Certification vs. Bachelor Degree: Which is best for you?

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Navigating the world of higher education and making choices for your future can often feel like a complex and uncertain journey. A crucial piece of this puzzle is choosing the next phase of your education beyond a high school diploma. Degrees and certificates are two prominent options, and both are commonly offered online by academic institutions.

Either option can be equally advantageous, depending on your circumstance, and can enhance various career paths in business, information technology, marketing, and more. Your post-secondary education makes a significant investment in your future, so it is crucial to examine different options for degrees and certificates, considering how each may equip you for success in your desired career.

What Is a Degree?

A degree — often viewed as the traditional pathway to higher education — is a qualification awarded to a student for completing their studies in a specific field by a college or university. There are various types of degrees — each one varies depending on the field of study as well as the depth of the subject matter or the length of the program.

  • Associate’s degrees are typically completed in two years and are designed to provide a foundational understanding of a particular field. An associate’s degree often makes a stepping stone for a student to later pursue a bachelor’s degree or to start working in an entry-level role in a specialized field like nursing, education, or information technology.
  • Bachelor’s degrees are considered the standard qualification for entry into many types of career fields. A bachelor’s program offers comprehensive knowledge that spans theoretical foundations and practical knowledge for a particular profession. These degrees typically take four years to complete, but may be shortened with transfer credits from an associate’s degree or other accredited coursework.
  • Master’s degrees are more specialized than bachelor’s degrees, and typically require a bachelor’s as a prerequisite for entry. Students typically take one to three years to complete this degree wherein they’ll develop advanced knowledge for leadership positions in specialized fields like science, education, or business administration.

You may not need a degree to qualify for every job, but many employers and organizations require one. Not only that — job candidates with degrees may be more likely to appeal to employers and will be more likely to earn higher wages throughout their careers.

Is a Degree Worth It?

Earning a college degree is a significant investment — both in terms of time and finances. However, students who invest in a degree may find that it pays off, as indicated by data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to their 2022 report, people with a degree are less likely to be unemployed than those without one, and those who hold higher degrees also have higher median earnings, on average.

The BLS also notes, however, that outcomes can differ based on individual circumstances and career fields. Also worth noting is the broad range of credentials besides college degrees that job seekers can earn. These include certificates, which have their own sets of options to consider.

What Is a Certificate?

The definition of a certificate is “A credential awarded by an educational institution based on completion of all requirements for a program of study,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Certificates are similar to degrees in a couple of ways. For one, they are academic credentials, but certificates focus on a narrower scope of education and typically take one year or less to complete.

Certificates are offered in many different fields, especially in technical or skill-based occupations rather than the scientific or academic focus of most degree programs. Examples of career paths with certificate programs include, but are not limited to:

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Project management
  • Human resources
  • Computer programming
  • Allied health professions

Note that there are degree programs related to all of these disciplines as well, but a certificate without a college degree may be sufficient for employment in some cases.

Is a Certificate a Degree?

A certificate is not the same as a degree. While both are offered by colleges and universities, certificates and degrees are different in their breadth, duration, and purpose. Both types of programs typically require a high school diploma as a prerequisite, but degree programs are typically more rigorous than certificate programs in their application processes and in their coursework.

Also, a certificate does not serve as a direct alternative to a degree. Some students opt for a certificate instead of a degree, but many choose to complete a certificate in addition to a degree — to showcase expertise in a specialized field. In fact, certain certificate programs even require a college degree as a prerequisite. It just depends on the career path and the academic demands of a particular program’s curriculum.

Is a Certificate Worth It?

The value of a certificate can vary greatly depending on individual career goals and the industry in question. A certificate can be a cost-effective way to gain skills and enter the job market quickly.

Also, a certificate can open up more job placements and increase earnings potential over a high school diploma, as shown by career outlook data from the BLS. The same data, however, shows even higher earnings potential for those who complete a bachelor’s or a higher degree.

Understanding Certificates vs. Certifications

Although the terms certificate and certification are used interchangeably, they are not the same. An academic certificate is awarded by an educational institution to show completion of coursework. Once earned, a certificate does not have to be renewed.

A professional certification, on the other hand, is issued by an industry organization in recognition of competence for a certain knowledge base or skill set. Certifications may or may not involve coursework, but they nearly always involve an exam, and they usually require periodic recertification to remain valid.

For instance, a certified professional accountant (CPA) must obtain their license and certification to qualify for most accounting jobs, but they can only do so after completing a Bachelor of Science in Finance or a similar degree.

The CPA is only one example, however; there are many certifications across different jobs and industries. Typically, you’ll learn about the required certifications for your desired field during any certificate or degree program.

How To Decide if a Degree or a Certificate Is Right for You

Choosing among degrees and certificates is a uniquely personal decision that comes down to your own career goals and your individual circumstances. Because there is so much variety in the requirements among fields, however, you must examine the trends in your area of interest to help inform your decision.

Degrees vs. Certificates in Business

The types of degrees and certificates in business and management are very diverse, as you might expect from such a broad field with endless career possibilities. You can certainly start a business or get certain types of jobs with no educational qualifications, but a degree can qualify you for more positions and lay the groundwork for advancement within a company.

For example, a Bachelor of Science in Management program will teach crucial leadership skills that can apply to any industry. Similarly, stepping up to a Master of Business Administration degree will deliver an even deeper understanding of business leadership and earn you the well-accepted credibility that comes with an MBA.

Degrees vs. Certificates in IT

Information technology (IT) is a knowledge-intensive field — many jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are certificate programs like coding boot camps that can equip you for entry-level jobs in a relatively short amount of time, but a technology degree is generally recommended for applying to most tech jobs.

Management positions require a unique blend of tech expertise and business acumen — the sort that only a comprehensive degree program or extensive job experience can deliver. In particular, UAB’s Bachelor of Science in Information Systems is an online program designed to teach the right mix of skills, and the online Master of Science in Management Information Systems takes the training even further.

Degrees vs. Certificates in Marketing

Marketing is a popular career path with faster-than-average job growth, making many job seekers eager to apply for positions. Because digital marketing evolves so quickly with technology, however, the technical skills of today may not be the same tomorrow.

That’s why a comprehensive education of marketing principles, consumer behavior, and research best practices can be beneficial for aspiring marketers. A Bachelor of Science in Marketing delivers just this kind of training and can make a better-lasting foundation than what a marketing certificate or certification can provide.

Ultimately, your decision to pursue a degree, a certificate, or both should come down to your own career aspirations and timeline. Remember that your education is a significant investment, so you should take time to find just the right program to fit your unique interests and circumstances.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Education pays, 2022”

National Center for Education Statistics, “Working Definitions of Non-Degree Credentials” 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Education level and projected openings 2019-29”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers Occupational Outlook”