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The Ultimate Guide to Online Certificates

 Did you know that the earliest distance education reference was by Caleb Phillips in the Boston Gazette on March 20, 1728, when he advertised correspondence lessons for a shorthand course?  But he isn’t recognized as the pioneer of distance education – the distinction belongs to Isaac Pitman, who taught shorthand via correspondence in Bath, England in 1840. He mailed lessons to students with the instructions of transcribing Bible passages into shorthand and then returning them, via the post office, for correction.


These are worth mentioning because these are the predecessors of online certificate programs. Note that online education is a form of distance education, defined as teaching where teachers and students are physically separated. Online education is the latest iteration of distance education, with the first being via parcel post followed by radio and television, and finally through the Internet. 

As we know it today, online education emerged in 1989 when the University of Phoenix used CompuServe, among the world’s first consumer online services. With the introduction of the Internet in 1991, the University of Phoenix offered Internet-based online education programs – and the rest is history.  In 1992, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation developed the Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALN) to explore educational alternatives for non-traditional students. 

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From the early to the mid-1990s, universities and colleges also experimented with online courses. But it was only in 1998 when online education experienced rapid growth, particularly among traditional non-profit institutions. The New York University (NYU) was the first large non-profit university that launched a for-profit online education subsidiary, NYU Online, in October 1998. 

Other universities and colleges soon followed, such as the California Virtual University (November 1998). While many of the first online schools closed because of the lack of understanding of online learning styles, technology, and pedagogy, among other reasons, some survived. The University of Phoenix is a notable example – it’s a pioneer in online education in continuous operation. 

Online schools are similar to brick-and-mortar schools because these institutions offer certificate, diploma, and degree-granting programs. The main difference is the method of instruction and interaction between the students and teachers. In online education, computers and the Internet are the delivery mechanisms of instruction where 80% of the content is delivered online. 

This guide will only discuss online certificate programs, including their main characteristics, employment prospects, and application requirements. What then are online certificate programs? 

These consist of short-term specialist training classes in various subjects, from technical-vocational training to academic subjects like accounting, communications, and education. These are offered in two levels – undergraduate and graduate – but in both cases, there’s the expectation of gainful employment because the specialist training provides students with a competitive edge. This isn’t just in the form of theoretical knowledge but, more importantly, practical skills that employers look for in prospective employees. 

How Do Online Certificates, Online Diplomas, and Online Degrees Differ?

Keep in mind that online certificate programs are non-degree programs, a crucial distinction that must be made early on to set realistic expectations. Students who complete these programs earn a certificate, neither a diploma nor a degree like an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree. 

Aside from this distinction, here are a few more differences between the three online programs. These are important distinctions so that realistic expectations can be made. 

Online certificate programs offer specialization in technical fields, such as web programming, bookkeeping, and bioinformatics. Depending on the program, students can have little to no formal coursework since the focus is on hands-on training resulting in practical skills. 


The application and admission requirements depend on whether it’s an undergraduate or graduate program. For an undergraduate program, the typical prerequisite is either a high diploma or a GED. For a graduate program, a bachelor’s degree is the common requirement. 

Most certificate programs can be completed in an academic year or less, and their credits range from 20 to 30 credits. Name an area of specialization, and there’s likely one offered in an online subsidiary of a brick-and-mortar institution or an exclusively online school. These include business administration and management, law and medicine, engineering, automotive mechanics, and I.T. management, to name a few.  

Online diploma programs also offer specialized training in technical and vocational areas. But these combine formal coursework and hands-on training and, thus, these represent a step up from online certificate programs. 

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As a result, diploma programs take longer to complete, usually within one to two years. These also provide a more comprehensive education than certificate programs and earn more credits, from 40 to 60 credits. But their admission requirements and areas covered are usually similar, if not the same, as those in certificate programs; areas offered include graphic and web design, paralegal studies, I.T. management, property management, and dental office administration.  

Online degree programs encompass an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree programs. While many schools offer 100% online degree completion, many schools also require blended or hybrid learning. The admission requirements are similar, if not the same, as those required of students attending traditional classroom-based courses. 

An associate degree program’s admissions requirements, for example, may include a high school diploma or GED, official transcripts, and SAT/ACT score. There may be extra requirements like letters of recommendation, personal essay, and a complete Common Application with a bachelor’s degree program. 

Why Should You Take Online Certification Courses?

