Should I Get a Certificate or Associate’s Degree?

An image of an Associate of Arts degree for our FAQ on What is the Difference Between Associate's Degree Programs and Certificate Programs

Certificate programs are popular in the U.S. But how do they compare to associate’s degrees? And what is the difference between associate and certificate programs?

Let’s explore certificate vs associate degree programs. Below you’ll find information on the difference between associate degree and certificate programs. You will also learn how each might benefit your future and further education goals.

Associate Degree vs Certificate

Certificate Programs

Most certificate programs focus on training for a specific industry or career position. They’re offered at a local community college and vocational or technical schools.

Popular certificates include:

  • medical billing and coding
  • nursing and nursing assistant programs
  • various computer technology positions

The main difference between a certificate and associate degree is completion time. Certificates take about a year. They allow you to enter the workforce right after you finish a program.

Courses focus on a specific subject and don’t include studies outside a specialty. Certificates focus on occupational training and have limited scope. They do not focus on the broader educational goals of traditional degrees (bachelor’s degrees) or a graduate degree (master’s degree or doctoral degrees).

If you’re already working and want to expand your critical thinking skills, you can with a certificate. You can learn new skills for:

  • breaking into a new career path
  • promotions
  • resumé building

Most programs take less than one year to complete. But associate programs take two years because they require general education courses.

Types of Certificate Programs

Postsecondary credentials for certificates work in a scaffolding fashion. Classes build on one another. You can earn a stand-alone certificate or use it as a base for upward mobility. This means you complete a certificate level and add on another.

Read on for the most common certificate programs.

Baking and Pastry Arts

Baking and pastry arts certificates provide quick entry into the culinary field as:

  • area pastry chefs
  • pastry assistants
  • pastry chefs

With a high school diploma, certificate, and experience, these professionals can move into bakery management and cake designer positions. Classes include:

  • artisan breads
  • cake design
  • pastries
  • plated desserts
Bookkeeping

Bookkeeping certificates are an excellent entry point into an accounting career. Graduates learn the basics of accounting and popular software products such as Quickbooks.

You don’t have to do as many complicated financial reporting tasks as accountants. Instead, you balance accounts and conduct payroll tasks.

Small business owners earn a bookkeeping certificate to perform their own fiscal duties.

Courses include:

  • business income tax
  • individual income tax
  • payroll accounting
  • principles of accounting
Esthetics

Esthetics students learn the art of skincare. Graduates have the skills needed to work in beauty salons and similar organizations.

They learn their skills by taking classes and spending time working in simulated salons. They also prepare for licensure by taking classes in business communication and human relations.

Information Technology

Like IT-based programs, IT certificates have different options for different career paths. You can earn certificates in:

  • cloud technology
  • cyber security
  • IT support
  • network, programming and more

Once you have your certificate and high school diploma, you can take different industry exams.

An image of a medical assistant for our FAQ on What is the Difference Between Associate's Degree Programs and Certificate Programs

Medical Assisting

Medical assistants learn both direct patient care and administrative tasks. Graduates from accredited programs are eligible for a medical assisting credentialing exam.

Course content is diverse and includes:

  • direct patient care
  • insurance billing
  • laboratory procedures
  • medical coding, scheduling
Office Administration

Should I get a certificate or associate’s degree in office administration? Certificates prepare you for general office work. You also learn how to perform office management and business tasks.

For example, you learn:

  • appointment management
  • business machine operation
  • computer skills
  • phone etiquette
  • written and oral business communication

While certificates prepare you for office assistant work, you can also go into management with a little experience. Certificate graduates earn between $15-$20/hour.

Phlebotomy

Phlebotomists train to collect blood from patients. While in training, you learn techniques like:

  • fingersticks
  • heelsticks
  • venipunctures

You also learn how to handle, manage, and transport samples. After you complete a certificate program, you can take the phlebotomy certification exam administered by the ASCP Board of Certification.

After the Certificate

What happens after I earn a certificate or associate degree? The answer varies.

Some schools offer stand-alone certificates. Others allow you to earn a degree and certificate at the same time. You take classes for your certificate that also apply toward an associate’s degree.

By earning a certificate and an associate’s degree, you have options. You can return to college and earn a four year bachelor’s degree or a traditional degree in less time if you have an associate’s degree. But with only a certificate, it will take longer.

But with a certificate, you’re ready for entry-level work. If that’s your goal, why spend more time in school than you have to?

Associate’s Degree Programs

Associate’s degrees prepare students with skills and knowledge needed for work. But an associate certificate includes general higher education courses.

Associate’s Degree vs Certificate

The biggest difference between an associate’s degree and a certificate is the time it takes to complete. Full-time associate degree programs take two years. You find these college degrees at community colleges and technical schools.

Associate’s programs take more time than certificates. Certificates, on average, take a year to complete. But the average salary is higher for those with an associate’s degree.

And both programs take less time than bachelor’s degree programs. They need fewer courses. They also focus on preparation for a specific job.

History of Associate’s Degrees

Two year degree schools grant associate’s degrees. Institutions include:

  • community college
  • vocational school
  • technical school

On rare occasions, universities and colleges offer these degrees.

The exact origin of the associate degree is unclear. Most educational historians believe it originated from the University of Chicago in 1899. But institutions got rid of associate programs in 1918.

Other early adopters of the associate degree include:

  • California College in Oakland
  • Lewis Institute in Chicago

They started conferring the college degrees in 1900 and 1901. By the 1940s, about 40% of all two-year institutions offered some form of a two-year degree. In the 1960s, more than 75% of community colleges offered at least one associate’s program.

