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What’s Better: Certificate vs. Associate’s Degree?

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Are you interested in a career in the information technology (IT) industry? If so, you can increase your chances of success by securing a higher education. Certification programs remain popular among IT hopefuls. Associate degree programs are another education path to consider.

Deciding between the two options depends on your specific career goals and the amount of time you have available. Still, making the call can be tricky. Luckily for you, we’re done a ton of research into certificate vs. associate degree programs. Read on below to learn more about eligibility requirements, program duration, employment prospects, and more.


What’s The Difference Between a Certificate and an Associate Degree?

certificate vs associate degree

There are many differences between certificate and associate degree programs. For example, certificate programs typically take less time to complete and are easy to complete online. They also require fewer general education courses so that students can focus on a specific niche.

On the other hand, an associate program will take more time and have a broader curriculum. While remote opportunities exist, these programs are more commonly conducted at vocational schools or technical schools.

Other important distinctions include:

  • Your criteria for eligibility
  • The transferability of the credits you will earn
  • Your employment prospects after successful completion of the program.

Program Duration

All forms of higher education take time, but certificate programs can be completed the fastest. At best, you can earn a certificate in just a few months, though some programs may last up to a year or more.

Meanwhile, an associate degree program typically takes two years to complete. Pursuing additional credentials will take even longer. Bachelor’s degree programs usually take four years to complete. Graduate schools will tack on another one or two years.

Eligibility Criteria

Different prerequisites apply to different academic programs. Associate degrees typically require prospective students to have a high school diploma GED or to have completed a diploma program. However, not all certificate programs maintain these requirements.

Eligibility criteria are also more closely scrutinized during the degree process. Applications are closely reviewed by the admissions committee and may involve essays, letters of recommendation, test scores, and more.


Students typically pursue certificate programs to advance their skills in a certain area which they can use on the job or in future negotiations. You cannot use these credentials to advance in other academic areas.

Associate degrees provide different opportunities. Students can use these programs as a way to pursue their bachelor’s and beyond. Many students use this time to improve their GPAs before applying to their target schools. Associate degree programs also allow them to save up before pursuing a bachelor’s degree from a more costly institution. If you do plan on transferring your credits, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Transfer credit is determined on a school-by-school basis. Not all states guarantee the transferability of an associate degree. In fact, only 30 states have a statewide guaranteed transfer policy.
  • The accreditation status of the institution where you earned your associate degree matters a lot. A four-year program is more likely to accept your credits if you earned them from an accredited college.
  • The requirements you completed and the courses you took in your two-year program need to be similar to the four-year program you want to apply to. For example, studying information technology for two years won’t transfer to a bachelor’s program in medical coding or applied science.

Employment Prospects

After completing your certificate program or two-year degree, it will be time to start exploring the job market. Employment prospects will likely vary based on your education.

Generally speaking, the more education you have under your belt, the higher your salary becomes. For instance, the average salary of a person who finished a bachelor’s program will be higher than someone who completed a certificate program.

Another perk associate degrees offer over certificate programs is rank. Individuals with degrees may have an easier time applying for more advanced positions than those without. Managerial and leadership positions tend to go to applicants with more education and experience.

Of course, this all depends on your industry. Associate degree graduates pursuing careers such as radiation therapists, dental hygienists, and biomedical equipment technicians tend to have high growth rates and equivalent salaries to those with bachelor’s degrees.

Even certificate holders can land positions that pay just as well as jobs awarded to those with a four-year degree. Some of the best trade and technical careers include titles like software developer or elevator mechanic.

What’s Better: A Certificate or an Associate’s Degree?

Deciding between a certificate or an associate’s degree is a personal decision. Where you end up in higher education depends on many different factors. To help you decide, we ask you to consider the following points:

  • Think about your career goals and personal interests first. Then, complete a school search, compare school rankings, and enroll in a program that has courses that interest you.
  • Consider your financial status. Which program is the most cost-effective? Is the average salary you will earn worth the investment in higher education?
  • Assess what’s most available to you. Is there a vocational school nearby? Do you need more courses online? What community colleges match your lifestyle, family life, and work schedule?

Industry Interests

When considering the industry and career field you want to join, it’s important to ask, which industries are accessible with an associate degree only? Which ones are better tailored towards a degree or certificate, and why?

Some students forget to take their interests into account when pursuing an education. Ideally, the courses you take and the degree or certificate you earn will fall in line with your passions and personal interests.

Financial Status

Unfortunately, hardly any form of higher education comes for free. You will need to invest time, money, and energy to participate in your courses successfully.