While a certificate may not seem like much compared to a diploma or a degree, we want to emphasize that it’s just as valuable in employment and entrepreneurship! There are hundreds of high-paying jobs that only require six-month training, such as emergency medical technician, funeral director, and firefighter. These are also jobs that offer plenty of career advancement opportunities with work experience, further training, and hard work.  

We also want to point out the other numerous benefits that come with taking online certification courses.  

Cost efficiency

The most attractive benefit is the cost – an online certification program has lower tuition and fees than the typical associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree programs. There are even free courses, lectures, and discussions in many fields of study, such as  Oracle University offering over 50 hours of online training. Even Google has launched its professional I.T. support certificate program, which costs $49 per month and takes up to eight months to complete.  

We suggest looking into Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for free resources, too. MOOCs offer unlimited participation and open access, aside from flexibility in scheduling.  

Flexible learning schedule

Many certificate programs work on an asynchronous schedule, and, thus, there are no set schedules for classes. Students log in to their accounts on their own time and learn at their own pace—at least for the most part considering the deadlines. Pre-recorded lectures and other learning materials are available for access 24/7, and it’s a benefit that working professionals and other non-traditional students take advantage of.  

In some cases, online courses are available through a mobile platform that allows students to access coursework from their Internet-connected smartphones. 

Opportunity to improve on your skillset consistently or as the need arises, such as in technology obsolescence

Many online certificate programs are designed as a series of training that builds on one specialized skillset after another. There’s plenty of opportunities for improvement, whether you’re into plumbing or public speaking! 

Quick completion

Indeed, it takes less time to acquire specialized skills in a certificate degree program than in a diploma and degree program! You can complete a certificate program within a year or less, find employment, put your skills to good use, and then consider another certificate program for career advancement. You may be able to earn two or more certifications in four years and be just as competitive as degree holders, too.

Positive impact on career

Online certification is a great way to start your career, change your career, or get career advancement.  For example, you may be a high school graduate who wants to be gainfully employed in trade – an online certification will do the trick. On the other hand, you may want career advancement in your current job by getting specialized training – again, an online certification can be your ticket.

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Advanced certifications are available for this purpose. Choices include a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, a Society of Human Resource Management Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) certification, and a Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) Certification. 

Indeed, an online certification can be your ticket to success, along with a strong work ethic, excellent work performance, and support from family and friends! 

What About On-Campus Certificates?

On-campus certificate programs also have several benefits that make them good choices for training, too. These include access to on-campus resources like libraries, writing centers, and computer labs; hands-on training and formal coursework are incorporated in classroom and laboratory sessions; students meet regularly with their professors, fellow students, and academic advisers. Indeed, the high level of social interaction in on-campus certificate programs is among their attractive qualities. 

But traditional certificate programs also have their drawbacks that will likely give students pause for thought. For one thing, synchronous programs require daily or weekly attendance that interferes with non-traditional students, such as those with jobs, family responsibilities like childcare, and other non-school regular commitments. On-campus attendance also requires other expenses, including traveling and parking costs.  

For another thing, on-campus programs generally have larger class sizes. This means less individualized attention for students, not to mention that there are no pre-recorded lectures and ready-to-use learning materials with 24/7 access. 

Aside from these significant drawbacks to on-campus certificate programs, there’s also the finding that online and on-campus programs only have minimal differences. In a study, researchers found no significant differences in student performance between the two instruction delivery methods. This implies that students’ knowledge and skills in online programs are comparable to those in on-campus programs.  

Students agree, too! In a Wiley Education Services annual survey, the 2020 Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences, the majority (78%) of online students surveyed stated that their online experience was the same or better than face-to-face classroom experience. The majority (79%) of students surveyed who completed their online studies agree or strongly agreed that it was worth it. 

Are Online Certificates Becoming the Trend?

No, online certificate programs aren’t becoming the trend. Instead, these have become mainstream! We can safely say that the 1990s were when these programs were becoming the trend, but these aren’t now. 

Such mainstream acceptance isn’t even due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing colleges and universities to consider online platforms for instruction (i.e., a study from home arrangement).  In a 2015 survey conducted by the Babson Research Group, about 5.8 million college students – or more than 28% of the entire student population in the U.S. – were enrolled in an online course in 2014. 

