Differences between certificate and degree programs

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Is a certificate program or degree program right for you?

It may seem like your only paths after high school are to go to a traditional two- or four-year school or go straight into the workforce—but nope! Have you ever heard of certificate programs? It’s another option to get some professional credentials and land a job. Find out whether a certificate or degree program is the way to go for you.

What are certificate and degree programs?

Certificate programs

Certificate programs allow you to take classes in narrow, focused fields—think computer programming, accounting, education, and more. At the end of your program, you’ll get a certificate (aka, your diploma). Certificates can help you land your first job or learn some new skills if you’re looking to switch careers.

Degree programs

In a traditional college or university degree program, you take a mix of general education and industry-specific courses to earn your degree. Getting a degree is often seen as your ticket into the workforce, as many jobs require applicants to have one to be considered.

Differences between certificate and degree programs

Length of study

Certificate programs take a shorter amount of time to complete compared to degree programs. Depending on the field of study, certificate programs can take between a few months to two years to complete.footnote 1

Degree programs typically take between two to four years of study before graduation.


Certificate programs tend to be cheaper than degree programs, partly because they don’t take as long to complete. The average certificate program can cost from $50 a month to $6,000.footnote 2 This price varies depending on the field of study. It’s also important to keep in mind that not all certificate programs offer financial aid, so make sure to contact the schools you’re interested in and ask about it before committing.

Degree programs are typically more expensive, costing students and families thousands of dollars a year. In the 2023-24 school year, these are the average costs of college for the following types of schools.footnote 3

  • In-state public schools: $10,662
  • Out-of-state public schools: $23,630
  • Private schools: $42,162

Admissions requirements

Certificate programs are a bit more flexible than degree programs in terms of what you need to get in. A high school diploma is typically all that’s required, but some industries like construction, truck driving, restaurant management, and more may not need them. If you have your diploma (if needed), then you’re free to enroll in the program of your choice.

On the other hand, most degree programs require you to have a high school diploma or GED. You also have to apply to schools and be accepted by them. Applications sometimes have fees, but you may be able to get them waived. Your grades, test scores, activities, essays, and recommendation letters are all factors that determine whether an admissions office will accept you in their school.

What you learn

Certificate programs are focused on one area of study to turn you into a subject matter expert. For example, if you do a cosmetology program, you’ll become a pro at all things hair, skin, makeup, and more. There won’t be any general education classes you’ll need to take—just classes directly related to what you’re earning a certificate in so you can master the skills needed for that specific job.

Degree programs tend to cover a wider scope of topics. Students are typically required to take general education classes, as well as classes related to their major and minor if they have one. They’ll have to complete a certain number of credits in each category of classes to be eligible for graduation.

What you earn

Whether you do a certificate or degree program, you’re going to get something out of it! In exchange for completing a certificate program, you’ll get a certificate that demonstrates your mastery of the subject matter. This can open the doors to jobs that require you to have the certificate.

Similarly, graduating from a degree program will earn you a degree. There are four different degrees you can earn: an associate’s, a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctoral (PhD). 

Pros and cons of certificate programs


  • You can save time and get a certificate in just a few months.
  • You can learn new skills and keep up with trends, which can be attractive to employers.
  • They tend to be less expensive than degree programs, so you can save money.
  • You can tailor your certificate programs to your real-world experiences to solve problems you face in your work.


  • Many certificate programs aren’t accredited, so there may be a variation of content taught and educational standards within certificate programs for the same field of study.
  • They are often considered less valuable than degrees.

Pros and cons of degree programs


  • People with college degrees tend to have greater earning potential on average than those without them.footnote 4
  • There are more higher-level jobs accessible to people with degrees.
  • Degree programs offer life experiences that certificate programs often don’t (campus life, extracurriculars, organizations, studying abroad, etc.).


  • Some companies are beginning to value degrees less—they’d rather find people with the right skills for the job than the degree.footnote 5
  • As degree programs are often more expensive than certificate programs, students often find themselves struggling with student loan debt after graduating.

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Jobs and salaries for certificate program students


Paralegals help prepare legal documents for lawyers to use for their cases.

Average salary: $55,228 per yearfootnote 6

Architectural drafter

Architectural drafters use computer software to help design various construction projects.

Average salary: $56,581 per yearfootnote 6

Surgical technologist

A surgical technologist assists a surgeon by making sure the operating room and all necessary equipment are ready for surgery.

Average salary: $60,610 per yearfootnote 6

Web developer

Web developers use programming and graphic design skills to create working web pages.

Average salary: $77,791 per yearfootnote 6

Industrial engineering technician

Industrial engineering technicians are professionals who work to fix problems that companies face with their equipment or procedures.

Average salary: $63,655 per yearfootnote 6

Jobs and salaries for degree program students

School counselor

School counselors work with students, their families, and administration to serve the students’ social and academic needs to the best of their ability.

Average salary: $55,573 per yearfootnote 7

Registered nurse

A registered nurse takes care of patients by analyzing their symptoms, communicating with their families, and getting them the help they need.

Average salary: $70,822 per yearfootnote 7

Video game designer

Video game designers use storytelling techniques and prior video game experiences to create their own games or make existing games better.

Average salary: $76,887 per yearfootnote 7

Construction manager

A construction manager works as a supervisor over a construction team, engineers, designers, and their project.

Average salary: $84,874 per yearfootnote 7


An economist studies data and uses statistics to inform trends within the economy.

Average salary: $111,940 per yearfootnote 7

How to pick the right program for you

Questions to help you decide

  • What field(s) interest you?
  • If there’s a job you want, what is required for you to get it?
  • What’s going on in your day-to-day? Do you have work responsibilities? A family?
  • Do you have time for a long program, or do you need credentials quickly?
  • Where do you want your career to take you?
  • Do you have a degree or certificate already?
  • How much money do you want to make?

You’ve got a decision to make

Picking where you’ll end up after high school is a big deal, but give yourself some grace. Take your time and weigh all the pros and cons before you make your pick.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote Sallie Mae, the Sallie Mae logo, and other Sallie Mae names and logos are service marks or registered service marks of Sallie Mae Bank. All other names and logos used are the trademarks or service marks of their respective owners. 

footnote 1. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/certificate-vs-degree

footnote 2. https://www.coursera.org/articles/certificate-programs

footnote 3. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/paying-for-college-infographic

footnote 4. https://www.aplu.org/our-work/4-policy-and-advocacy/publicuvalues/employment-earnings/

footnote 5. https://www.highereddive.com/news/nearly-half-of-companies-plan-to-eliminate-bachelors-degree-requirements/702277/

footnote 6. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/high-paying-jobs-you-can-get-with-a-certificate

footnote 7. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/jobs-that-require-college-degrees

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