wage increases that often follow. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that people with just one certificate earn roughly 32% more than those without.

Professional Growth

Even if you don’t think a pay bump is on your horizon, a certificate program could be a good idea. By taking a certificate program in your field and acquiring that certificate, you’ll improve your professional skills and knowledge.

Subject Exploration

If you’re interested in new subjects, techniques, or technologies in your industry, a certificate could be just the ticket. For instance, a data scientist may wish to take a certificate program to learn about a new statistical analysis method.

While this could benefit their career trajectory later down the road, the primary benefit is academic or personal knowledge acquisition.

Reasons to Get a Diploma

There are plenty of good reasons to pursue a diploma program if a certificate isn’t the right choice.

Enter a New Job Field

Diploma programs move people into new job fields or positions without the need for an entire course of study, such as a bachelor’s degree. Once more, a nursing diploma exemplifies the value of this educational award. You don’t have to have a college degree to become a nurse (although you do need one to become a registered nurse (RN)). A diploma program suffices to start your career in nursing and get you on the right track.

Diploma programs are beneficial in this way as they have lower cost and time requirements than full university degree programs. On top of that, many diploma programs are easier to complete on a part-time basis.

Qualify for a Higher Position

Let’s return to nursing for yet another example. If you wish to acquire more nursing responsibilities, you can take a diploma program to increase your qualifications. Later, you can transfer your coursework from the diploma program into university credits if you choose to pursue a degree.

All the while, the diploma program provides:

  • Additional experience and knowledge
  • A credential to add to your qualifications
  • Potentially higher pay rate

Prepare for a University Degree Program

Many individuals take diploma programs specifically to prepare for a university degree program. If you want to become an RN, a diploma program will give you a headstart on many of the credits you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Once you complete the diploma program, you can work as a nurse for a while to save money for your university program. Once you have the funds, you can then complete your bachelor’s degree in nursing in two years or less.

Even beyond the time and money saved, the diploma program can be valuable in other ways. Diploma programs introduce students to many topics taught in university degree programs.

Suppose you’re unsure about the academic difficulty or subject matter in a degree program. In that case, a diploma program could be a great way to try things out.

Are There Online Certificate and Diploma Programs?

Yes! In fact, many students choose an online certificate and degree program for the part-time course of study or the flexibility that online courses offer.

Online certificate and degree programs hold value because:

  • Many institutions offer courses asynchronously. Asynchronous programs don’t require you to view lecture materials at the same time as other students. You can complete these programs at your own pace, an ideal situation for working students.
  • They don’t require you to commute or leave your hometown. Again, this can be great for individuals with family or other responsibilities.
  • They allow you to attend the university of your dreams even if you can’t move to that state.

In addition, online certificate and diploma programs can be just as rigorous and high quality as in-person, brick-and-mortar programs. Just make sure that you select an accredited diploma or credential program.

As with in-person college programs, accreditation is everything. Accredited programs mean that class materials have been reviewed by an unbiased third party. An accredited certificate or diploma program shows you have the level of competency employers have come to expect from that program.

Some online programs are also available full-time. These attract those who want to attend a university but don’t want to move across the country. In some cases, online programs can be more affordable than their on-campus counterparts.

Keep in mind that many online certificate and degree programs still require some in-person attendance. For example, suppose you are pursuing a medical diploma. In that case, you may be required to complete in-person hours at a local clinic.

Certificates vs. Diplomas vs. Degrees

If certificates and diplomas prepare you for new positions or new industries, respectively, what do degrees do?

University degrees are also educational awards that require a more extended academic course/program, typically between two and six years. There are four main types of degrees: associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees.

  • Associate degrees are two-year degrees similar to many diploma programs. However, associate degrees often roll into bachelor’s degrees in the same field or subject. For instance, you can pursue an associate’s degree in biology. Then you can progress to a bachelor’s degree in biology as the credits from the associate’s degree count towards your total required credits.
  • Bachelor’s degrees are four-year degrees that provide a more robust and complete education. A bachelor’s degree confers students with a high level of knowledge in a field, though not at a graduate degree level. Many technical or skilled positions require bachelor’s degrees these days.
  • Master’s degrees can take two or more years from start to finish after your bachelor’s degree. Many master’s degree programs include an accelerated track. Such a program allows you to complete both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years.
  • Doctoral degrees deliver complete mastery of a field or industry. Medical doctors require doctoral degrees, as do professors. A doctoral degree can take up to 10 years or more to complete from the start of your college learning.

College degrees confer specific knowledge to prepare students to enter a highly technical industry or a particular field. For instance, you can’t become an engineer without an engineering degree.

Once you are an engineer, you can take a certificate or diploma program to increase your skills. Or you could opt for a certificate program to improve your qualifications for a higher position.


Which type of educational award is best for employment?

That depends on your employment goals. Generally, a college degree is best for increasing your chances of employment in technical fields.

However, a certificate or diploma can still be an outstanding award to pursue. They qualify you for employment in a specific industry or position.

Some positions require candidates to complete a certificate program to be considered regardless of their college experience. With the lower tier award, you can explore a career path without the commitment required for a degree program.

Do college degree programs include diplomas?

Not usually. However, some online degree programs and diploma programs include classes that are shared between them. In this way, some students can cut down on the time spent in a college program by taking a diploma program first.

Is it better to take a certificate or diploma program online?

It depends on your goals and needs. Many students find online certificate and diploma programs to be convenient and budget-friendly. They allow you to juggle multiple responsibilities while completing your education.

Are graduate-level certificate programs worth it?

Absolutely! Graduate-level certificate programs can maximize your knowledge in your field and ensure you stay relevant as the years pass. Depending on your place of employment, you may be required to complete a certificate program from time to time.

This is similar to the continuing education credits required in many medical professions. Even if not a requirement in your field, a certificate program could improve your pay and provide other benefits.

Related Resource: What is a Graduate Certificate? All You Need to Know.

Wrap Up

You can set yourself up for success with either a certificate or a diploma. Such vital educational pursuits can have many benefits. Luckily, high-quality universities offer accredited certificate and diploma programs online.

You can quickly check out the best online universities to acquire a certificate or complete an online diploma program using GetEducated’s databases. Check out our extensive resources and start your journey to a better career today.

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