Diploma, Degree or Certificate? What’s the Difference?

Multiple factors determine how a person chooses a career and how they find a job in their chosen field. While skills and interests play significant roles in choosing a career, so does the training or educational level a person attains.

When deciding on a career path, it helps to know what sort of training program you’ll need to complete first and what sort of credential you’ll earn. Learn more about the difference between a diploma and a degree and career certificate programs and degree programs.

What is a Certificate Program?

College certificate programs prepare you for entry-level positions in a range of fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 100 occupations expect a person to have some amount of post-secondary education, such as a career certificate.

One of the biggest differences between a certificate vs. a degree program is the length of the program. Typically, it takes at least four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. You can earn a career or technical certificate in much less time. Depending on the program you enroll in and the type of career you are interested in, you can earn your certificate anywhere from six to 12 months. Some programs are longer, others might be shorter.

What is a Diploma?

You might be familiar with a high school diploma, which you earn once you complete the requirements for finishing secondary school. A college diploma is slightly different. It’s a post-secondary non-degree award, similar to a career certificate. Also similar to a career certificate, a post-secondary diploma lets you focus on one area of study or one career field.

Diplomas typically take longer to complete than career certificates but require less time than a degree. It might take one or two years to finish all the requirements of a diploma program, for example.

Another difference between a diploma and a career certificate or degree program is the location of the program. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in healthcare and decide to enroll in a certificate program, you’ll most likely do so through a technical college. If you decide to pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, you’d enroll at a university or college. Should you decide to earn a diploma, you’d most likely earn it through a hospital or healthcare facility2.

What is a College Degree?

A college degree can also prepare you for a career in a variety of fields. Degrees typically take much longer to earn than certificates or diplomas. Depending on the degree program you enroll in, the process can take at least two years.

Associate’s degrees are usually earned in two years and bachelor’s degrees in four. Some fields require more education beyond a four-year degree program. For example, to become a doctor, you need to earn a medical degree, which is another four-year program after a bachelor’s degree.

While certificate and diploma programs usually focus specifically on the skills needed to succeed in a particular career, degree programs are broader. You’ll most likely need to take general education courses during a degree program3. In addition to general education courses, you’ll take classes that have to do with your major or specific area of study.

 Another key difference between a degree program and a certificate or diploma program is the end goal. Often, when you earn a certificate or diploma, you’re prepared to start a specific career.

With a degree program, your career options might be broader. For example, after earning a degree in English, you might become a teacher, editor, or business owner. In some cases, earning a degree is just a stepping stone to enrolling in another degree program. After earning a bachelor’s degree, you might decide to immediately go to law school, medical school, or graduate school.

How to Choose the Program That’s Right for You

The best way to choose the program that’s right for you is to consider your career goals and where you want to be in one year, two years, and so on. If you’d like to get started in a fulfilling career quickly, a certificate program is most likely the best place to start.

Choosing one program over another doesn’t close off options to you. You might enroll in a certificate or diploma program and decide to pursue a degree later on.

If earning a career certificate seems like the right call for you, Orange Technical College has certificate programs in fields ranging from hospitality to health care and manufacturing to business. Contact us today to learn more about the enrollment process.


  1. Education Level and Openings, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2020/article/education-level-and-openings.htm#s3
  2. RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?, Nurse Journal, https://nursejournal.org/degrees/bsn/rn-and-bsn-degree-differences/
  3. Structure of the U.S. Education System: Bachelor’s Degrees, US Department of Education, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/bachelor.doc