Online learning has also experienced a huge explosion in popularity! According to a forecast by Research and Markets in December 2019, the online education market will reach $350 billion globally by 2025 – and this in pre-pandemic times, too! The United States is among the leaders in this market due to its early start and steady advancements in online learning-related technology. 

There are several online learning platforms used in certificate programs, such as Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Skillshare, and Lynda, that serve millions of people worldwide. These are also different from each other – Coursera, for example, is largely used in university academic courses while Skillshare is mostly applied in creative courses like photography, animation, and lifestyle. 

Top-tier universities offer online certificate courses and, thus, democratize their world-class, if expensive, education. For instance, Harvard University offers certificate courses in art and design, education and teaching, health and medicine, and programming. Stanford University offers advanced computer security, innovation and entrepreneurship, and medical statistics certificate programs. Brown University has certificate programs in clinical and translational research and medical science.  

The bottom line: There’s a huge demand for online certificate programs, and this is supported by plenty of data. The latest data from the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reveal that more than 6.9 million students – or more than 35% of the U.S. student population – in the Fall 2018 term were enrolled in distance education courses. 

What Are the Ins and Outs of Online Certificates?

The key to success as a student in an online certification program is a comprehensive understanding of its requirements, expectations, and costs, among other elements. We suggest reading until the end so that you can make smart decisions when applying for and getting admitted into online certification programs.  

Undergraduate and Graduate Programs Available 

Undergraduate online certificate programs are for students without an undergraduate degree, although they may already have earned several college credits. These are offered in universities, community colleges, and career schools with an online education platform and are available in academic courses, career-oriented fields, and skilled trades. 

While these programs offer coursework akin to an associate’s degree, they are heavier on practical skills than formal learning. But many allow students to transfer the credits earned in certificate programs to associate’s degree programs, thus, shortening the time spent on the latter.  

The admission requirements for undergraduate certificate programs vary depending on the program and school. Most, however, admit students with a high school diploma or GED and additional requirements, such as basic technology proficiency, math, English language skills, and a working knowledge of computers and the Internet. Many programs also require prospective students to be working professionals in a field related to the certificate program they plan to be in.  

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Graduate online certificate programs are offered in academic subject areas and professional studies. Remember that these aren’t master’s degree programs but are programs designed to provide students with mastery in a specific field or subject. For this reason, these programs are popular among working professionals who want to expand their expertise through specialized or advanced training on specific topics.  

As such, only individuals with a bachelor’s degree can be considered for admission into graduate certificate programs. Other admission requirements can include minimum GPA, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and SAT/ACT score. Students may also be required to be working professionals in a field related to the certificate program. 

Credits earned in a graduate certificate program may also apply to a master’s degree. But policies on credit transfers vary between schools, so be sure to ask first. These credits can be earned in a year or less on a full-time schedule, more if on a part-time enrollment.  

Technical Requirements

If you’re planning on enrolling in an online certificate program, you must be familiar with the technology used during classes and submit requirements. These include computers and their applications, including video calls, chats, emails, and messaging and the effective use of Internet resources. 

Be sure to ask the online school about the technical requirements, including using a specific platform like Blackboard. The common technical requirements include: 

  • Latest operating system 
  • Multimedia capabilities 
  • Minimum memory or storage
  • Software like Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and Adobe Flash Player

These requirements imply a computer setup with the minimum technical specifications stated by the school and a stable Internet connection. The computer setup usually includes the hardware, namely, the main computer, a headset with a microphone, a video camera, and the software necessary for their full operation.  

Duration of Classes/Courses 

The length of an online certificate program varies depending on the field of study or subject matter. Subjects with a broader scope, such as dental assistant and I.T. management programs, have a longer duration than specialized subjects like automotive mechanics, medical billing and coding, and HVAC. At Harvard University, for example, the Professional Certificate Program in Data Science lasts for two weeks while the Higher Education Teaching Program is for eight weeks. 

The number of courses and credits also varies. There may be between three and ten courses, perhaps even more, and 10 to 40 credit hours. Some schools even have certificate programs with a one-quarter or one-semester duration! 

Availability of Accelerated Formats

Students who want to take the fast track toward a certificate will find plenty of accelerated certificate programs that will address their needs. In some cases, the number of months spent on the program can be halved through longer class duration and more class sessions. 

