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Degrees, Diplomas, and Certificates: What's The Difference?

Aug 18, 2007
One of the first and most important decisions in getting an education is choosing the right program. There are a variety of options available, including degree, diploma, and certificate programs. The purpose of this article is to identify the basic differences among these programs and to examine their respective strengths and weaknesses.

A degree is the traditional measure of a college education. A college degree signifies that its recipient has fulfilled both "core requirements" and "major requirements". Core requirements are intended to provide students with a basic knowledge of arts and sciences. Typically, these "core classes" include math, history, natural sciences, composition, and even physical fitness. And while students may have some discretion in choosing individual classes within these broader subject areas, all students must complete a set number of "core requirements". Additionally, students must satisfy the "major requirements", which are based on the student's chosen area of emphasis.

There are several different degrees, including associate, bachelors, masters, and doctorate. Degrees vary based on the time needed to complete their respective "major requirements". Typically, a full-time student can complete an associate degree in two years and a bachelors in four. Masters and doctoral degrees may take several years to complete depending on the area of study.

The primary strength of the degree is that it offers not only specialty training but also the kind of broad-based knowledge that is considered the hallmark of a liberal education. Furthermore, degrees have a long tradition and therefore tend to carry more weight with potential employers. On the other hand, degrees also take more time and cost more money than diplomas or certificates. Thus, for many students looking for job-specific training, some of the advantages of a degree might be deemed superfluous.

In comparison with degrees, diploma or certificate programs are not, strictly speaking, academic credentials. A diploma or certificate simply indicates that its recipient has completed a series of courses focusing on a particular field. For example, while a degree program in computer science would cover a range of topics, including programming and programming languages, software engineering, database administration and maintenance, and application development, not to mention math, science, and the other liberal arts, which are part of "core requirements," a diploma or certificate program would focus on one particular area, such as software testing, or provide a survey of several related areas.

The requirements of diploma or certificate programs vary by institution, and the terms diploma and certificate are often used interchangeably. Two universities could easily offer similar programs in content and duration, one may award a diploma while the other awards a certificate. In other words, there is no generally accepted standard that distinguishes diplomas from certificates. Thus, the crucial distinction to keep in mind is how the diplomas and certificates differ from degrees, not from each other.

The strengths of diploma and certificate programs are that they tend to be significantly shorter than degree programs and they focus more on practical applications rather than theory. Diploma and certificate programs are less expensive and their entrance requirements are far more lenient than those of degree programs. Diploma and certificate programs also tend to be more flexible, with more classes being offered in the evening and on weekends and with programs starting regularly throughout the year (as opposed to being restricted to semesters or terms). Thus, while degrees may continue to be the benchmarks of college education, diplomas and certificates provide a valuable alternative to students seeking job-specific training in a relatively short period of time.
About the Author
Benjamin Welch has been a college instructor in writing and composition for nearly six years. When he's not teaching or playing golf, he offers advice for students seeking information about online diplomas and online certificates.
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