Online Graduate Certificate Program Guide

Oct 19, 2021

What Is an Online Graduate Certificate?

Graduate certificates may also be known as professional certificates. These programs are available at the post-baccalaureate and post-master's levels in a wide range of fields, and some may focus on specific industries or job titles. They help provide students with specialized training that goes beyond the introduction of an undergraduate degree, but are not quite as extensive as a full graduate degree. Online formats of these programs are designed to provide students with greater flexibility to control their own study schedule and work from any location.

What Is the Difference Between an Online Graduate Certificate and an Online Master's Degree?

Some of the biggest differences between an online graduate certificate and an online master's degree are the scope of the program and the time it takes to finish the program. Though both programs are available in an online format and in an array of fields, graduate certificate programs are typically shorter in nature than a graduate certificate. For instance, many of these certificates can be completed in 1 year or less, while a master's degree may take 1 to 2 years to complete. This also means that while graduate certificates provide specialized skills in a given area, they are not as detailed or extensive as a master's degree may be.

Why Should I Earn a Graduate Certificate Online?

There are several different reasons why a student may decide to pursue an online graduate certificate, including personal interests, flexibility, and professional development. Graduate certificates are available in many different fields, which allows students to extend their knowledge and interests beyond that of a bachelor's degree. Online formats allow students to continue working and/or prioritizing their personal life over attending school full-time. These programs are often shorter than a graduate degree, and therefore, usually save time and money. Finally, graduate certificates can help give students a competitive edge as they further develop their skills in a particular area, which can also help advance their careers.

Professional Advancement

The advanced skills that an online graduate certificate offers students can often help lead to professional advancement in their careers. Many employers are searching for applicants who have some advanced knowledge in their field, and those with a graduate certificate may increase their competitiveness in the job market. Earning an online graduate certificate can also help prepare students for professional certification and ensure that students are updated on current techniques and methods used in their field, increasing job prospects. For example, earning an online graduate certificate in information technology helps further develop students' analytical and technical skills, which is sought after in today's business world.

Salary Benefits

With advanced skills and knowledge and possible career advancement, it is also likely that those with a graduate certificate can earn a salary increase. For instance, according to, graduates with a Bachelor of Science (BS/BSc) in Project Management made a median annual salary of $70,448, as of February 2021, while those with a graduate certificate in project management made a median annual salary of $83,817 for the same time period. While salary benefits may vary based on factors like industry and position, in general, the specialized skills earned in a graduate certificate program are worth more than those obtained with only an undergraduate degree.

Skill Development & Specialization

As mentioned, online graduate certificate programs provide students with advanced skills and knowledge in their chosen field that go beyond a bachelor's degree. These skills may help lead to advanced positions and/or prepare students for professional certification or further graduate study in their field. In general, these certificate programs may allow students to focus their studies on specialized skills within a field, such as different types of management, including project management or information technology management. These programs may also give students the chance to work with current technologies used in a given field and study the most recent and updated information in their field.

How Do I Apply for an Online Graduate Certificate?

Students wishing to apply to an online graduate certificate program can usually find the specific admissions requirements for their given program on the school website. Typically, students can apply online and, depending on the school, programs may have rolling admissions or multiple start dates to help students begin their program as soon as possible. Deadlines to apply for these certificate programs may come about a month prior to a chosen start date. Usually, programs accept students for fall, spring, or summer semesters but may also have additional start dates throughout each semester.

Eligibility Requirements for Online Graduate Certificates

The specific eligibility requirements for online graduate certificates vary from program to program but are usually similar to those of on-campus graduate certificate programs. However, online learners must have some computer skills in order to navigate their online programs. Online students must also meet any computer and technical requirements for their online coursework. Other common admissions requirements for these online graduate certificate programs include holding at least a bachelor's degree, and some programs may have a minimum GPA requirement. It is fairly common for international students to need to demonstrate English proficiency for these programs, and F1 Visa holders may not be eligible for admission. Some programs may require students to have a minimum amount of work experience in a given field and/or be currently employed in said field.

Online Graduate Certificate Application Materials

Online graduate certificate application materials also vary by school and program. However, students usually have to include their transcripts from any postsecondary education they have completed. Based on a student's educational background, some departments may determine that applicants do or do not need to complete prerequisite coursework. Depending on the program and school, students may or may not need to submit standardized test scores, such as GRE or GMAT scores. Some programs may offer ways to waive these test scores. English proficiency is only required for international students, and some programs may require additional application materials, such as letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement or statement of purpose.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Graduate Certificate?

