When Steven Englander wanted to change careers, the University of Albany marketing grad decided to go back to school.
But instead of another degree, Englander chose a different option: a certificate program in computer science from Long Island’s Hofstra University.
Taking classes at nights and weekends, Englander was able to earn a certificate in less than a year. And he paid thousands less, he said, than he would have for a traditional degree program.
“It was crucial,” said Englander, who now manages a Manhattan-based employment recruiting agency, of his decision to go back to school. “If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have been able to get into any of the business that I’ve done since.”
Experts agree that education can be an extremely effective tool for propelling a career forward or transitioning from one field to the next. And with unemployment at record highs and technical skills more crucial than ever, dusting off those notebooks and heading back to class can seem like an especially attractive option.
But deciding what kind of program will be most beneficial is a daunting challenge. With thousands of options all competing fiercely for tuition fees, how do you choose?
The first step is understanding the differences between degree and certificate programs.
In general, certificate programs offer career-specific skills training in fields ranging from pastry arts to massage therapy to web design and paralegal training. Many are designed for people who already have some experience in a particular field.
Certificate programs are generally less expensive and take less time to complete than diplomas, associate and bachelor
degrees. But they don’t come with the same cachet or federal financial aid as more expensive, more comprehensive
degree programs. They also, in general, cannot be applied as stepping stones
toward higher degrees.
Vicky Phillips, one of the country’s leading experts in adult and online education, says certificates are most useful for people who want to acquire new skills quickly, already hold degrees but want to launch new careers, or need to meet state or national licensing requirements.
“If any of the above criteria mirror your circumstances, a certificate will be your quickest and least expensive course of study,” she advises.
Scott Traylor, director of admissions for Online Education at Buffalo-based Bryant & Stratton College, said that when he talks with prospective students trying to weigh the pros and cons of certificate and degree programs, he urges them to consider their past experiences and carefully define their goals, since each case is so unique.
Someone who already holds a B.A. in English and is now hoping to work as a paralegal, for instance, needs training, not another degree, according to Traylor. He said he would likely recommend the student enroll in a certificate program, which at Bryant & Stratton, would last anywhere from four months to a year, versus 20 months for an Associate’s degree or 40 months for a B.A.
For someone with little-to-no college and minimal work experience, however, “it would be very rare that we would suggest just a certificate program and not to go on to the degree,” he explained.
For Englander, choosing between a degree and certificate comes down to what matters most: credentials or the education. For people who are thinking of changing careers or just starting out, a degree is often the best (and only) ticket through the door.
“At the end of the day, it’s not usually the education that’s worthwhile. It’s really the credential that counts.” Twenty years down the line, someone may have long forgotten exactly what they studied, but will still have that framed diploma to hang on the wall.
Certificates, on the other hand, teach practical knowledge, skills and information that, for Englander, were crucial in moving ahead.
“For me, it was the actual education, not the credential that was worthwhile,” he said. “I learned so much it was unbelievable.”
There are also other considerations to keep in mind. Traylor notes that students who enroll in certificate programs are not eligible for financial aid, so they must carefully weigh the costs (of both time and money).
Students should also watch out for diploma mills that churn out certifications that may prove worthless down the line. With so many hundreds of programs popping up online with flashy sites and authentic-sounding names, it can be hard to tell who’s legit and who’s not.
Thankfully, the Department of Education maintains a searchable database of accredited schools on its website (visit ope.ed.gov/accreditation) broken down by accrediting agency and state. “If they’re not listed, stay away from there,” Traylor warned.
But in the end, what matters most is not whether you earn a certificate or degree, but the quality of your education, said Scott Carson, director of a computer graphics training school in Soho.
“Anyone can get a degree or certificate,” he said. “Ultimately what people are going to hire you for is your product.”
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