Best Online Certificate Programs

Oct 19, 2021

What are Certificate Programs?

Certificate programs teach students specific skills they can apply directly to the workforce. Whether changing careers or just starting out in one, certificate programs are an alternative to diploma and degree programs. They are generally shorter in duration and cost less than traditional degrees or vocational diplomas.

College certificate programs are offered both online and on-campus. They can be found at technical schools, two-year colleges, and four-year universities. They may be offered at the undergraduate or graduate level or as a requirement for certain vocations such as cosmetologists or certified nursing assistants. Subject matter varies across certificate programs. Graduate certificates tend to focus on theoretical training, while vocational certificates are generally skills-based.

Online certificates give students the opportunity to complete coursework through distance learning. Although some certificates may have in-person components, many are offered 100% online. Certificate programs vary in length but can typically be completed in less than a year, with some lasting as little as several months. Coursework is usually available through an online educational application such as Canvas or Blackboard. There, students can submit assignments, interact with other students in forums or chats, and access learning materials uploaded by the professor.

Why Get an Online Certificate?

Students may choose to pursue an online certificate program for a number of reasons. A major draw for many individuals is the flexibility that online programs provide. Those with prior work or family commitments can study and complete assignments in a location and at a time that's convenient for them. Because many online certificates are completed 100% through distance education, students can save time commuting to and from a campus. Coursework is generally submitted on a weekly basis, which allows students to work on classwork at any time.

Online certificates also open up a wider range of options for students who would otherwise be limited by colleges or universities located in their immediate geographic location. Online learning allows individuals to study anywhere in the U.S. This is especially helpful for students living in remote or rural areas who do not have access to a nearby college campus. Additionally, program offerings vary by institution. Should a student not have a nearby college or university offering the program they wish to attend, they can look elsewhere in the country to find an online certificate program that meets their needs.

In terms of cost, online programs may save students money on tuition. Some universities do not charge in-state or out-of-state tuition rates. Some schools charge a standard price per credit for all online students. When factoring in additional costs on-campus learning would incur, such as gas money or transportation costs, the savings can add up.

Who Should Consider Online Certificates?

Online certificate programs are suitable for a variety of people. Those who are working full-time and individuals with children may prefer the flexibility of online programs that do not have assigned meeting hours. Classwork, readings, and lectures can be scheduled around children's school and recreational activities or a busy work schedule. Students may choose to study during their commute, before or after work, or at any point during the day they have downtime.

Individuals without access to reliable transportation may also prefer to complete their certificate program online. Attending class on-campus means driving or utilizing public transportation. In some areas of the U.S., those without a car may find getting to their local college or university difficult. Many certificates can be completed entirely online without any in-person residencies.

Students living overseas but wishing to earn a certificate at a U.S. university will find online programs a good choice. Most online certificate programs welcome international students or Americans living abroad. Those without a native mastery of English must generally present exam scores certifying their proficiency.

Anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection will be able to pursue an online certificate program. Those without the appropriate technology can also complete their coursework at a local library or internet café. Students generally need to know how to use a word processor and how to navigate online educational platforms such as Blackboard or Canvas.

Online certificates are appropriate for those looking to upskill, change careers, or enter a career after high school without attending a two- or four-year university. Some jobs only require a certificate, so those unable to finance a degree or who do not wish to attend a longer program may find earning an online certificate better suited to their needs. Many certificates can be completed in less than two years, which means entering the workforce sooner.

Who is Eligible to Apply for a Certificate Program?

Eligibility for certificate programs depends on the level the certificate is offered. Typically, vocational certificate programs only require a high school diploma. Conversely, students who earn a General Educational Development (GED) may also be eligible to apply. A GED is a high school equivalency diploma for those who do not finish a traditional 4-year high school education. It is achieved by passing a series of four exams covering math, science, social studies, and English.

Graduate certificates generally require a bachelor's degree. They may have other prerequisites depending on the program of study and university offering the certificate.

How Long Does it Take to Complete a Certificate Program?

Certificate programs vary in length based on the field of study and the level of study. Short-term certificate programs can last from a few weeks to a few months. These may include certificates for real estate, cosmetology, or nursing assistant training. For example, nursing assistant certificate training can be completed in as few as four weeks online for some programs. This includes in-person skills training. Certificate programs that include practical components that cover more technical skills may take longer than those based solely on theory.

Graduate certificates typically consist of around 12 to 14 credit hours and can be completed in a year or less. Whether a student attends an online certificate program part-time or full-time will impact the completion time. Generally, universities give students a time limit to complete their studies. Those who need to take fewer classes per term or semester are permitted to do so as long as they complete the program within the specified time length.

