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, bachelor’s, master’s, 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 bachelor’s in four. Master’s and doctoral degrees may take several years to complete depending on the area of study. Find your degree using our degree finder tool.

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.


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 education and online degrees.

Find your degree using our degree finder tool.

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11 comments on “Degrees, Diplomas, and Certificates: What’s The Difference?

  • I used to confused with these three words. Now I clearly understand. I think, to some degree, a degree is much more valuable than diploma and certificate.

  • I used to confused with these three words. Now I clearly understand. To some degree, a degree is much more valuable than diploma and certificate.

  • THANK YOU SSSSOOOO MUCH. i did not understand the difference. i am getting older and i feel that i dont have the time to get a degree, but i would like to get something diploma JUST SOUNDS better but it the same thing for the most part.

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  • If you wish to convert your previous work or life experience into recognized and accredited university degrees, university gives you the opportunities to do so. Doesn’t matter what’s your age, sex, marital status, or location, you can obtain an accredited degree in your chosen field. All you need is sufficient work, life, or military experience or classroom education and you are all set to achieving a degree in your relevant field.

  • I owe you thanks for that.I’m 29 & I have associate degree in English Translation.But I’ve been regretful for years coz I’d wasted my money.Recently things are looking up.I’d prefer to take online courses (Diploma / Certificate)
    as it has the same and sometimes more value.In addition it’s faster,less expensive & the best choice for those who want to have a job in their field of study

  • I am 18 just graudate from high school june 02. I herd about this school my aunt use to go ” the college of health care professions” in 8 months i will have a medical assistant certificate. I start june 25. I have doubts is this the right choice?
    Am a teen mom with low income so i cant afford a 4 yr college nor waiting that long to become an M.A. So am i going on the right path?

  • Great explanation. I’m enrolling in a school that offers both a diploma and a certification program. Their diploma program
    consist of several additional specific skill and knowledge based study sections, were the certification program offers less but sufficient for employment in my industry. The tuition is roughly $7000 for the diploma vs $3000 for the certification. It’s important to note that some schools or programs may be structured as follows. Although, there may be no significant distinction between a certification and diploma when compared to the educational standards of a degree, depending on the school’s curriculum, a diploma program may have higher level of requirements for the student to complete. A perfect example would be if the diploma curriculum requires the completion of a greater number or combination of specific skill and knowledge based classes that must be taken and passed in order to earn the diploma vs the certification. In such a case as this, a recipient of the diploma would have a broader knowledge base and perhaps additional skills that can be applied offered upon graduation; and to offer an employer. So although the line between the diploma and certification in somewhat blurry, depending on the school’s curriculum there can be a significant distinction between the level of content offered between the two. If the diploma is the greater of the two in content, what matters most is the recipient of a diploma effectively marketing it as a greater advantage and value over a certification during a job interview. The employer may not view the two any differently from one another, however this opens a door for a job candidate to express to the interviewer, the differences between the two; and how the diploma program has delivered a greater foundation of personal achievement, broader knowledge, and skills over just a certification.

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