Most online graduate certificate programs take less than 1 year to complete, but the specific time to certificate completion varies greatly by school and program. For instance, there are some online graduate certificates that can be completed in as little as 6 months. Others may allow students to move more slowly and finish closer to 12 months. Programs that are more technical and/or hands-on in nature may take longer to finish, while others that are more theory-based may be finished more quickly. For instance, an online certificate in information technology may take 8 to 12 months to finish, while an online certificate in school leadership may only take 6 months. Factors such as full-time vs. part-time enrollment and transfer credit may also affect how long it takes to finish the certificate program.

Accreditation for Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Accreditation is important because it indicates to employers (and students) the quality of the degree. Accreditation also allows students to qualify for financial aid and may allow the transfer of credits more easily. Typically, schools that offer online graduate certificate programs are regionally accredited. This means that all of their programs have met general academic standards set by organizations, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) or the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE). Some certificate programs may have an additional program-level accreditation based on the academic field. For instance, some graduate certificates in business may be accredited by business-related organizations, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). This additional accreditation may stand out to employers as it indicates that programs have met additional industry-specific standards put in place to best prepare students for careers in the field.

How Much Does an Online Graduate Certificate Cost?

The cost of an online graduate certificate varies greatly by institution and program, but, in general, an online graduate certificate typically costs less than a master's program as it requires fewer credit hours. When calculating the total cost of an online graduate certificate program, students may also need to investigate various types of fees, such as technology fees or general service fees, in addition to tuition and the cost of books or supplies. Although the cost of certificate programs varies by school and area, one school reported a range from around $2,673 to $13,008 for the total cost of various online graduate certificate programs for the 2019-2020 school year.

Online Graduate Certificate Financial Aid & Tuition Reimbursement

Students can often find ways to help pay for their postsecondary education, including online graduate certificate programs. Students may want to begin by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to accept any qualifying loans or grants. Many schools also offer tuition discounts for military students and/or spouses. Scholarships are another great way to help pay for education, as these awards do not have to be paid back. Scholarships may be available from schools, professional organizations, and other sources in varying amounts and may be awarded on merit, service, and other qualifications. Some schools and employers may offer tuition reimbursement options. This means that employers may help pay for employees who are enrolled in specific qualifying academic programs in hopes that employees will further advance their skills to the advantage of the organization.

What Kind of Online Graduate Certificate Should I Get?

Determining what kind of online graduate certificate depends on a student's interests and career goals. Those who have already identified a field of interest and/or began their career in a specific field may consider earning a graduate certificate in that given field that will help them further specialize their skills and further advance their career. Online learners can choose from a wide range of graduate certificate options in various fields, including some of the ones discussed in more detail below.

Online Graduate Certificates in Business

Online graduate certificates in business are very common. They are available in many different areas of business, such as online finance, management, supply chain, and online marketing certificate programs. Some of these certificate programs may have program-level accreditation from business-related organizations. In general, these graduate certificate programs help equip students with specialized skills that may allow them to move into positions in different areas of business and/or into positions with greater leadership roles and responsibilities.

Depending on what area of business students want to study, they may have multiple certificate programs to choose from. For example, the field of management is very broad, and students may choose from online graduate certificate options in areas such as financial management or risk management. Some certificate programs, including online graduate certificates in human resources or business analyst certificate programs, may be specifically designed to help prepare students for professional certification in the field. For example, students in an online graduate certificate program in human resources management may go on to earn their Professional in Human Resources (PHR) or Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification after passing an exam.

Online Graduate Certificates in Education

There are also multiple online graduate certificates available in the broad field of education. These graduate certificate programs are usually designed for those already working in education and typically help prepare students to take on leadership roles within their schools and/or specialize within a specific area of education. For example, students wishing to further develop their leadership skills may pursue an online educational leadership certificate or one in leadership in technology integration. Other students may wish to move into a specific area of education or work with a specific population. These learners may pursue programs such as an online special education certificate or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) instructional leader certificate. There are even some online teacher certification programs that help students qualify to teach in their state.

Online Graduate Certificates in the Humanities

The humanities cover an array of subject areas, and online graduate certificate programs are available in many of them. These programs may be less technical in nature than fields such as business but still provide students with advanced skills in their chosen field. There are some online graduate certificate programs available in general areas of the humanities, such as public humanities or digital public humanities certificate programs. Other certificate programs may focus on specific fields that fall within the humanities, such as online programs in public administration, political science, or theology.

Online Graduate Certificates in Healthcare

Healthcare is a growing field, and online graduate certificates generally aim to prepare students for leadership and management positions. Similar to education, many of these programs are designed for those who are already working in the field of healthcare, and some of the most common programs are online healthcare management certificate programs. However, there are also online graduate certificates in various areas of healthcare. For example, students may pursue an online certificate program in public health, health education, or health informatics. There are also some post-master's certificate programs, such as in nursing, that help students pursue specialized certifications. For instance, nursing students may take an online post-graduate certificate program in family nurse practitioner to prepare for the board certification.

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