For example, at the University of Washington, the online Lean Six Sigma Management: Green Belt certificate program lasts five months. In comparison, Purdue University’s program takes ten months to complete. But both programs will result in the highly coveted Lean Six Sigma certification, a competitive edge for a wide range of jobs, including Lean Six Sigma consultant, lead manufacturing engineer, and operating system specialist. 

Getting into an online accelerated certificate program has its benefits, including shorter time spent earning the certification, more convenience since classes are online, and lower costs of attendance.  But some drawbacks must be considered, such as the more rigorous coursework and limited time for personal responsibilities. 

These are then minor drawbacks considering the major benefits that come with a trade and professional certification!  

100% Online and Hybrid Options 

Many colleges and universities also offer hybrid certificate programs in addition to the 100% online programs. The hybrid programs involve on-campus and online classes, a combination that appeals to students who want the hands-on training and social interaction of traditional classes. 

Both 100% online and hybrid options have their pros and cons that must be considered before making the enrollment decision. Schools usually inform prospective students whether their certificate programs are 100% online or hybrids, such as the Grand Valley State University’s Applied Behavior online program and Palliative and Hospice Care hybrid program.  

Fully online certificate programs are best for students who prefer to study at their own time and pace due to their busy schedules and unique circumstances. These are also cost-efficient because most, if not all, costs related to traveling, parking, and on-campus accommodations can be eliminated.  But asynchronous learning and the absence of face-to-face interaction with teachers can be a challenge, not to mention that a high-speed Internet connection is necessary. 

Hybrid certificate programs are considered as happy mediums because of their balance between online and on-campus learning. On the one hand, playback technology used in asynchronous learning allows students 24/7 access lectures, assignments, and activities for their home-based study sessions. On the other hand, fewer face-to-face class meetings mean lower costs related to traveling and parking on campus. 

Which is the better option? Well, it depends on your unique needs and wants! You may want a 100% online program because there’s little need for practicum, such as professional certification. But you may choose a hybrid program if hands-on training is a must, usually in trade skills certification and in some professional certification (e.g., psychiatric mental health nursing or palliative and hospice care).  


The school’s accreditation is the first element that distance learners must look for when considering enrollment in one of its online certificate programs. Without accreditation, all your hard work and dollars will likely be in vain since your certification may neither be valid nor acceptable in the workplace. This is true whether you acquired practical knowledge and skills – your certification will essentially be fake! 

What’s accreditation? It’s the official review process wherein schools and their academic programs, including certificate programs, are evaluated according to their industry standards compliance. It’s a voluntary process, but most, if not all, reputable schools choose to participate in it since it serves as a guarantee of quality.  

Accreditation proves that the school has a robust and rigorous curriculum that meets industry and government standards. It’s also a guarantee that the faculty members have the proper credentials and adopt sound business practices. It’s also a must for students to be eligible for federal aid, particularly FAFSA and other financial aid forms. 

The federal or state governments and private donors only provide financial assistance, including student financial aid, scholarships, and endowments to accredited schools. The reason: To ensure that funds aren’t being misused in supporting diploma mills.  

In the United States, accreditation comes in three types:  

  • regional accreditation for academic institutions. These are the seven regional accrediting agencies for post-secondary institutions:
    • Middle States Commission on Higher Education 
    • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
    • Higher Learning Commission 
    • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities 
    • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools 
    • Western Association of Schools and Colleges 
    • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges 
  • A national accreditation is typical for technical and vocational schools as well as for for-profit institutions. The national faith-related and career-related accreditors include: 
    • National Faith-Related Accrediting Organizations
    • Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation
    • Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools
    • Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools Accreditation Commission
    • Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies
    • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accreditation Commission
    • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
    • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools 
    • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
    • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
    • Council on Occupational Education
    • Distance Education Accrediting Commission
  • A programmatic accreditation is awarded to specific schools and their programs within a larger university system. Examples include the American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation; Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education; Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education; and National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences.

Take note that online and blended programs aren’t required to seek special accreditation distinction. You must then look for the school’s regional, national, and programmatic accreditation status. 

The Department of Education (DOE), a federal government agency, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a non-profit organization, are the official bodies that recognize these accreditors. If you’re interested in checking a school’s accreditation status, you can check out their websites for the full lists of accreditors.  

Tuition, Fees, and Other Costs

Cost is a primary consideration for students planning to pursue trade and professional certifications. Even when these programs last for under a year, these can cost thousands of dollars in tuition, fees, and other related charges. These costs also vary depending on the school, the type of certification program, and the technical training involved, among other factors. 