An image of a culinary artist for our FAQ on What is the Difference Between Associate's Degree Programs and Certificate Programs

Types of Associate’s Degrees

From its humble beginnings, the associate degree is one of the most awarded college degrees. Second to the bachelor’s degree, the associate is a popular degree choice.

Degrees stem from four main categories:

  • Associate of Arts (A.A.)
  • Associate of Science (A.S.)
  • Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.)
  • Associate of Applied Business (A.A.B.).

But within these categories are about 200 unique associate programs.

The A.A.S. gets students into the workforce fast. It has fewer general education courses than other associate’s programs.

The A.A. and A.S. also prepare graduates for immediate positions. But they include more courses if you plan to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program.

The associate in applied science is an applied program specific to an occupation. It is also known as a trade degree or vocational degree due to its career-ready focus.

Popular associate in applied science degrees

Biotechnology

Biotechnology associate degrees have increased in number and popularity due to industry advances and the need for trained technicians.

Graduates work in different positions. These include:

  • biological technicians
  • chemical technicians
  • industrial engineering technologists
  • validation engineers

It is one of the most profitable associate degrees.

Biotech classes include:

  • bioethics
  • bioprocess techniques
  • industrial microbiology
  • recombinant DNA technology
Culinary Arts

Culinary programs prepare students for positions as culinary professionals. They work in foodservice settings such as:

  • catering operations
  • clubs
  • hotels
  • resorts
  • restaurants

Besides learning culinary skills, students gain career-readiness in areas like:

  • interviewing
  • job searching
  • resumé preparation

Students spend several hundred hours in test kitchens learning their craft. Courses include:

  • baking
  • food and beverage service
  • menu design
  • nutrition for foodservice

Look for programs accredited by agencies such as the American Culinary Foundation.

HVAC

An HVAC associate degree program offers training to work with residential and commercial HVAC systems. It also equips you on how to design, install, and service other refrigeration equipment.

Classes include:

  • cooling technology
  • HVAC electricity
  • heating technology
  • refrigeration systems

Demand for HVAC workers remains stable in the job market. Graduates of HVAC programs find work after school.

Many graduates start out as helpers before moving into higher-paying supervisory positions.

Information Technology

Colleges offer associate in applied science degrees in information technology. Since IT is a diverse field, you can find many different programs, such as:

  • business analytics
  • computer programming
  • computer science
  • cyber security
  • data science
  • game development
  • networking

These degrees prepare you for entry-level jobs in your chosen career path. Students prepare for industry certifications that increase their employability. Certificates vary by institution. They often number in the dozens due to popularity, job market, and demand for high-tech training.

Nursing

An associate of applied science in nursing degree helps you become a registered nurse. RN programs offer courses in math and science. Plan on taking classes like:

  • anatomy and physiology
  • cellular biology
  • chemistry
  • psychology
  • statistics

Some applied science degrees do not transfer to bachelor’s degree programs, but an RN degree offers such a path.

Welding Technology

Welding is a popular applied science degree. Welders earn good salaries and are in short supply. Residential and commercial welders serve as integral professionals in the industrial workforce.

Welding programs offer coursework like:

  • blueprint reading
  • math
  • metallurgy testing

Learning is hands-on. Training courses include mig, tig, pipe, and stick welding.

An image of a nursing assistant for our FAQ on What is the Difference Between Associate's Degree Programs and Certificate Programs

Financial Aid: Certificate vs Associates

Financial aid is available for students earning a certificate or associate’s degree. You qualify based on your financial need.

But to qualify, your program needs accreditation from the United States Department of Education.

Many institutions offer generous scholarships and tuition breaks for students. Merit and demographic criteria apply. Other factors that may impact qualifications include:

  • ethnic background
  • first-generation status
  • gender
  • race

The first step toward securing a financial aid award is to confirm accreditation. Check the accreditation status of your school and program before you enroll.

Prospective students should then complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form before the deadline. You will find out how much financial aid you qualify for.

Most colleges have dedicated staff who help students complete the form for free. They also guide you through the financial aid process.

Other Programs: Diplomas

As you learn more about a certificate of achievement vs associate’s degree, you should also consider another option.

A diploma program is a career-specific program that takes less than a year to finish. It’s different than a high school diploma, as you take classes in college to earn it.

Certificates take longer than diplomas because they are more technical. They also offer more classes and a deeper focus.

Another difference between a diploma and a certificate is the cost. Since certificates take more time to complete, they cost more than diplomas.

So, should I get a certificate or associate’s degree?

Four-year bachelor’s degrees aren’t for everyone. Associate degrees, certificates, and diplomas provide career mobility for the right person. The above programs are a small sample of what is available at most two-year institutions.

For working adults who want to enter new careers or add training to an existing job, a certificate helps. But if you want to transfer credits to a four year bachelor’s degree program, consider an associate’s degree. Both programs work. But choosing the right one depends on your career goals.

If your budget allows, you might consider an associate’s degree. But if you want to get skills fast and start working right away, look at your certificate options. Certificates can launch you into a career right out of college.

If you do plan to further your education at some point in your career, leave your options open for a bachelor’s degree (four years), a master’s degree, or another traditional degree. Earning an associate’s degree will make it easy for your to go back to school and build on your two-year degree.

Remember to look at your career goals before making a decision.

BDP Staff
April 2022

Related:

Top 10 Low Cost Online Degree Programs
Top 30 Affordable Online Bachelor’s in Business Administration (BBA)

50 Most Innovative Small Colleges in America

Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) Degrees Online: Small Colleges

This concludes our article on associate vs certificate programs.

Brenda Rufener
Author

Julie McCaulley
Expert

Carrie Sealey-Morris
Editor-in-Chief