What Is a Certificate Degree Program?

Nursing or medical students in college lecture hall classroom
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Certificate programs enable students to master a narrow subject or topic and also offer professional training in a specific field. They are usually designed for adult students and people looking for short-term training with the goal of finding immediate employment. Certificate programs are offered at the  undergraduate and graduate level and include studies in the trades as well as academic subjects. 

Certificate Programs Without a College Education

Certificate programs for students with only a high school education can include plumbing, air conditioning, real estate, heating and refrigeration, computers or health care. More than half the certificate programs take a year or less to complete, which makes them a quick way to get a leg up in the job market.

Admission requirements depend on the school and program, most students with a high school diploma or GED qualify for admittance. Additional requirements can include English language skills, basic math and technology proficiency. Certificate programs are offered primarily at community colleges and career school, but the number of four-year universities offering them is increasing.

Certificate Programs in Undergraduate Education

Most undergraduate certificate programs can also be completed in less than a year of full-time study. Paths can include concentrations in accounting, communications, and specialties like managerial accounting, financial reporting and strategic cost analysis.

University certificate program options cover a wide array of possibilities. At Portland State University in Oregon, for example, the psychology department offers a post-graduate certificate program that focuses on therapy with adoptive and foster families, and the criminal justice department offers online crime analysis and criminal behavior certificates. Montana State does a certificate program in student leadership. And Indiana State offers advanced nursing certificates in medical-surgical nursing through its continuing education division.

Princeton University offers a certificate program they call a “certificate of proficiency” which lets students supplement their departmental concentration with study in another field, often an often interdisciplinary one, so they can pursue a special area of interest or particular passion. For example, a student majoring in history can pursue a certificate in musical performance; a student concentrating in literature can pursue a certificate in Russian language; and a student concentrating in biology can pursue a certificate in cognitive science.

Graduate Certificate Programs

Graduate certificate programs are available in professional and academic subjects. These do not equate to a graduate degree program, but rather they allow students to show that they've mastered a specific area of interest or topic. Graduate certificates include concentrations in nursing, health communications, social work, and entrepreneurship which can demonstrate a focus on project management, organizational leadership, negotiation strategy and venture funding.

Graduate certificate programs are meant for students who already have an undergraduate Bachelor of Arts or Science. Schools may ask for a minimum GPA and other requirements based on the institution, as well as standardized test scores or a personal statement.

About a third of the students who earn a certificate already have a master's or bachelor's degree. They've gone back to school to get additional training specifically to make themselves more competitive.