Question: What Are the Differences Between Graduate Certificate Programs and Professional and Industry Certification Programs?
Updated: June 9, 2022
Answer: A graduate certificate program is an academic program offered by an accredited college or university, typically through a graduate school and/or a division of continuing education, that culminates in the conferral of a certificate rather than a degree. A professional or industry certificate refers to a credential awarded by a professional organization, an association, an industry group, or another private entity meant to demonstrate that the individual holding the credential has met specific academic and/or professional criteria and passed an exam or other type of assessment evaluation.
Graduate certificate programs offered by colleges and universities and professional certification training programs offered by non-academic entities are generally both designed to provide qualified students with targeted training in practical skills and proficiencies that relate directly to work in a particular field or specialization. However, graduate certificate programs require students to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and provide students with coursework that confers graduate credits. In contrast, professional and industry certification programs may or may not require a bachelor’s degree and do not offer courses that have academic standing. As a result, industry and professional certification program courses are not, for example, eligible for federal students loans and grants, while graduate certificate programs offered by accredited colleges and universities can apply to be approved for federal student aid and assistance.
Another important distinction between graduate certificate programs and professional certifications regards their purpose. Graduate certificate programs aim to provide students with instruction and training in a particular field or discipline through graduate coursework taught by college-level instructors. While graduate certificate programs in some fields, such as counseling, nursing, and teaching, prepare students to apply for state licensure and certification in those fields, there are graduate certificate programs offered in many areas for which state licensing is not required and/or does not exist. These programs provide students with graduate level coursework designed to help them advance in their current career or to change careers without having to pursue a full graduate degree program.
Professional and industry certifications are designed primarily to evaluate individuals who have completed training in a particular field, ensure that those individuals meet accepted standards for knowledge and proficiency in that field, and provide assurance to employers and clients that individuals who are granted certification are qualified to work in that field. Many professional certification programs are in information technology and computer training fields (e.g., cybersecurity, database management, and network administration). These types of certification programs may be tied to a specific company or product (i.e., Microsoft, Cisco, or Oracle). There are also professional certifications in fields like accounting and nursing administration, which are different from state-licensed credentials, as well as in data analytics and human resources management. Programs that provide training for professional and industry certifications are designed to prepare students to pass certification exams and are hence typically shorter in duration and much more focused than graduate certificate programs.
Professional/industry certification often refers to both the administration of the credentialing process in a particular field and to training programs, bootcamps, and exam preparation courses offered by professional organizations and industry groups designed to prepare students to take the credential exam. These training programs, bootcamps, and exam preparation programs may or may not be affiliated with an accredited college or university and, therefore, they may not be subject to institutional accreditation assessments or the oversight of the US Department of Education.
Note: Professional/industry certifications are different from the state-provided licenses and certifications and credentials that professionals must possess in order to work in certain fields, like teaching, counseling, nursing, and social work. For those professions, certification is often a regulatory requirement, whereas industry certifications may or may not be required to work in the field.
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Comparing Graduate Certificate Programs to Professional Credential Programs
While graduate certificate programs vary in structure and requirements by school and by subject area, they have several general identifying characteristics. These include:
- Graduate certificate programs are offered by accredited colleges and universities.
- Graduate certificate programs consist of a relatively small cluster of graduate courses, typically between three and eight courses, that confer between nine and 28 graduate credits (up to half the number of credits required by a master’s degree program in the same subject area).
- Graduate certificate programs are designed for students who have already completed four years of undergraduate coursework or the equivalent and who hold at least a bachelor’s degree, although some programs may have additional requirements, such as prior coursework in specific subjects and/or a master’s degree in a qualifying field (for post-graduate certificate programs).
Note: One advantage of graduate certificate programs is that all or some of the credits earned in these programs are commonly transferable, which means those credits can be applied toward a master’s or a doctoral degree in the same or a similar field of study, if and when a student opts to pursue further graduate studies.
Professional/industry certifications have a broader range of variation, in part because they are tailored to the particular field or specialization that they serve and do not have to adhere to formal academic guidelines. Similarly, certification courses, bootcamps, and training programs offered by industry and professional groups are not subject to academic accreditation standards regarding credit hours. As a result, industry certification training programs may consist of just one course that students complete prior to taking a certification exam, or they may be comprised of two, three, or more instructional modules that lead to the awarding of a credential. Alternately, students may be able to earn a professional credential based on a certain number of years of professional experience in a field, assuming they meet any degree requirements.
In general, professional certification and credentialing programs have one common identifying characteristic: they are offered by private for-profit and non-profit industry groups and professional organization that are not affiliated or connected with an accredited college or university, and thus do not confer academic credits. Instead, they are meant to signal to potential clients and employers that an individual has successfully completed training in a particular field, has passed an assessment demonstrating knowledge and proficiencies relevant to that field, and possesses a professional credential to that effect.
Note: While more colleges and universities have started offering courses and bootcamps (often through Departments of Continuing Studies or through Extension programs), these educational offerings are typically separate from degree and certificate programs in which students must apply for admission.
The table below highlights some of the key points of comparison and differentiation between a graduate certificate and a professional certification/credential.
|Awarded upon completion of graduate coursework offered by an accredited college or university
|Awarded by a private group or organization based on an assessment process and/or certification exam
|Requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree
|Typically requires prior professional experience but does not necessarily require a particular type of degree
|Indicates the successful completion of a relatively small cluster of credited courses in a particular field, subject, or area of practice
|Indicates the attainment of certain baseline and/or advanced competencies in a particular field, subject, area of practice, or technology
|Confers graduate credits that may be transferrable and which can be a steppingstone to an eventual graduate degree
|Provides a credential or certificate that has standing within a particular field or profession but not in academia
|Offered by a college, university, or graduate school with institutional and in some cases programmatic accreditation from a recognized accrediting body
|Offered by entities that are not subject to or eligible for institutional or programmatic accreditation
Depending on the field, some graduate certificate programs may include coursework designed for students to achieve an industry credential. For example, a graduate certificate in cybersecurity may prepare students for industry certification. However, in general, industry certification is not the purpose of a graduate certificate program. Graduate certificates provide students with advanced training with the goal of preparing them for leadership and management positions in their field of employment, while also enabling students to accrue academic credits that they can apply to a future graduate degree to further advance their careers should they wish.
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