Students who are entering fields that require certification or licensing should factor in extra time for exam preparation.

What's the Difference Between a Certificate, Diploma, and Degree?

When navigating the educational world, terminology for different awards can get confusing. For students wondering what the difference between a certificate, diploma, and degree is, here is a breakdown of each.

  • Certificate: certificates usually take months rather than years to complete. They require less in-depth study than a diploma or degree. Certificates can be offered at a vocational, undergraduate, or graduate level and may be necessary for some jobs. Generally, bachelor's and master's level certificates add to a learner's skillset, and while they may help move graduates into a new position, they are not as technical in nature as vocational certificates.
  • Diploma: diplomas, like certificates, focus on a specific skill. Diplomas tend to be more technical and generally prepare learners to enter a career after completion. An example of a common diploma pursued by students is the licensed practical nurse (LPN)/licensed vocational nurse (LVN) diploma. These diplomas can generally be earned in less than two years and leave graduates ready to enter the nursing field after passing licensing exams.
  • Degree: a degree is a course of study leading to an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctorate. A typical full-time associate degree is two years, while a bachelor's degree is generally four. Master's and doctoral degrees studied on a full-time basis vary in length from less than a year for some master's programs to up to six years for doctoral degrees. Degrees usually consist of focused coursework that explores one or more fields in depth. Students can usually expect to pay more for a degree program than a diploma or certificate.

Although there are major differences between certificates, diplomas, and degrees, all three can aid students in entering the workforce or changing careers. Whether a certificate, diploma, or degree is best for a particular student depends on their career goals, budget, and the amount of time they have to devote to study.

Online vs. Campus-Based Certificates

Students wishing to pursue a certificate program can choose between completing their studies online or on campus. The preference or mode of study depends on the student's wants and needs and may be influenced by a few key factors. Online study provides flexibility in terms of when and where classwork is completed. Campus-based programs will have set schedules for class meeting times which may not be convenient for students who work or have family responsibilities.

Online programs may be cheaper than campus programs. Some may include access to readings and other texts, which could eliminate the need to purchase materials. Students commuting to campus programs will also need to factor in the cost of transportation. However, students pursuing an online program will need to make sure they have access to reliable internet as well as technology that supports the online learning applications.

Students may prefer attending a campus-based certificate program because they are able to interact with their professors and classmates in person. This may make networking easier or facilitate friendships outside of the classroom. Most online students will never meet their classmates, and for some, this may be a con to online learning. While distance learning students will likely interact with others via forums, they will probably not have face-to-face discussions like students in campus-based programs do.

How to Choose an Online Certificate Program

With so many online certificate programs available across a variety of fields, students may want to consider a number of factors to help narrow down their choices. Some things students may want to research include:

  • Public vs. private universities and colleges: both public and private universities offer online certificate programs. Public universities are typically funded by the government of the state where the institution is located. Private universities are generally nonprofit entities. The biggest differences between public versus private schools include price and size. Public universities tend to be larger, with larger class sizes but are usually cheaper to attend than private universities.
  • Price: the cost of education is a major consideration for many students. Students who choose to pursue a certificate instead of a degree may do so because of the lower price tag. Online certificate program costs vary by college or university as well as for the field of study. For some programs, students will pay by credit hour with additional fees charged per course or per term. Other online certificate programs will charge a flat fee for the entire program. Students may wish to pursue funding for their program. This could be through government or private loans, scholarships, or grants. Some employers may also pay for their employees to undertake a certificate program.
  • Accreditation: accreditation is an important thing to consider for choosing an online certificate program. U.S. federal financial aid is not granted for nonaccredited colleges and universities. Accreditation may also be necessary for the field students are hoping to enter. State licensing boards require students to complete accredited, approved training programs to ensure the standard of education is high.
  • For-profit vs. non-profit: public universities are nonprofit organizations, but private universities can be nonprofits, as well. This means that student tuition goes back into the university. For-profit universities are typically fully online and have a more open admissions process with fewer requirements. For-profit universities tend to be more expensive and may or may not be accredited. Students may not be able to use federal student loans at for-profit colleges or universities.
  • Faculty: students may want to attend an online certificate program with highly experienced teachers or professors. Those with extensive industry knowledge will impart quality information. Faculty with connections to the community, including employers, may also be able to help students get a foot in the door in their chosen field.
  • Proximity: online certificate programs are offered at colleges and universities across the U.S. This gives students many options of programs to attend. However, some fields that require licensing, such as healthcare, wellness, or education, will require students to meet state requirements for training and education. Students considering pursuing jobs in these fields will likely need to attend a program in the state where they wish to work after completing their studies.
  • Asynchronous vs. synchronous classes: classes that are held in real-time are called synchronous, while those that are pre-recorded and available at any time are called asynchronous. If students have a particularly busy schedule and cannot fit attending online lectures around their responsibilities, asynchronous classes are probably the better option.

