Should You Choose Certification Instead of a Graduate Degree?
The cost of earning a graduate degree can be immense. Estimates place it between $30,000 and $100,000, depending on the type of degree, whether it is a private or state school, and other factors. According to a survey by The Hill, 9.3 percent of adults over 25 have a master’s degree, while nearly 2 percent hold doctoral degrees and 1.5 percent have a professional degree requiring studies beyond a bachelor’s.
In addition to cost, the time needed to finish graduate studies is also significant. Completing the twelve or more courses typically takes two years but may take longer for students who attend part-time while working. This investment of time and money make pursuing a graduate degree unrealistic for many even with the help of financial aid or employee reimbursement programs.
The core reason for earning a graduate degree tends to be to gain an advantage in the desired career field. Increasingly, there are certification programs providing this benefit in a fraction of the time and at a significantly reduced cost.
Logistics of certification
Georgetown University’s Center on Education published a report on the value of certification. Some of the key findings of the report included:
- More than 1 million certificates are awarded each year.
- Certificates are relatively inexpensive and can be earned quickly.
- Public 2-year colleges award more than half of all certificates.
- Private for-profit vocational, trade, technical, and business schools award about 44 percent of all certificates.
- Private non-profit schools only award about 4 percent of all certificates.
- Certificates are the fastest-growing postsecondary credential in the United States.
Certification offers a narrower curriculum designed to help the student achieve a specific outcome. John Kogan is CEO of Illumeo, an online learning platform with certifications for corporate professionals. He points out some broad-based certifications such as the CPA have a tremendous value but take years to complete – and can cost as much as a degree.
Still, he’s bullish on the process. “There will be a strong future demand for focused certifications. Our corporate clients are increasingly looking for those with certifications in precisely the area they need. Something that indicates more immediate readiness for a particular position.”
The key to determining whether certification is more appropriate than a graduate degree for an individual is found in his or her career field and if the available certificates are valued by employers in that field.
Choosing a certification program
There are several reasons one may pursue certification instead of a graduate degree. If one has an undergraduate degree in the field, certification can be used as supplemental training specific to a desired career or as part of a continuing education initiative.
Choosing a certification program can be difficult. The accreditation of colleges makes it easy to determine whether their process has been “blessed” by a nationally recognized agency. This isn’t always the case for a certification program unless it was developed by an accredited university. Some of the things to ask administrators of a certification program include:
- Is there an accreditation for the certificate program?
- What employment placement data for past graduates is available?
- How long has this program been in existence and how many people have successfully completed the certification process?
- Does the certification lead to any state or national certifications?
Diana Robinson, Ph.D., is a website grammar consultant and life coach who has served as a college professor and developed two associate degree programs and one certificate program. When discussing the best way to choose a certification program, Robinson said, “It is true that some certifications are just a piece of paper. Buyer beware. Make sure that they really are accepted by the industry towards which they are geared.”
Graduate degree or certification? Factors to weigh
There are some fields that simply do not offer certificates that will advance a career. The only way to obtain additional training and prestige will be in pursuing a graduate degree. However, in many cases, there may be a certificate program that can provide necessary skills which will make you more appealing as a candidate while you work towards earning a secondary degree.
Another important consideration when choosing between a graduate degree and a professional certificate is the cost. While the cost of the certification program will be less than the degree, it is more unlikely to be covered by financial aid. If the program is developed by a university and made up of part of their curriculum, however, it may be eligible for employer tuition reimbursement programs.
Finally, for those who plan to use the certificate as a stepping stone to a graduate degree, it may be best to choose a program affiliated with a university, which will allow credits from the certificate program to be transferred to a graduate degree in the future.
With the rising cost of graduate tuition and the increased numbers of valuable certificate programs available, certification is a viable option for many people. It is worth pursuing more in-depth information about certificate programs in your field and considering them as a real possibility before applying to graduate school.