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Phoenix Forward magazine

5 things to know about certificate programs

People who are successful in one career and those who change careers often have one thing in common: a willingness to learn new skills to stay relevant in the workplace. In today’s volatile job market, for-credit and noncredit certificate programs are becoming more popular as a way for both types of workers to sharpen their expertise and learn new concepts.

Offered at postsecondary institutions, including community colleges and large universities, certificate programs are the result of a trend toward “unbundling” education to help make it more affordable, achievable and relevant.

For its part, University of Phoenix now includes a StackTrack™ option within some undergraduate programs that enables students to take career-focused courses earlier and earn a certificate — or two — prior to completing all of the required courses for their degrees.

“Certificates can help you reach your professional goals, retool your skill set and refresh your resumé,” says Bill Berry, dean of the University's School of Business.

Here are five more things you should know about certificates:

Certification is different than getting a certificate.

A certificate is awarded for successful completion of a program. In contrast, certifications — or credentials — are awarded by government and professional agencies to indicate that you’ve met established industry standards, such as professional experience, required education and a passing grade on an exam.

Completion of a certificate program also may qualify as part of the required “seat hours” that some credentialing organizations require for certification, Berry adds.

They’re good for professional growth.

Certificate programs are a sequence of courses developed, taught and assessed by faculty members at a college or university. These collections of subject-specific courses also might be the major or concentration within a degree program, and they often reflect emerging topics necessary for professional growth — particularly in the IT industry, notes Bradley Purdy, associate dean of the College of Information Systems and Technology.

“Coursework within many of the University’s certificate programs is developed to align with industry standards,” Purdy adds. “This can be important if you’re interested in achieving a professional certification in your field.”

You can use them to kick-start your degree.

Most for-credit certificate programs share courses with their related degree programs. That means you may be able to complete required certificate courses first, and then finish the rest of a degree program’s components later.

Noncredit certificate programs award professional development credits, or Continuing Education Units, Berry notes, and may not necessarily transfer into an academic program at a university. So, he cautions, make sure you check on transferability.

Program admission requirements are less stringent.

Unless noted, a college degree, an entrance exam or professional experience may not be required for enrollment in an undergraduate certificate program. Before diving into new topics and challenging projects, most programs start with an introductory course so you can familiarize yourself with the subject matter. This can be especially helpful if you choose a certificate program to check out a new field.


Many programs qualify for financial aid.

When offered through a higher education institution, many for-credit undergraduate and graduate certificate programs meet standards for qualified students to receive federal financial aid. Your school’s finance advisor should be able to provide more details.