How to Apply to Certificate Programs

Students who plan to apply to certificate programs may want to strategize the process by choosing reach, target, and safety schools. Reach programs are those that the applicant has a low probability of getting into due to academic standards that fall below those that the school seeks. These are typically dream schools that students strive to get into despite lower odds of acceptance. Target programs are programs that students will likely get into. The odds of acceptance aren't too low or too high; students meet the majority of the requirements for these programs. Lastly, safety schools are those that the students are more or less guaranteed to be accepted to. Students will meet or exceed all admissions requirements. By applying to programs across all three tiers, students are guaranteed to be admitted to at least one or more programs without being disappointed.

After identifying colleges or universities of interest, students will need to gather documents and materials to submit with an application. Most applications for online certificate programs will be completed online. However, admissions standards will vary greatly based on the level of the certificate and field of study. For vocational or undergraduate certificates, students generally need at least a high school diploma or GED. For graduate-level certificates, a bachelor's degree is usually the minimum educational requirement. Regardless of the level, official transcripts are usually requested to prove the minimum level of education has been achieved.

Graduate-level certificates tend to ask for more materials in the application packet. These documents could include standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), and/or a personal statement or letter explaining the reasons for applying to the program. Some programs may request an application fee though this varies by university.

If students hope to apply transfer credits, they will need to consult with the college or university admissions office. Several factors determine whether credits will transfer between institutions. Accreditation is a major issue as nationally accredited credits do not transfer to schools with regional accreditation. Credits from schools that are not accredited generally do not transfer to accredited institutions. Additionally, universities will check for course equivalency to make certain that the class taken at another university matches the class the student is seeking credit for.

Types of Online Certificate Programs

Online certificate programs exist for a diverse range of fields and can be earned at various levels of study. Vocational certificates for careers as a cosmetologist or nursing assistant lead to employment in the field and are required by employers. Undergraduate certificates may include more theoretical study but prepare students to enter a specific field in the workforce. Meanwhile, graduate certificates tend to be theory-based rather than skills-based and are used to enhance an individual's knowledge within their field with the intention of advancement. These graduate-level programs generally focus on specialized areas and require deeper study than certificates offered at the vocational or undergraduate levels.

Some common certificates by level include:

  • Vocational: medical assistant, dental assistant, real estate agent
  • Undergraduate: emergency medical technician, hazardous waste management, information technology management
  • Graduate: applied behavior analysis, autism spectrum disorders, gifted education

These certificates have different lengths, admissions requirements, and prices. The length and price generally depends on the field, with healthcare programs being the longest and most costly.

Accreditation for Online Certificate Programs

Choosing an accredited online certificate program is an important consideration for prospective students. Accreditation means that a college or university has gone through a review process from an external body that ensures their program meets minimum standards. Accredited programs are eligible for U.S. federal financial aid. Some state licensing boards may also require that students complete certificate programs from approved, accredited schools.

Accreditation can be granted by regional or national bodies or organizations specific to a field. There are six regional accrediting bodies which include:

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC): covers 19 states in the Midwest
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE): covers 5 states in the Mid-Atlantic, including Washington, DC
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU): covers 7 states in the Northwest
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC): covers California, Hawaii, and the Hawaiian territories
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC): covers 6 states in New England
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS): covers 11 states in the South

National accreditation for online certificate programs may be granted by organizations such as the Distance Education & Training Council (DETC) or Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). Review standards for regional bodies tend to be more strict than for national bodies. Credits earned at nationally accredited schools only transfer to other nationally accredited institutions. However, credits earned at regionally accredited schools transfer to universities with regional and national accreditation.

Is it Better to Attend an Online Certificate Program in My State?

Students who choose to pursue a certificate program online will have the choice to attend a course in-state or out-of-state. For certain professions, it may not matter where the course is taken. However, for fields such as healthcare or emergency services, students who will need to become licensed or certified will need to do so in their home state.

