When considering your post-secondary education options, you’ve likely encountered programs that lead to different outcomes, including degrees, diplomas, and certificates. While each type of program can provide valuable career preparation and knowledge, there are key differences between these credentials that impact curriculum, cost, job opportunities, and more.

This article explores the differences between degrees, diplomas, and certificates and provides guidance to students to help them decide which type of program is right for them.

What is a Degree?

Perhaps the most familiar type of post-secondary education credential is the degree, an academic rank conferred on a student by a college or university after they complete a course of study.

There are four types of degrees students can earn:

Degree Level Minimum Credits Standard Minimum Completion Time Types of Degrees
Associate 60 2 years

Associate of Arts (AA)
Associate of Science (AS)
Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

Bachelor’s 120 4 years

Bachelor of Arts (BA)
Bachelor of Science (BS)
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
Bachelor of Education (B.Ed)

Master’s 30-60 1-2 years

Master of Arts (MA)
Master of Science (MS)
Master of Engineering (M.Eng)
Master of Education (M.Ed)

Doctorate 60-120 4 years

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA)
Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D)
Juris Doctor (JD)

Associate and bachelor’s degrees are considered undergraduate degrees, while master’s and doctorates are graduate degrees.

A student’s area of study and career goals typically guide which degrees they pursue. For example, an associate degree is often the minimum educational requirement for entry-level jobs in office administration, IT support, or human services. Meanwhile, certain jobs require a bachelor’s degree, including elementary, middle and secondary school teachers, electrical engineers, and accountants.

At the graduate level, master’s and doctorate degrees can prepare students for leadership and advanced practice roles. A master’s degree is required to become a licensed clinical social worker or marriage and family therapist. Other students may pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) to prepare them for executive positions. Roles that require a doctorate degree include psychologist, physical therapist, and many education administration positions.

Of the three educational paths explored here, degrees are the most comprehensive. The curriculums typically include core requirements and electives in the major area of study, as well as general education requirements and electives that help students develop critical thinking and other transferable skills. Most degree programs include an experiential learning component, such as an internship or clinical field experience. Master’s and doctorate degrees also typically include research requirements like a thesis or dissertation.

What is a Diploma?

A diploma is a post-secondary course of study in a technical or vocational field. Diploma programs offer a narrower curriculum than degree programs, with a focus on developing a specific set of technical skills necessary for a particular job or career path.

Students who are interested in working as cosmetologists, emergency medical technicians,  mechanics, or dental assistants may pursue diplomas to prepare for jobs in their respective fields.

The time it takes to earn a diploma varies by program, although most can be completed in one to two years. Many types of institutions offer diploma programs, including traditional two- and four-year colleges, comprehensive trade schools and career colleges, and industry-specific training programs.

What is a Certificate?

A certificate program is a post-secondary course of study that focuses on a specific skill or subject that students can use to obtain employment in certain fields or develop skills to help them advance their careers.

Like diplomas, certificates have a narrower focus than a degree, but they are available in a much broader range of topics. Some certificates focus on skills needed for specific jobs, like medical coding and billing, human resources, accounting, or web design and development, while others cover transferable skills like communication or project management.

Certificates are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Undergraduate certificates, which typically offer an introduction to a topic or field, are available to all students who have completed high school or a GED. To qualify for a graduate certificate program, students usually must have an undergraduate degree, as the curriculum focuses on more advanced skills and topics.

Depending on the industry or job, a certificate may be enough to qualify an individual for employment opportunities. In other cases, individuals with degrees use certificates to develop new skills or maintain professional credentials for their industry.

The completion time for a certificate program varies. Some can be completed in as little as six months, while others can take up to two years. Students can find certificate programs at two- and four-year colleges, as well as trade schools and career colleges.

Differences Between Certificates, Degrees, and Diplomas

Time commitment

Degrees, diplomas, and certificates all require a different investment of time, in terms of both overall completion time and per-term expectations.

Because of their comprehensive nature and standard credit requirements, degrees usually take the longest amount of time to finish. For example, a bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits, which usually translates to four years of full-time study. Doctoral degrees usually have fewer credit requirements, but dissertation research and writing requirements mean some students spend five years or more earning this degree.

Diplomas and certificates have much more flexible credit requirements and are often designed to be completed in as little as a few months. They may also be less rigorous in the number of classes students have in a given term, making them easier for students to fit in with other commitments.

All three types of programs typically allow enrollment on a full-time or part-time basis, although this is decided at the discretion of the institution and program.


Costs vary widely between the three types of programs, with degrees typically being the most expensive and certificates being the least expensive.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual tuition for associate degree programs was $3,885 and for bachelor’s degree programs was $17,709 during the 2022-23 academic year. The average tuition for graduate degree programs was $20,513. Degree programs may also include additional costs for room and board, books and supplies, and school fees.

