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Career Insights

How Do Certification and Associate Degrees Differ

Concorde Staff

Concorde Staff

Updated December 2, 2020. The information contained in this blog is current and accurate as of this date.
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When considering a new career, individuals certainly have plenty of paths to choose from. While it's nice to have options, weighing the pros and cons of every choice can easily become overwhelming.

By learning about the similarities and differences between things like certificate programs and associate degree programs, prospective students can ensure that they make the right decision for them, their needs, and the career they're hoping to pursue.

What Is a Certification?

A certification is a postsecondary academic award earned through a certificate program that typically trains students for a specific job or industry (1). Technical or vocational schools and community colleges generally offer these types of programs, and they usually take roughly a year to complete, but they can last anywhere between a few months and up to three years. Because certificate programs are specially designed to get students ready for the workforce as quickly as possible, the only courses they require are typically those that focus on teaching the knowledge and skills necessary for a particular industry or career.

There are also certificate programs that are supplementary to an undergraduate or graduate degree. In other words, they are designed to expand on the knowledge and skills earned through higher education, giving students a competitive edge when they pursue career opportunities. Typically, these types of certifications are available through community colleges and universities, and they provide students with tailored education and training so that they become recognized as a certified expert in their field.

When a certificate is used to supplement a degree, it can provide a real competitive advantage because it can show employers that the candidate is an expert in their field, communicate a candidate's dedication to continued education, and signal a level of dedication to their career. Because of this, candidates who have a degree and a certification usually also possess desirable characteristics, like ambition.

How To Use a Certification

Some of the more popular certificate programs include things like:

  • Nursing assisting
  • Computer technology
  • Medical billing and coding
  • General management
  • Sports management
  • Global health
  • Marketing
  • General business
  • Project management
  • Criminal justice
  • Web development
  • Biblical studies

Some certificate programs allow students to apply some of the courses or credits they earned through their certification toward an associate degree. This policy allows certificate holders to enter their profession quickly while simultaneously preparing them to return to school so that they can earn a higher degree.

What Is an Associate Degree?

An associate degree is an award given to students that have completed an associate degree program. Not only are these programs designed to educate and prepare students for a specific position or industry, but they also cover general education courses. However, associate degrees require considerably fewer general education courses than bachelor's degrees require. Most of the time, the curriculum provided in these programs primarily focuses on preparing students to enter the workforce and their chosen careers.

Community and career colleges usually offer a wide range of associate degree programs. When students pursue an associate degree full time, they can typically complete their courses and graduate in roughly two years.

How To Use an Associate Degree

Some of the most common types of associate degrees include an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.), an Associate of Science (A.S.), and an Associate of Arts (A.A.). An Associate of Applied Science degree is designed specifically to allow students to enter the workforce more quickly.

For example, an individual can earn an Associate of Applied Science degree in nursing in as little as 17 months, while an Associate of Science degree in nursing can take as little as 19 months. These A.A.S. programs shorten the amount of time needed to complete them by requiring fewer general education courses than some of the other degree options. Students can pursue an Associate of Applied Science for an abundance of programs, such as:

  • Nursing
  • Dental assisting
  • Dental hygiene
  • Occupational therapy assistant
  • Physical therapist assistant
  • Radiologic technology
  • Respiratory therapy
  • Health information management
  • Medical assisting
  • Medical laboratory technician
  • Medical office professional
  • Pharmacy technician
  • Click here to browse all Concorde Health Care Training Programs

When students earn an A.S. or an A.A. degree, they are prepared for and able to find positions immediately, but the additional courses also give graduates the option and ability to pursue a bachelor's degree in the future. The fact that graduates can use an associate degree as a building block that allows them to enter the workforce with the potential for future development in their role is one of the major advantages of this academic path. There are a number of associate programs available to choose from, including:

  • Nursing
  • Dental hygiene
  • Cardiovascular sonography
  • Diagnostic medical sonography
  • Neurodiagnostic technology
  • Occupational therapy assistant
  • Physical therapy assistant
  • Radiologic technology
  • Respiratory therapy
  • Surgical technology
  • Click here to browse all Concorde Health Care Training Programs

Certificate vs. Associate Degree

There are several important differences between certifications and associate degrees, such as the:

  • Prerequisite requirements: Depending on the certification and the program, candidates may need to possess a certain degree of education or professional experience before they can pursue the accreditation. Conversely, students generally only need to possess a high school diploma or pass a General Education Development, or GED, test to be admitted into an associate degree program.
  • Amount of time needed to complete: There are certainly exceptions, but most of the time, certificate programs last one year or two semesters. Associate degree programs, on the other hand, generally take roughly two years, or four semesters, for full-time students to complete.
  • Credits earned through the program: Some certificate programs provide students with transferrable credits that they can apply toward a degree if and when they decide to pursue higher education. The eligibility of the credits earned really depends on the certification, the program it came from, and the accredited college or university that the individual is attending. With an associate degree from an accredited college, students are able to use those credits when pursuing another degree or when transferring to a different program or school.
  • Program cost: Realistically, the price difference between an associate degree and a certification depends on the school and program. Generally speaking, associate degree programs can be slightly more expensive than certificate programs, which can be attributed to the difference in duration and breadth of subjects covered.
  • Employability: Certificate programs are usually more time- and cost-effective, but that is because students are exposed to fewer classes, leaving them with only a general knowledge of the subject. Associate degree programs, on the other hand, usually focus on more of an in-depth knowledge of a wider range of subjects. That's why many employers often place higher value in candidates with degrees over stand-alone certifications.
  • Growth opportunities: When a certificate is simply enhancing an existing degree, it can open individuals up to new employment opportunities. However, when they exist on their own, individuals with an associate degree enjoy more professional opportunities and chances to develop in their field.