For medical jobs that only require a certificate, students will generally need to attend an online certificate program in their state due to licensing or certification considerations. States tend to have individual requirements for training, so these will need to correspond with the program the student pursues. Also, for professions working directly with people in health and wellness, there may be in-person components to complete the program. For example, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) must be registered with the state nursing board in the state they wish to work. While certifications can be transferable between states once a CNA is initially licensed or certified, students will typically be able to enter the workforce faster if their program is in their home state.

For programs that do not have licensing requirements tied to state requirements, attending an online course in a student's home state may be helpful for networking. Students might have the opportunity to get connected with employers or other professionals in the field which could lead to a job after completion.

Careers That Require a Certificate

  • Medical assistant: medical assistants work in clinics, doctor's offices, and hospitals. Medical assistants are usually responsible for patient intake procedures such as taking medical histories and basic vital signs such as height, weight, and blood pressure. They also help with patient examinations and may administer medications. They generally must earn a certificate or diploma that takes around a year to complete. As of May 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that medical assistants earn a median annual salary of $34,800, with those working in outpatient centers and hospitals earning the most.
  • Dental assistant: dental assistants typically work in dentist's offices and perform a variety of administrative and patient care tasks. Dental assistants may document patient information in charts, schedule appointments, and educate patients on proper dental hygiene. They may also assist in procedures under the direction of a dentist. Dental assistants typically need to complete a year-long dental assisting certificate program. Programs must be approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, a part of the American Dental Association. Dental assistants made a median annual salary of $40,080 in May 2019, per BLS data.
  • Paralegal: paralegals are legal professionals that assist in the preparation of cases alongside lawyers and attorneys. They may gather documents, do legal research, or prepare witnesses for trial. They may also help during trials or legal proceedings. Paralegals generally need at least a certificate from a program approved by the American Bar Association. The BLS reported in May 2019 that paralegals made a median salary of $51,740 a year.
  • Emergency medical technician (EMT): EMTs are healthcare professionals that assist victims of trauma or injury. EMTs are usually the first on the scene of an emergency such as a fire or car accident. They assess victims and provide basic life support before and during transport to a hospital. EMTs need to complete a certificate training program that typically lasts less than one year. According to the BLS, in May 2019, EMTs earned a median wage of $35,400 yearly.
  • Cosmetologist: cosmetologists are beauty professionals that provide hair, skin, and makeup advice to clients. They typically work in hair salons but can be self-employed or work at a hotel or resort. Cosmetologists must be licensed by the state in which they are working and must complete an approved cosmetology certificate program. The BLS reports that as of May 2019, cosmetologists made a median hourly wage of $12.54. These professionals also earn tips from clients, which can increase earning potential.

Financial Aid for Online Certificate Programs

Students planning to pursue an online certificate program will need to consider how to finance their education. Fortunately, there are many options for students who cannot afford to pay out of pocket for educational expenses. Students can apply for financial aid, grants, and/or scholarships. Some employers may also pay for employee education, although this varies by organization.

Financial aid is available as either private loans or U.S. government loans. Although most students use U.S. federal financial aid for degree-granting programs, some online certificate programs allow students to use aid money. Universities may offer undergraduate and/or graduate certificate programs eligible for financial aid. These programs must meet certain criteria. To apply for federal financial aid, students will need to gather financial documents, including prior tax year information. Then, interested individuals must fill out an online application called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After receiving the completed application, the university or college will provide an overview of the aid package offered.

Private loans can be taken out for vocational training programs that lead to certificates. One major private loan provider, Sallie Mae, offers aid to undergraduate, graduate, and certificate students. Students must provide personal and financial information. Most borrowers will also have to provide a cosigner. A cosigner is a person who will be responsible for repaying the loan should the borrower not be able to. They are considered a safety net by the organization. Private loans have variable interest rates and may offer flexible repayment plans.

Grants are provided to students who can demonstrate significant financial hardship. This type of aid does not need to be repaid and can be used for tuition and fees. Grants may be provided by organizations that oversee vocational training programs.

Scholarships are another form of aid that doesn't require repayment. Scholarships are available from public and private sources across many different fields and certificate levels. Scholarships may be offered by the college or university itself. For example, Berklee Online, an accredited music education university offers the Celebrity Online Scholarship. Students with a 3.7 GPA or higher who are recommended by professors can apply for a scholarship award of $1,497 that can be used toward certificate tuition.

Some states provide scholarships for students pursuing certificates in healthcare. Illinois' Nursing Education Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students pursuing a certificate in practical nursing in order to increase the nursing workforce in the state. Applicants must be a resident for at least one year and demonstrate financial need.

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