However, certificates are more affordable. Their duration is shorter, and their curriculum is more focused. Associate degrees are more expensive because they take more time and require more resources.

For the most part, whether a student completes a certificate program or associate degree is determined by their financial status. But even with a limited budget, you can still get a certificate by applying for financial aid.


Whether you enroll in an associate’s degree program or certification program may depend on what’s most available to you at the moment. For example, what courses can be taken online, and what kinds of programs require on-campus attendance?

For individuals who want to enter the workforce quickly, a certificate may be all they need. However, for students with more time and less focused career aspirations, a more general education may be a better choice.

It’s also important to remember that different students are tethered to different responsibilities outside of class. Some students might be raising families or working full-time jobs. Deciding between a certificate and vs. associate degree may boil down to how much free time you have in your schedule.

Highest Paying Certificates

certificate program vs associates degree vs bachelors degree

There are many lucrative careers that you can attain with only a certificate, particularly when it comes to information technology. Listed below, we’ve outlined a few of the highest-paying IT certifications available.

  1. Web Developer
  • Certificate Needed: Certified Web Professional Certificate
  • Course Duration: self-paced
  • Course Cost: ~ $995
  • Average Wage: 2020 median salary was $77,200, or $37,12 per hour
  1. System Administrator
  • Certificate Needed: CompTIA Network+
  • Course Duration: self-paced
  • Course Cost: ~ $3,400
  • Average Wage: 2021 median salary was $80,600 per year or $8.75 per hour
  1. Emergency Medical Technician
  • Certificate Needed: EMT-basic, intermediate, or paramedic
  • Course Duration: 3-11 weeks
  • Course Cost: between $1,000 and $1,750
  • Average Wage: 2021 median pay was $36,390 per year or $17,76 per hour
  1. Physical Therapist
  • Certificate Needed: NASM Certified Personal Trainer
  • Course Duration: less than one year
  • Course Cost: depends on the accrediting institution
  • Average Wage: 2021 median wage was $95,62o per year or $45.97 per hour

Highest Paying Associate Degrees

There are also plenty of career options available to associate degree holders. Below you will find some of the highest paying jobs available.

  1. Computer Programmer
  • Degree needed: Associate degree in computer science
  • Course duration: two years
  • Course cost: an average of $6,750
  • Average wage: in 2021, the median pay was $93,000 per year or $44,71 per hour.
  1. Radiation Therapist
  • Degree needed: Associate degree in radiation therapy
  • Course duration: 12 months to two years
  • Course cost: $9,700 to $12,00 per semester
  • Average wage: in 2021, the median pay was $82,790 per year or $39.80 per hour.
  1. Dental Hygienist
  • Degree needed: Associate degree in dental hygiene
  • Course duration: typically two years
  • Course cost: average estimated cost is $22,692
  • Average wage: in 2021, the median pay was $77,810 per year or $37.41 per hour.
  1. Registered Nurse
  • Degree needed: Associate degree in nursing
  • Course duration: two years
  • Course cost: between $12,00 and $35,000
  • Average wage: in 2021, the median pay was $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour


What’s the salary difference between a certificate and a degree?

The salary difference between a certificate and a will depends on the career field, geographic location, and local job market. For more specific statistics related to your career field, we recommend the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Is a certificate enough to get a job?

Yes, but it depends on your career goals and the job market you want to join. For example, if you want to get into information technology and become a network specialist, a certificate will be more than sufficient. For other industries and more advanced positions, an associate’s degree (or higher) may be necessary.

What is the main difference between a certificate and an associate degree?

The main differences between certificate degrees and associate degrees involve program duration, ability to transfer credits, employment prospects, and the financial cost of the program.


associate degree programs at community colleges

If you’re ready to take the next step in your educational journey and are not sure what kind of program to pursue, it’s important to consider a few different factors.

If you want to dive into a new career path, try out a certificate. If you have more time, an associate’s degree will allow you to explore a wider range of general education courses. Your choice should also reflect your interests, lifestyle, and budget.

ICOHS College provides students with the opportunity to explore both certificate programs and associate degree options. Scholarships and title IV funding are also available to help students cover the cost of tuition. Call us to speak to one of our representatives (858) 581-9460 or contact us via email for more information on financial assistance.

Students attending ICOHS College will have full access to our career counseling program. They’ll also receive lifetime job placement assistance after graduation.

ICOHS College is accredited by the ACCET(Accrediting Council for Continuing Education). To learn more about ICOHS College accreditations and licenses, visit our accreditation page.

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