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Certificate vs Associate Degree - Make the Right Choice

Many students enter the continuing education arena with the belief that an associate degree program and a certificate program are the same thing. While associate degree programs may prepare a student to obtain certification in their chosen area or career field, it is not the same thing as a certificate program. In general, an associate degree is a very broad term, encompassing a varied educational platform. Certificate degrees are extremely focused in their objective(s) and are related to a specific job or career niche.

Besides this general difference, there are three main differences between the two: the requirements to begin the program, the length of time towards completion, and the number of transferable education units earned at the end of the program.

Three differences Between Associate Degree Programs and Certificate Programs

Requirements for acceptance: In most cases, a certificate program will have one or more requirements before a candidate may be accepted. Depending on the focus of the certification, applicants may need to have a certain level of career experience or educational experience before they can be admitted into the program. Associate degree programs differ in the sense that anyone with a high school diploma, or who has passed the General Education Development (GED) test, may begin an AA program.

Length of time towards completion: While there are exceptions, in most cases it takes students one year (two semesters) to complete a certificate program. As mentioned above, the programs are tailored to individuals who already have specific academic and/or experiential knowledge of the subject. Certificate programs provide additional focused education, and further training, towards a measurable level of competence as a certificated “expert” in the subject. Certificates are often obtained as an add-on to an associate degree.

Associate degree programs require two years of full-time classroom attendance in order to complete a degree. Depending on the educational facility’s schedule, students complete the classes by quarter or semester, so it takes eight quarters or four semesters to receive an associate’s degree. While an associate program may allow you to choose a specific area of focus, such as accounting, or IT, it is a platform for furthering your education and requires a host of general education courses as well.

Education units earned at the end of the program: A certificate program may or may not provide you with transferable education units, and therefore may not put you in position to further your education if that is your ultimate goal. For example, if you have been working in an office as a bookkeeper, you may be able to begin a bookkeeping certification program with a few online classes, your current work experience, and the completion of an exam. But should you desire to continue to receive your associate degree or bachelor degree, your certification courses may not count in an accredited university system.

An associate degree program at an accredited college is structured in such a way that students can use those credits to continue their education, pursuing a bachelors or master’s degree immediately, or using the credits to transfer into a different school/program. Students who have achieved an associate’s degree will have completed units from a comprehensive course list, rather than a single subject area.

For further clarification regarding whether or not an associate degree program is right for you, contact the admissions counselors at Bryant & Stratton College.


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