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Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that a college degree remains the goal for most graduating high school seniors and many nontraditional students. Postsecondary institutions all over the country awarded more bachelor’s degrees (1.9 million) than associate degrees (one million) or certificates (approximately 900,000).

However, several factors, such as rapid technological advancement and increasing globalization, have impacted the current educational landscape in the United States. An increasing number of students opt for alternative academic options, including pursuing an online certificate program. Enrolling in a certificate program offers several advantages in terms of time, affordability, and professional options. You can read about these advantages in greater detail below.

This guide provides information that can help you decide whether enrolling in an online certificate program is right for you. Learn more about some of the most popular certificate programs available to students today. Before making a final decision, explore key aspects of certificate programs, including accreditation, cost, and school ranking. Continue reading below to learn how you can benefit from online certificate programs’ educational and career advantages.

Accredited Online Certificate Programs Overview

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies a certificate as a postsecondary nondegree award. An educational institution awards a certificate to a graduate who has completed postsecondary schooling or training. A certificate is not the same as certification given by a certifying body or a professional organization.

Many people associate certificate programs with trades like automotive repair, welding, and plumbing. Schools offer certificates in these fields but increasingly in other professional arenas, such as healthcare, computer technology, and education. Without disregarding the value of a broad-based education, career opportunities abound for skilled workers in the modern workforce.

Technological advances allow students to earn a certificate fully online in certain fields. Programs that require students to complete an internship typically allow them to meet this requirement within their geographical area. Each program maintains its own set of admission criteria. Considerable differences exist between schools offering the same type of certificate, so be sure to contact a prospective school to be clear on their admission requirements.

Certificate programs typically offer career-oriented and skills-focused classes. Because of this, few courses transfer readily to an associate or bachelor’s program. However, some two-year community colleges accept certificate courses earned from an accredited program. If you plan to use your certificate coursework for a degree, later on, make sure you know the transferability of the courses you plan to take for the certificate.

BLS lists several on-campus and online certificate programs that are in high demand in today’s workforce. Certificates in healthcare, information technology, and protective services currently rank high in giving graduates marketable skills.

Why Get an Online Certificate?

Students opt to pursue an online certificate for professional and personal reasons. Some are listed below:

Shorter Completion Time
Many online certificate programs take only a year to complete, meaning graduates enter the workforce sooner than if they pursued a two-year associate or a four-year bachelor’s degree.
 A focused learning certificate program allows students to develop a specific set of skills required in a job or industry. They graduate from the program with readily marketable skills.
Affordability
Since online students often live and study from home. They incur no additional transportation and boarding costs, making online certificate programs more affordable than traditional onsite programs.
Flexibility
Many online programs offer asynchronous coursework, which makes it easier to attend class and maintain personal and work responsibilities at the same time.
 Professional Requirement
Some positions require applicants to be certified in a specific practice area within their fields, such as special education or emergency room nursing.

Accreditation for an Online Program

There are currently three types of higher education accreditation in the United States. Regional accreditation focuses on degree-oriented nonprofit institutions, which may be public or private schools. For-profit trade or sectarian schools often seek national accreditation. The third type, programmatic accreditation, focuses on specific programs offered by schools that hold national or regional accreditation.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee the accrediting process and make sure accrediting agencies apply the same rigorous standards to all the schools and programs that fall under their proper jurisdiction.

Accreditation signifies more than quality education. Students can only receive federal financial assistance if they are enrolled in an accredited institution. Accreditation also matters when transferring credits. Schools with regional accreditation only accept credits earned at another institution that holds the same type of accreditation. They seldom accept credits earned at a school with national accreditation.

In evaluating online programs, consider those offered by an accredited school. If you are looking for an online school (and not just a brick-and-mortar campus offering online programs), look for the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) accreditation. ED and CHEA recognize DEAC as the main accreditor for online schools.

Online Certificate Requirements

Trade and manufacturing certificates often require applicants to have at least a high school or GED diploma. Certificate programs related to computer technology may require the completion of specific foundation courses in math. Reach out to a prospective school to clarify their admission requirements if these are not clearly stated on their website.

