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Should I Pursue a Certification or Finish College?

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Find the College Right for You! »

If you’ve thought about going back to school or even want to advance your career, you’ve probably wondered about the best way to do it. Nowadays, there are so many options out there for students to finish their degree. The two biggest pathways are earning certificates or getting a degree from a four-year university. Which is right for you? Well, it depends on you! It also doesn’t have to be one or the other. While you certainly can choose one or the other, you can also use them to complement each other. 

What’s the difference?


Think of a certificate as a crash course in a specific area or industry. Unlike a degree program which covers a wider range of topics and skills, a certificate program will focus solely on the information, functions, knowledge, and skills of a particular topic.  A certificate essentially gets down to the brass tacks of whatever the topic is. Say you’re getting a certificate in digital marketing. You’ll learn about the specific tools and technologies such as Google Ads, Google Analytics, WordPress, etc. You’ll gain a fundamental understanding of real world digital marketing tools and applications.


The same level will certainly happen with a degree program, but there will be courses that aren’t necessarily topical to your course of study. Each institution has a set number of credits required for graduation. Many of those credits are foundational courses in science, math, and the humanities. While these courses are certainly important for the breadth of a student’s knowledge, they might not have much relevance to your career as a digital marketer. If you’re already working in the marketing field, but looking to move up, it might be better to focus your efforts solely on those marketing classes. 

What factors should you consider?

Your goals: 

 What do you want to accomplish with this credential? How much education and work experience do you already have? Are you looking to move up in your current career or are you looking to shift directions?  If you’re unsure about which option is viable for your career goals, reach out to a supervisor or even seek out the advice of a mentor. They can help you decide what is appropriate for your goals and what isn’t.

Your time: 

The majority of certificates take less than a year to complete. That’s great news for students with work and life obligations.  If you’re already working full time, the brevity and flexibility of a certificate might be appealing. However, that doesn’t mean that a 4 year degree isn’t possible while working. Plenty of schools offer flexible degree programs. It is totally possible to balance a full-time job and going back to school.

Your budget: 

Higher education is expensive. We know you know this. If cost is on your mind, then a certificate can be a great option. Most if not all certificates are much cheaper than the 4 year degree route. While these certificates are cheaper, consider how many you will need to reach your goals. If you need several, the bottom line will add up. Do a cost analysis of the certificates you’ll need to make sure you’re making the most economical choice. 

How do I choose?

What kinds of certificates are there?

Every institution will have different curricula and requirements for their certificate programs. And not every field will have a certificate program. Certificate programs generally fall into one of the following categories:

Skill building: These programs build a specific skill set that allow for a higher salary or new opportunities in your current field. 

Specific job training: These programs teach students the tools and skills for specific fields such as paralegal studies or nursing. 

Academic: these programs allow you to pursue an academic passion or specialize in a niche area of study. If you’re considering getting a master’s degree in a specific field, a certificate can get your foot in the door. 

Growing specialty area: These programs focus on the tools and skills needed for budding markets,  such as digital marketing and coding.

What’s the ROI? 

ROI, or return on investment is the buzzword of higher education nowadays. And rightfully so! It’s wise for students to make sure the money they’re investing in their education will be returned to them in the form of career advancement. How do you make sure this initial investment will pay off later on down the road? (Link to article or explain how to calculate)

What do I do next?

You’ve made your decision. You got your certificate or your degree. That’s it right? It doesn’t have to be. Like we said earlier, certificates and degrees can complement each other in great ways. According to a report written by the Center on Education and the Workforce at George Washington University, “two out of every three workers who have a certificate and a college degree earned the certificate first, an indication that certificates can serve as a stepping stone on the way to a college degree. “ Certificates can be a great place to start on your way to a degree or a great next step after a degree. 

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