Online Certificate Programs

Certificates, also known as technical certificates or technical diplomas, are different from the similar-sounding certification. A certification, or license, is the result of an assessment and is awarded by a third-party, standard-setting organization, while a certificate is the result of taking courses and is a credential awarded by an educational institution. Certification also usually requires some level of professional experience, while certificates are accessible to both newcomers to and professionals in a field.

Students in online certificate programs generally fall into those two camps – those who are changing careers and are new to a field, or those professionals who want to advance their career by building on their skills. Still, others may work towards an online certificate in lieu of an associate or bachelor's degree, while some students use their certificate as academic credit towards completing a bachelor or master's degree in the area. Regardless, certificate programs are accessible to all.

The projects and quizzes were challenging, but also were set up to pique your curiosity and make you think critically.

Philip LutzakAlumnus of Penn State World Campus

For some students, because of their location, online education may be their only option. Lyndy Worsham works in Eastern Burma/Myanmar, doing research for a humanitarian relief agency, traveling half the time along the Thailand-Burma border. Four years ago, she wanted to strengthen her technical skills with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, and was able to do so through Penn State World Campus's online GIS postbaccalaureate certificate program.

"An online certificate program was a good fit for me because it gave me access to an engaging and well-designed GIS curriculum that boosted my professional development without putting my career on hold or physically relocating my family," said Worsham. "As long as I had my laptop and a Bluetooth connection, I could receive and upload my assignments and interact with geospatial professionals while I was on the road earning my salary."

For more recent fields, there may also be limited options for reputable training. When Doug Parker was looking to make a transition to Lean Six Sigma – the burgeoning field of business management and efficiency – he didn't have any reputable options in his area.

"My choices were limited," said Parker, who lives in California. "It's real easy to find bad training."

He was able to get the training he needed through Villanova University Online's certificate course, which then enabled him to go on get his Lean Six Sigma certification through the university.

How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online Certificate Program?

Depending on the program, online certificates can take anywhere from less than a year to four years to complete. Some may require a bachelor's degree in order to apply, while for others, a high school diploma suffices. Certificate programs are offered through both brick-and-mortar schools and online institutions, and tuition depends on the program. Employers may also offer tuition reimbursement for continued education in a related field.

What Is Required of Online Certificate Students?

Certificates are available in almost every field, from GIS to Lean Six Sigma, though the most popular programs are for health professions and health-related sciences, according to a 2010 study by Complete College America, with 43% of all certificates from Title IV institutions in that field. That was followed by personal and culinary (12%); mechanical (8.9%); and business (7.9%). Popular certificates also include project management, according to US News, because it can be applied to a number of careers and there are no prerequisites, as well as a post-bachelor's teaching certificate because of its fast track. Certificate programs are also available for trade professions, such as cooking or pet grooming, as well as specific skills. Ever wanted to know how to use Photoshop? There's an online certificate course for that. Need to know some Spanish? There's an online certificate course for that, too.

Most online certificate programs are made up of multiple courses related to the area of study, much like a degree track. The amount and type of work will vary by subject matter, but you can expect to spend time participating in the online classes; completing homework and quizzes; communicating through message board, emails, and in some cases phone conversations; reading assignments; taking exams; and possibly even doing group projects. Much like in campus settings, students often get together for study groups via chats, conference calls, and sites like LinkedIn to prepare for exams. The advantage of taking the courses online is the option to view materials and lectures on your own time, which is a big plus for time-strapped, working professionals.

"I appreciated the flexibility to read the lectures on my schedule," said Frederica McMillan, who completed the Certificate Program in Project Management through UC Berkeley Extension. "The instructors were terrific about replying to questions or concerns in a timely manner, too."

What Is the Online Environment Like?

Just because you're not in a classroom setting, it doesn't mean the work is any less engaging or challenging as on-campus courses, students find.

"What really impressed me was the high standard they set for us and their insistence we stick to solid scientific facts and methods," said Philip Lutzak, who completed a certificate in Weather Forecasting at Penn State World Campus. "The projects and quizzes were challenging, but also were set up to pique your curiosity and make you think critically. You knew you were getting a very high-quality education."

How Does Earning a Certificate Online Impact Your Career Prospects?

Like any course, you get out of it what you put in. And if you put in the time and effort, the rewards of an online certificate are many. A certificate also can be used toward furthering academic work or earning an advanced degree, such as a master's degree or doctorate. It could even lead to a job. If you are taking a course to advance in your career, a certificate may give you an edge on earning a pay raise or promotion, or can be used towards certification in your field, which Scott Campbell found to be the case upon completing the Certificate in Project Management through UC Berkeley Extension.

"I have gained some internal recognition within my company from this, and the courses will lead to a PEP [Project Management Professional] certification," said Campbell. He also appreciated the program on a more personal level. "It also felt good to challenge myself intellectually after being out of school for so long," he said.

You may even get more bang for your buck with a certificate rather than an associate or bachelor's degree for jobs in certain fields. That's especially true for jobs in the healthcare field, such as a licensed practical nurse or a pharmacy technician. According to Complete College America, the compressed nature of certificate programs allow students to enter the workforce faster – and start making money sooner – and they're generally cheaper than earning degrees.

Still, not all certificate programs are created equal: long-term programs tend to provide greater technical and academic rigor, as well as a wider range of job skills, than short-term programs, and these differences could mean greater financial success for long-term certificate holders. According to the report by Complete College America, research in Kentucky found that increases in average income for people who earned certificates of at least one year were nearly the same as those who earned associate degrees (almost 40% for women, and around 20% for men). Short-term certificates, however, resulted in smaller increases when compared with those who did not complete those programs (3% for women, 10% for men). If your program has a long-term option, we recommend spending the extra time and money for the added value.

I have gained some internal recognition within my company from this … It also felt good to challenge myself intellectually after being out of school for so long.

Scott CampbellAlumnus of UC Berkeley Extension

Upon completing their certificates, students often find themselves continuing to expand their skill set and credentials online, whether through advanced certificate programs or specific courses. Worsham has already completed two statistics courses and one GIS course since completing her certificate three years ago, and is seriously considering applying for the master's in GIS at Penn State World Campus. Relationships with professors also can continue long after you've logged off. Parker still maintains contact with professors in Villanova's Lean Six Sigma certificate program, professionals in his field who are now colleagues that he can rely on as mentors.

"It's a journey," said Parker. "It's not one course and you're done. It's a career."

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