What Is a Diploma?

A diploma is a postsecondary award that's a bit of an intermediate academic option between a certificate and an associate degree. Though they're rarely offered by universities, students can usually attend diploma programs at technical schools or colleges. It can take anywhere between eight months to two years to earn a diploma, and these programs generally provide students with a more thorough knowledge of a specialized industry or subject.

How To Use a Diploma

Diploma programs are designed to prepare students to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. In some cases, individuals who hold a diploma decide to attend a certification program as well so that they can further develop their skills and boost their employability.

Other than giving graduates the opportunity to pursue certifications, diplomas can't usually be used as a building block for higher education. Students can pursue a variety of diploma programs, such as:

  • Practical nursing
  • Vocational nursing
  • Dental assistant
  • Massage therapy
  • Polysomnographic technology
  • Medical assisting
  • Medical office administration
  • Medical office professional
  • Pharmacy technician

Certifications vs. Diplomas

Diplomas and certifications share many of the same attributes, and, in some cases, they can even cover the same programs and fields of study. Both diplomas and certificates are career-focused, with an emphasis on equipping students to enter the workforce as quickly as possible. Despite their similarities, there are a few key differences pertaining to the:

  • Amount of time needed to complete: Certificate programs often take a little less time and, therefore, offer fewer credits than diploma programs.
  • Comprehensiveness of the teaching: Because of the difference in time, diploma programs are able to provide students with a more in-depth understanding of their chosen career or field.
  • Schedule and coursework flexibility: Aside from the time and breadth of knowledge covered, diploma programs differ from certificate programs in that their schedule and requirements are typically a little less flexible. Diploma programs have a more thorough approach to the specific subject, which usually means that there is more coursework involved than with a certificate program.

Diplomas vs. Associate Degrees

Both diploma programs and associate degree programs can be useful academic paths. Some of the major differences involve the:

  • Length of time to complete: One of the primary differences between an associate degree program and a diploma program is the duration. While associate degree programs require roughly two years to complete, diploma programs can usually be completed in a year or so. In fact, our dental assistant diploma program can be completed in as little as eight months.
  • Scope of the curriculum: While associate degree programs offer students exposure to general education and career-focused courses, a diploma program thoroughly explores just one subject. Additionally, much of the teaching for this type of program is primarily practice-based, providing students with more of a hands-on learning approach. Conversely, associate degree programs usually explore theory and practice, giving students a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the subject.
  • Program cost: Due to the length of the program, associate degree programs usually cost a bit more than diploma programs.
  • Employability: Even within the health care industry, every job is different and has varying degrees of necessary qualifications. Generally, associate degrees are looked on more favorably by employers, but jobs that rely on skills and specialized vocational knowledge could only require a diploma. As of recently, there has been more of a shift in thinking with more health care roles and accrediting bodies requiring higher degrees to become licensed in specific roles.
  • Growth opportunities: An associate degree can serve as a building block that allows you to pursue higher education in the future, while a diploma is usually more of a stand-alone achievement. If individuals are entering a field where they can benefit, both professionally and financially, from continued education, it can be beneficial to pursue an academic path that allows for this more easily.

Ultimately, when faced with so many options, the best choice depends on the student, the career they want to pursue, and their financial and/or time limitations. At Concorde, we focus on creating academic programs that work with a student's goals and needs, allowing them to train for their dream job. We offer diploma, associate, and bachelor's degree programs for a variety of health care professions. Additionally, we have online college courses available for students who are looking for more flexibility.

Explore our offerings and apply online today to start your path toward a meaningful career in health care.


1. "Professional certifications and occupational licenses: evidence from the Current Population Survey," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

2. Image via Flickr by ThoroughlyReviewed,

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  1. Program length may be subject to change dependent on transfer credits and course load. Please refer to current course catalog for more information. Concorde does not guarantee admittance, graduation, subsequent employment or salary amount.

  2. Professional certification is not a requirement for graduation, may not be a requirement for employment nor does it guarantee employment.

  3. Financial aid is available to those who qualify but may not be available for all programs. Concorde does not guarantee financial aid or scholarship awards or amounts.

  4. Clinical hour requirements and delivery may vary by campus location and may be subject to change. Concorde does not guarantee clinical site assignments based upon student preference or geographic convenience; nor do clinical experiences guarantee graduation, post-clinical employment or salary outcomes.

  5. Registration and certification requirements for taking and passing these examinations are not controlled by Concorde, but by outside agencies, and are subject to change by the agency without notice. Therefore, Concorde cannot guarantee that graduates will be eligible to take these exams, at all or at any specific time, regardless of their eligibility status upon enrollment.