Students must also consider other expenses, including the computer setup (hardware and software), Internet connection fees, and subscription charges. These expenses will eventually add up, not to mention the costs of living like housing, meals, and incidentals. Indeed, both the tuition, fees, and other school-imposed charges must be considered along with these other expenses lest you find yourself coming up short, financially! 

In a U.S. News & World Report analysis of 170 public colleges, the average costs for in-state online and on-campus students are similar – $316 per credit hour for online and $311 per credit hour. While these figures are for online bachelor’s degree programs, the same holds for online and hybrid courses, too. 

Furthermore, prospective students must be careful and cautious when looking at the tuition and fee structure of the certification programs being considered. Is the school charging costs by the course or by the credit hour? Is the school charging other fees that aren’t stated on the sticker price? These are questions that must be asked to get a clear and comprehensive picture of the total cost of attendance in online certificate programs.  

There’s also the difference between in-state and out-of-state costs that affect the total cost at the end of the program. Many two-year and four-year higher education institutions have higher tuition rates for non-state residents. Some colleges also require their online students to attend on-campus activities, which can be problematic if they don’t live near the campus. 

Other cost-related factors to consider when choosing an online or hybrid certification program aside from the stated tuition and fees: 

  • Price of electronic learning materials, including e-books, which are likely to be more affordable than their traditional counterparts 
  • Cost of utilities and Internet connection, which the student must pay on his own (These charges are usually provided free-of-charge or inclusive of the tuition and matriculation fees to on-campus students in residential halls) 
  • Technology fees, a common element in online programs 
  • Other costs like graduation fees, assessment fees, distance tutoring, and online exam proctoring 

With these things in mind, the costs of attending online certificate programs vary widely. The Professional Certificate in C++ Programming at Mt. San Antonio College, for example, costs around $550 per credit hour (in-state) and $3,300 per credit hour (out-of-state). But at Champlain College, the tuition for a similar program is approximately $16,700 for all students.  

Both programs will result in a professional certificate in C++ programming but at different costs and education quality. But since both programs have valid accreditation, we can safely assume that the resulting knowledge and skills will be similar.  In the end, every student has to decide based on his/her financial capacity, education and career goals, and scheduling needs. 

Scholarships, Grants, and Loans 

Did you know that before 2006, students seeking federal government aid were required to attend at least half of their classes on campus? The so-called 50% rule prevented many online students from getting federal aid even when they were qualified otherwise, whether based on need or merit. Fortunately, the government reversed its position in 2006, resulting in the significant expansion of online students’ financial aid opportunities.  

Online students are eligible for many state and federal aid, university scholarships, and even private endowments at accredited degree-granting higher education institutions as their on-campus counterparts. Better yet, they can also tap into the wide range of awards exclusively intended for distance learners.  Examples include: 

  • The Army Women’s Foundation scholarship program awards scholarships to online students in certificate programs up to $2,500 per student. Eligible individuals include past and present female soldiers in the Army National Guard, U.S. Army, and U.S. Army Reserve and their descendants. 
  • The Capella University Scholarships are designed to reduce the tuition costs of certificate students in the counseling, nursing, public health, and psychology programs. The award is for $1,000 per selected student. 
  • The Berklee Online scholarship, called the Celebrity Online Scholarship, is awarded to the most promising online undergraduate certificate students with a passion for music. Each of the 16 selected students will receive $1,497 per term, which will be applied to tuition. 

Just as with other scholarship programs, these online-only scholarship programs have specific eligibility requirements. These may include enrollment as an online student in a certificate program, a recommendation from an instructor, and a minimum GPA. Keep in mind, too, that eligibility requirements may be need-based and merit-based, and, thus, there’s competition involved.  

Many schools that offer undergraduate certificate programs also participate in federal financial aid programs, including Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The aid package can include a combination of scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans. Check out the University of Florida, Purdue University Global, Grand Canyon University, Southern New Hampshire University, Baker College, and Penn State World Campus for these aid opportunities. 

Grants are another option for financing your studies in an online certificate program. Like scholarships, these don’t have to be repaid since these are considered monetary gifts. While most scholarships are based on merit, grants are typically need-based awards, but both can come from public and private sources.  

