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How to choose between MBA vs. graduate certificate programs 

Success in business can hinge on your ability to keep up with trends in leadership, management, technology and operations. This is why some midlevel business professionals choose to enhance their education with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or online business certificate. These educational opportunities can help professionals:

So, you might be wondering which path is a better fit for you — certificate or degree? Is your time and money better spent on a business certificate? While an MBA can potentially prepare graduates with skills to pursue higher-level positions, the degree can take longer and cost more than a business certificate. The best option for you depends on your career aspirations and what you decide is the best way to invest your time and money.

Graduate certificate vs. MBA degree

Graduate certificates and MBA degrees share some content, but they’re not identical. An MBA is a full-fledged master’s program, while a business certificate can act as the foundation for an MBA down the road while offering a solid introduction to the coursework for less time and money.

Let’s explore the benefits and disadvantages of both to help you make an informed decision about which one to pursue.

Benefits of an online MBA program 

What does the process of actually earning that graduate degree entail? It depends.

Online MBA programs give students the flexibility to study anytime, anywhere. You can plan your school schedule around daily responsibilities, submit assignments during your lunch break or post discussion questions after the kids go to bed.

We spoke with Natalie Pratt, MEd, MC, MBA, associate dean of the College of Business and Information Technology at University of Phoenix, about the differences between online and in-person MBA programs.

“While online MBA programs may offer more flexibility and convenience, they may not have as many networking or face-to-face opportunities for interaction,” Pratt says. “Conversely, in-person MBA programs provide more direct access to faculty and networking events while requiring a greater time commitment and relocation or a commute.”

Another benefit of studying for an online MBA? The comprehensive business education you get with an MBA can help prepare you with skills for new career prospects. Some of the career opportunities an MBA can prepare you for are:

  • General manager
  • Business manager
  • Operations director
  • Administrative director

Research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveals that nearly 13 million Americans work in the business industry, but only 26% have advanced degrees.

Of course, an online MBA is only valuable if it’s properly vetted. Accreditation signals to future employers that your school or program meets or exceeds a specific quality threshold. Institutions can be accredited, as can certain programs. As you seek out your online MBA program, consider its accrediting body.

For example, University of Phoenix is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org), an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. University of Phoenix has been continuously accredited by the Higher Learning Commission since 1978.

Programmatic accreditation represents a separate, external peer evaluation and quality assurance that applies to specific programs within an institution. Our MBA has been reaffirmed for accreditation until 2027 by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), ensuring the quality of your education.

Finally, don’t discount the importance of making connections through your MBA program.

Almost half of surveyed businesses stated that their best hires came from employee referrals, according to recruitment research conducted by Zippia. And an MBA program, whether in person or online, is a chance to network.

You’ll have plenty of opportunities to connect with classmates from a variety of backgrounds and with even more diverse goals. These connections can lead to lifelong networks you can tap into throughout your career.

Disadvantages of an online MBA program 

While earning an MBA online has many advantages, it’s also important to be aware of the perceived disadvantages. As a working student, you will likely be studying on your own, which requires a strong sense of motivation, discipline and time management. Other potential drawbacks may include:

  • The need to be intentional about nurturing your network in class — you can’t depend on sitting next to each other to inspire new connections
  • The need to cultivate and maintain self-discipline so you turn in assignments and projects on time

However, there are ways to counteract these disadvantages. For example, online programs often feature heavy discussion components that can lead to lively conversations. Sometimes, these discussions can be just as spirited as those in on-campus classes. In addition, quality online programs can offer robust student support and resources to help students who struggle with procrastination stay on track.

Because online programs allow students to study at a flexible pace, time management issues can pop up. Some students may find it challenging to complete their coursework if they rely on external accountability standards, such as set class times or peers who are waiting to meet them. Students in online MBA programs may need to possess strong time management skills as a result.

Benefits of a graduate certificate 

For those who are already established in a career but want to hone specific skills, an online business certificate program could be the right fit. While most certificates for business lack the breadth of learning inherent to an MBA program, they do explore specialized skills that can be useful in your current or future position.

Additionally, a business certificate may help professionals:

  • Build specific business knowledge
  • Enhance credibility
  • Increase earning potential
  • Stand out in a competitive job market

In addition to the potential career benefits, a business certificate offers other advantages, such as cost, duration and flexibility:

  • Business administration certificate programs usually cost significantly less than MBA programs.
  • Because business certificates do not require lengthy application processes or have as many admissions requirements as MBAs, a certificate could take just several months to complete. Compare that with the 12 to 24 months that MBA programs often last.
  • Online business certificates are designed to offer essential flexibility. They feature many options for interactivity, including discussion forums. 

Disadvantages of a graduate certificate 

With its affordability, flexibility and short time frame, a business certificate is often a feasible undertaking for business professionals who want to learn more skills and enhance their careers. That said, a business certificate program has some disadvantages that are important to consider.

Certificates, while useful in teaching specific skills, do not carry the same recognizability and prestige as graduating from an MBA program. However, certificates can be a great way to focus on skills that can prepare you for future opportunities.

How to choose an MBA vs. certificate program 

While both MBAs and business certificate programs have their advantages and disadvantages, choosing the right path comes down to your career goals.

To build skills for business management or other careers in business, you must think carefully about your career development plan, your free time and what you hope to achieve through education. Deciding between an MBA or a business certificate is much easier after you’ve considered these important questions:

  • What do your career goals look like, both in the short and long term? Look at the required skills and credentials for the position you want in the future, and research which degree or certificate program can help prepare you.
  • What does your current schedule allow, both today and in the next few years? Think about your workload and any family responsibilities that might affect your ability to continue your education. Set yourself up for success by understanding what your schedule allows. Signing up for a program that’s too time intensive could make it hard to keep up.
  • Which program fits your budget? Education is an investment, but you need to make sure you’re comfortable covering the fees and tuition costs of both MBA and business certificate programs.

In short, an MBA can help you prepare you for future opportunities. For those who want to quickly strengthen their skills in a specific area, a business certificate may be the fastest way to do so.

Explore online business degrees and certificates 

University of Phoenix offers several online business programs that prepare students with skills to pursue a variety of career paths. Whether you’re looking to build the fundamentals or bolster your skill set, there’s a degree program for you.

Consider online business certificates if you’re a working professional just looking to build on a specific area of knowledge.

If you already hold a bachelor’s degree and are seeking a master’s program, you might consider a Master of Business Administration (great for those with years of business experience), Master of Business Administration (Competency Based-CB) or Master of Management (focuses on managerial skills).

Learn more about admissions requirements on the UOPX website.

Headshot of Michael Feder

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

Headshot of Kathryn Uhles

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Currently Dean of the College of Business and Information Technology, Kathryn Uhles has served University of Phoenix in a variety of roles since 2006. Prior to joining University of Phoenix, Kathryn taught fifth grade to underprivileged youth in Phoenix.

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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