Because diploma and certificate programs are shorter and less resource-intensive than degree programs, they tend to be less expensive. Certificate programs typically charge tuition on a per-credit basis, so the fewer credits a program requires, the cheaper it will be.

Regardless of what credential they’re earning, the type of institution a student attends will also affect the cost of their program. Private non-profit schools tend to charge the highest tuition rates, while public colleges offer lower tuition rates, particularly for students who reside in the state where the school is located.

Job opportunities

Different industries and jobs have different educational criteria for employment, which is essential to keep in mind when choosing between a certificate, diploma, or degree. For skilled trades like plumbing, HVAC, and auto mechanics, a diploma is usually sufficient. However, because of the narrow focus of these training programs, students don’t develop many transferable skills, which can limit opportunities if students want to pursue jobs in a different field.

An associate or bachelor’s degree is typically the most versatile education credential an individual can have. These comprehensive programs help students develop transferable skills that can be applied to a variety of different positions, even if they’re in a different field than their area of study.

Depending on the specific job, a certificate may be a sufficient education credential for entry-level positions. More often, though, working professionals use certificates to help them develop additional skills to earn promotions or pivot to a different career path.


Degree programs have the most comprehensive curriculums. They include classes specific to a student’s major as well as general education requirements and electives that allow students to explore other topics and areas of interest. Especially at the undergraduate level, degree programs start with foundational level coursework before students move into intermediate- and advanced-level courses related to their major.

Diplomas and certificates are more tightly focused on the program’s area of study and don’t include general education requirements. Students may have elective options, but they’re likely more limited than those available to students in degree programs.

Things to Consider When Selecting a Certificate, Degree, or Diploma

Career goals

The job or career path you aspire to plays a key role in what type of credentials you earn. Since diploma programs only prepare students for jobs in a specific field, you should only pursue that type of education if you’re interested in that job. Graduate degrees are similar in that they also provide more focused training for particular roles, although in most cases, students must first earn an undergraduate degree before pursuing a master’s or a doctorate.

Bachelor’s degrees remain a versatile and in-demand education credential, although certificates are also rising in popularity as a faster way for individuals to gain valuable skills.

To determine which educational path makes the most sense for your career goals, review eligibility requirements for positions that interest you and speak to professionals in your desired industry to gain an understanding of what type of post-secondary education will benefit you the most.

Future educational prospects

Keep in mind that the education you pursue now can impact the type of educational opportunities you’re eligible for in the future.

For example, students must have a bachelor’s degree to apply for most master’s programs (although some programs allow students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s simultaneously). Students who only have a diploma or certificate may not be eligible for an advanced degree program.

Conversely, earning a certificate can be an efficient, cost-effective way for a student to explore an area of study before committing to a full degree program. Many bachelor’s and master’s programs allow students to apply the credits they earn through undergraduate or graduate certificate programs to a full degree, decreasing the time that it takes to earn their degree.

Institutional accreditation status

Post-secondary institutions in the U.S. can be regionally accredited, nationally accredited, or unaccredited. An institution’s accreditation status can impact the quality of education a student receives from the institution, as well as eligibility for financial aid, employment, and future educational opportunities.

All public universities and most private non-profit universities in the U.S. are regionally accredited, which is the most recognized form of accreditation for post-secondary schools. Most trade schools and career colleges in the U.S. are nationally accredited.

Regionally accredited institutions accept credits, degrees, certificates, and diplomas earned at other regionally accredited schools, but not from nationally accredited or unaccredited institutions. Nationally accredited schools will accept credits and credentials from both nationally accredited and regionally accredited schools.

Financial aid

Each type of program has its own eligibility rules for financial aid, so it’s also important to consider how you plan on paying for your program before enrolling.

Degree programs are typically eligible for most forms of financial aid, including federal student loans and grants, work-study, private education loans, and scholarships.

Federal student aid eligibility for diploma and certificate programs varies. If you’re considering a diploma or certificate program, speak to a financial aid counselor at the institution to confirm what types of financial aid students in the program are eligible to receive.

Delivery format

Regardless of what type of program you choose, you’ll want to consider how the program is delivered. Options include traditional in-person programs, fully online programs, and hybrids that include in-person and online instruction.

The three types of programs outlined in this article are available in all delivery formats, although some areas of study are more conducive to online learning than others. For example, diploma programs in areas like auto mechanic, HVAC, or cosmetology will likely include a significant amount of in-person, hands-on learning experience. Similarly, degree programs in fields like nursing or education often have in-person field requirements.

For working professionals who want to develop new skills while maintaining their employment, online certificate programs can provide convenience and accessibility.