Work-study programs are also cost-effective means of financing your certificate studies while also beefing up your work experience. You will work part-time in an on-campus or off-campus job and paid for your hours spent on the job. You’re less likely to end up with student debt since you can request your monthly payments to be used for your tuition and other school fees. 

Loans are available for online students, too. But be careful about choosing loans since these can easily overwhelm your finances, resulting in huge student debt – sound financial management is a must! Several loan programs can be applied as funding for your certificate studies, including: 

  • Federal direct unsubsidized loans – Up to $20,500 per year payable up to 25 years 
  • Federal direct grad PLUS loans – Up to 100% of the cost of attendance, as certified by the school, and payable up to 25 years 
  • Sallie Mae – From $1,000 to $200,000 with a varying payment term 
  • Wells Fargo – Up to $120,000 and payment term varies 

The more commonly used loan programs are the federal direct unsubsidized loans and the federal direct grad PLUS loans because of their flexible payment terms.  

Being successful in getting a scholarship, a grant, and a loan for your certificate studies is a matter of preparation. Keep these hacks in mind for the best deals:

  • Always do your research about the programs and their eligibility requirements, payment terms, and expected outcomes (e.g., minimum GPA and employment in a related field). There’s no sense wasting your time on scholarships, loans, and work-study programs you’re not qualified for. 
  • Read the instructions carefully at least twice before completing the required fields. Be sure to check the truthfulness and completeness of the application form’s information and the required attachments. Check at least twice, too, before submitting the forms. 
  • Start early so you can complete the required forms and submit them on or before the deadline. You don’t want to be paying the full price for a certificate program because you were unable to submit scholarship forms on time. 
  • Spend time making your statement or essay persuasive if the application requires it. Check for grammar and other errors, too. 
  • Organize your applications so you won’t miss deadlines, skip important requirements, and apply for the same programs twice. 

You can also save money aside from taking advantage of scholarships and grants. If you’re taking out a student loan, you should only apply for the amount needed to cover school costs, particularly tuition and compulsory fees. This is true even when you qualify for higher amounts and remember that you’re still liable for the loan. 

You should also look at federal and state loans first before considering private lenders. The former usually have better terms, including a lower interest rate and a longer payment term. You may want to look into student discounts, used textbooks, and free student services available to online students. 

Career Pathways for Certificate Holders

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 33 occupations require a certificate or other types of post-secondary, non-degree training. The most popular certificate programs/occupations are in: 

  • Healthcare 
  • Personal care and protective care 
  • Repair and production 
  • Business, computer, and engineering 

A few examples of occupations that require certification and their mean annual salary as of May 2019 (in parentheses) are briefly discussed below. 

  • Certified nursing assistants ($30,720) have completed a certification program, passed a state-mandated nursing competency exam, and are listed on the CAN registry. 
  • Certified pharmacy technicians ($33,950) have undergone accredited pharmacy technician programs, including a minimum of 600 hours of formal instruction in a 15-week duration. The accrediting organization is the American Society of Health System Pharmacists.
  • Licensed massage therapists ($42,820) usually complete an accredited certificate program with at least 500 hours of training, pass a certification exam, and comply with other CPR training requirements. The state or the federal government may administer the certification exam, known as the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx).
  • Medical records and health information technicians ($42,630) aren’t required by law to be certified since post-secondary education is sufficient for entry-level positions. But most employers prefer certified employees, such as Certified Tumor Registrar (CTR) and Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT). 
  • Dental assistants ($40,080) are graduates of accredited programs, typically offered by technical-vocational schools and community colleges, and passed a certification exam. The certificate program takes a year to complete, but two-year programs lead to an associate degree. Look for the Commission on Dental Accreditation guarantee when considering a dental assistant program. 
  • Automotive service technicians and mechanics ($44,890) have varying certification requirements depending on their specific occupation. Technicians who handle refrigerants must be certified according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Service technicians may not be required by law to acquire certification, but most employers prefer it. Look for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) accreditation.  
  • Court reporters ($60,130) and simultaneous captioners have certification from agencies like the National Court Reporters Association, the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers, and the National Verbatim Reporters Association. In turn, these certification organizations require candidates to undergo formal training and pass a licensure exam. 
  • HVAC technicians ($48,730) received post-secondary education in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration, such as in a 6-month certification program. The licensing requirements vary by state, but many HVAC technicians take a certification exam and undergo an apprenticeship to improve their employment opportunities.  
  • Architectural and civil drafters ($58,080) may or may not have certification, but most employers prefer it because it demonstrates practical skills. For certification purposes, they must pass a drafter certification exam after completing a certification program.  
  • Industrial engineering technicians ($56,550) assist industrial engineers in creating systems that integrate man, materials, and machines, among other elements, in the manufacture or a product or service provision. Their practical training often has an employer-centric focus.  