Accredited institutions offering online certificate programs require submitting a transcript from the school where applicants completed their secondary education. Students who attended more than one high school likely must submit transcripts from each school. Transcripts are mailed (electronically or by post) directly to a prospective school, giving your secondary institution ample time to accomplish this within the deadline.

Students pursuing an online certificate program in high-need areas (healthcare or education) often qualify for federal financial assistance. You must complete the FAFSA to find out your eligibility status. Note that ED channels federal funds only through accredited schools.

Best Online Certificate Programs

Online certificate programs can help students with busy schedules access higher education. Distance learners typically complete coursework at convenient times. Online learning also allows students to pursue online certificate programs through out-of-state institutions without relocating.

The list below includes the best online certificate programs in the United States. The ranking considers factors including class sizes, availability of student services, and student success rates.

Undergraduate Online Certificate Programs Learning Center

Many schools offer online undergraduate, graduate, and professional certificates in professional fields such as business and healthcare. Learners can pursue online certification programs in a variety of lengths, academic levels, and subject areas. This section includes information about various types of certificate programs in popular subject areas.

Earning an Online Certificate

Certificate programs typically comprise 4-8 courses, which most learners complete in three months to a year. Students typically need only a high school diploma to enroll in an undergraduate certificate program.

Applicants to graduate-level certificate programs may need a bachelor’s degree, graduate test scores, and professional experience. Like on-campus options, online certificate programs help learners develop specialized career skills. Online programs often deliver more flexible scheduling options, and some provide accelerated coursework.

How Online Certificates Are Taking Off

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, schools awarded nearly 1 million certificates during the 2016-2017 academic year. Institutions awarded more certificates than master or doctoral degrees.

The popularity of online certification programs likely stems from the minimal time investment and the significant potential for career advancement. Certificate programs require less time and are less expensive than degrees, making them ideal for professionals changing careers.

Also, earning a certificate can lead to additional career opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, certificate-holders have an 86.5% employment rate, compared to a 49.1% for those without a certificate or license.

Students can pursue professional, undergraduate, and graduate certificates in a variety of career-focused and academic fields. Popular certificate programs include medical insurance coding, computer software technology, and legal assistance. Professionals in some fields need a certificate rather than a degree to qualify for employment. Learners in other industries must hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree to receive admission to a certificate program.

Transferring to a Degree Program

Some students transfer their online certificates into a degree program. Learners can typically transfer credits between accredited institutions. However, students should consult academic advisors at both schools to ensure that their certificates will transfer. While general education courses usually transfer easily, major-specific classes may be applied as elective credits.

Learners are planning to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree often choose an associate program instead of a certificate program to improve their transfer options and maximize the financial value of their education. Those who already hold a higher degree, however, may find certificate programs to be more cost-effective.

Online Certificate Programs

Universities, liberal arts colleges, and technical colleges offer online certification programs at various academic levels. Certificates vary in length, cost, and value. Students may complete a career-oriented program at a technical college in a few weeks, while a graduate certificate in a complex field could require two years.

Some community colleges offer free tuition to state residents, but a graduate certificate from a private university could cost several thousand dollars. The professional value of a certificate depends on the field, and the positions graduates qualify to pursue.

Although online certificate programs require an investment of time and finances, a certificate can help professionals advance their careers without earning a degree. Additionally, many employers offer reimbursement programs for professionals pursuing certificates.

Online learning offers benefits, including flexible scheduling options, location independence, and the ability to work or raise a family while in school. Some programs include in-person requirements. However, distance learners typically complete these components at locations in their community.

College Accreditation

Accreditation demonstrates that an institution or program meets set standards for academic quality. Many employers only recognize degrees earned from accredited schools, and students must attend an accredited institution to qualify for certain types of financial aid. The accreditation process involves evaluation by an independent agency. The Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee accrediting agencies in the United States.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges awards regional accreditation to two-year schools. Programs and departments can also receive specialized accreditation. For example, the American National Standards Institute accredits technical certificate programs. Online certificate programs may also receive accreditation from the National Distance Learning Association.