Indeed, dozens of trade and career certificate programs become the ticket to entry-level jobs and promotions! 

Is an Online Certificate Your Best Option?

Yes, it is if you want to achieve one or more of these goals:  

  • Professional development since a certificate program provides a solid foundation for employment or entrepreneurship, whichever path you choose after completion.
  • Career change, such as when you’re unsatisfied with your current career or occupation. You can enroll in a certification program where you can learn new knowledge and skills for your planned career change, say, from a dental assistant to an architectural drafter.  
  • Build specialized skills in your present occupation, which will be valuable in your career advancement, or build your current skills because of your desire for mastery. 
  • Impress prospective employers with your resume, a common reason considering that your resume is your future boss’ first impression of your potential as an employee. 

From these reasons, we can infer these types of people in online certificate programs. 

  • The aspiring academics have completed their high school studies but aren’t ready for higher education, particularly an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree. But they want to get into occupations with good employment opportunities and good pay within a year or so of post-secondary training. Many of them are in the 18-24 age bracket, too. 
  • The career accelerators are in certificate programs to enjoy career advancement after completion. They are commonly found in industries where employers strongly prefer certifications and other post-secondary specialist training. They also tend to balance jobs with their online studies.  
  • The industry switchers want a career change because they are dissatisfied with their current occupations. Their choice of online certificate programs stems from their realization that these are fairly quick and affordable avenues to change careers. 
  • But an online certificate program isn’t for everybody despite the numerous benefits it brings to the table, and you should consider the pros and cons of online study before making your decision. Nonetheless, you may prefer it because of its cost benefits, quality of education, and convenience. 

Tips on Choosing the Best Online Certificate Program

So, you’ve decided that an online certificate program is your best choice. But don’t enroll in the first program that catches your attention because a prestigious school offers it, it’s fairly affordable, and it came with plenty of recommendations. You must consider several factors in choosing the best program for you, not for anybody else. 


Don’t rely on schools’ reputation and prestige, not even when these come highly recommended by family, friends, and acquaintances. Always check their accreditation and verify its status with the accrediting agency.  


Do read the reviews and ask for recommendations from people you trust when looking into certificate programs. Their first-hand experiences will be valuable in determining the programs’ quality of instruction, flexible schedule, and academic rigor, among other elements.  

Quality of instruction

Do look closely into the quality of instruction, including the faculty members’ academic rigor, credentials, and technology users of the certificate programs being considered. While accreditation and reputation are vital in the selection process, the curriculum and corresponding courses are crucial in making the right choice. You must then take the time to browse the courses and their description, the number of credit hours, and the hands-on training required for completion if any. 

A certificate program in C++ programming, for example, may involve three courses over three quarters – Quarter 1 for Programming: An Introduction; Quarter 2 for Programming: Intermediate; and Quarter 3 for Programming: Advanced. Students learn about best practices in C++ programming from its development to its testing, implementation, and evaluation, and through a combination of online classes with real-time meetings. 

If possible, ask about the credentials of the instructors. Most schools are willing to provide relevant information since it can make or break a prospective student’s plan to enroll. 


As previously mentioned, the cost is among the major factors that affect enrolling in an online certificate program. Remember that with education and training, you’re likely to get what you paid for.  But it also doesn’t mean that price is the be-all and end-all of your choice in an online certificate program! 

You must balance the quality of instruction vis-à-vis tuition and other fees on the one hand and your budget on the other hand. You will find plenty of best buy online certificate programs in your desired area of expertise, as well as a wide range of scholarships available for distance learners.  


Every student has to decide which type of online certificate program best fits his/her specific needs and circumstances – a choice between synchronous and asynchronous programs. Experience the freedom and flexibility of asynchronous programs, which are popular among students with families and jobs. You may also choose synchronous programs because of the structured learning format and the greater social interaction between students and teachers. 


For students in programs involving practicum or hands-on training, living fairly close to the school campus makes sense – the traveling expenses and time can rack up over time otherwise. Some programs require students to attend on-campus activities at the start and end dates, so living near campus is also sensible. Students living near the campus can also take advantage of the school’s facilities, such as computer labs, libraries, and writing centers, and arrange face-to-face meetings with teachers and students. 

Of course, proximity shouldn’t be much of an issue for 100% online programs. For hybrid or blended programs, proximity becomes more of an advantage. 

And there’s the question of whether to attend an online certificate program in your state or outside of it. Many schools have higher tuition rates for out-of-state students, although many schools have the same in-state and out-of-state tuition. Examples of the latter include Maryville State University, Delaware State University, and the University of Iowa.  

No, students can’t fake in-state status to take advantage of more affordable tuition because of current I.P. tracking technology. But it isn’t necessary since there are ways of saving money on out-of-state tuition like: 

  • Asking for your options at the financial aid office of the school you’re planning to enroll in. You can be referred to suitable programs like scholarships, grants, and state authorization reciprocity programs.
  • Taking advantage of military discounts under H.R. 3230, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, where recent veterans and their spouses and dependents can avail of in-state tuition in public universities receiving GI Bill benefits nationwide.
  • Enrolling in a public school that participates in the Academic Common Market, an initiative operated by the Southern Regional Board (SREB), reduces students’ financial burden. Eligible students in participating states can enjoy affordable tuition in an out-of-state college or university if their desired program isn’t offered in any college or university in their home state. In short, out-of-state online students can pay for in-state tuition! Over 1,900 programs are available, many of which are distance learning programs in bioengineering, religious studies, and music therapy, among other areas.
  • Getting tuition waivers, also known as non-resident tuition exemptions, reduce tuition costs by allowing out-of-state students to pay the in-state tuition. These are effective cost reduction measures considering that out-of-state tuition can be 2.3 times higher than in-state tuition. These waivers are available for students with certain circumstances, such as dependents of disabled military veterans, senior citizens, and out-of-state students who attended a local high school. 

Out-of-state students can also become residents of the state where their online certificate programs are being offered. But residency is a lengthy process, so looking into the above-mentioned steps makes more sense. 

Transfer of credit policy

Certificate programs are often stepping stones to bigger and better things in your career! Therefore, favorable transfer credit policies and practices are a vital element when choosing an online certificate program. You should ideally be able to transfer the credits earned in the program when you decide to pursue an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. 

Also, note that regionally accredited colleges typically allow the transfer of credits to other accredited schools. But some regionally accredited colleges will not accept the transfer of credits from nationally accredited schools. Most schools, nonetheless, accept military and career experiences (i.e., experiential credits), a common occurrence in certificate programs. 

Take your time in researching the schools and their programs as well as in considering these factors. You will want to ensure as much as possible that the time, energy, and money spent on earning your certification is well worth it.  

Thriving in an Online Certification Course

Picking the right online certificate program is your first – and without a doubt, the most crucial step – in thriving during your studies. Once you made your choice, your next step involves preparation for success.  

Practice using its tools and technology.

Most online programs are conducted using a learning management system, such as Moodle and Blackboard, where students and teachers interact. These interactions include sending and receiving emails; viewing and editing course content; collaborating with teachers and fellow students through blogs, wikis, and boards; and submitting assignments and other requirements. While these platforms are designed for ease of use, you should practice them before the classes start so you won’t struggle with the functions later on. 

Establish a rhythm for your study schedule.

Online classes typically don’t have the structures and routines found in on-campus classes, and this can be confusing for many first-time online students. You must then create a new normal with a schedule that fits your lifestyle and learning style. You can set specific chunks of time for studying, schedule your day for synchronous classes, and find a learning-conducive space. 

Manage your expectations while also understanding other people’s expectations.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions that have a bearing on your online courses. If you don’t ask, you may well set unrealistic expectations of yourself and others, particularly your instructors. You must ask them about their virtual classroom guidelines – frequency of posting on the discussion boards, the flexibility of deadlines and performance grading, to name a few – and ask clarificatory questions. The more realistic your expectations, the more likely you’re going to succeed as an online student. 

Take advantage of learning resources and your learning community,

While it may seem like you’re largely left to your own devices, you have a learning community that you can tap into when necessary! Think of your fellow students and instructors as your immediate learning family, while the administrative staff in the library, computer lab, and training centers are your extended family. 

Just as much as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire school to produce a competent graduate of an online certificate program!