10 Reasons a Certification May Be Better Than a Grad Degree

It’s not very hard to find experts extolling the benefits of higher education. Research published by The Brookings Institution found that “higher education provides extensive benefits to students, including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of requiring disability payments. … A postsecondary degree can also serve as a buffer against unemployment during economic downturns.”  

While there’s no doubt that different degree programs can provide you with a professional boost, they also come with a hefty price tag. Located in Columbus, Ohio, private school Franklin University stated, “The latest averages for completing an accredited master’s program begin around $30,000 or $40,000 for a typical public or private school. Those costs can approach $100,000 or more for high-end graduate schools that offer name-dropping prestige.” Those numbers have led some to look at the merits of a professional certificate vs degree. 

In this article, we’ll discuss 10 reasons why you can stay competitive when selecting professional certification vs master’s degree. 

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#1: Lower Cost

Advocates for traditional higher education like to brush aside the fiscal burden that such programs place on students, noting that the “vast majority of [student loan] defaulters have less than $10,000 in student loan debt.” That very well may be true, but such statistics undersell the harsh reality that many diligent workers with a graduate certificate on resume have to labor for years to erase their debt even though they don’t default. 

While the National Center for Education Statistics doesn’t track the average cost for a master’s degree, it does offer data for how undergraduate degrees compare to professional certificates — and the contrast is striking. Whereas a bachelor’s degree averaged either $26,100, $29,000, or $35,700 depending on whether it was obtained from a public, private, or private for-profit institution, professional certificates cost $13,700, $17,200, or $14,900. Some certifications (like those offered by NREPSM) are even more affordable than that. 

#2: Faster

Another consideration when comparing a professional certificate vs degree is the time commitment involved. Many universities state that you’ll need 30 to 40 credit hours to obtain a graduate degree, which roughly translates into 10 to 14 courses. But Forbes notes that professional certifications “require taking anywhere from four to eight targeted, graduate level courses. They aren’t designed to be a replacement for a degree, but they allow professionals to learn new skills to move them ahead in their careers, get them up to speed in a new field, or meet state licensing requirements.” 

Indeed, some professional certifications require even less commitment. A number of certification options offered by NREPSM involve a combination of prior educational achievement, work experience, and professional knowledge demonstrated by passing a test. 

#3: More Portable

Not all education is created equal, and some will have more application to your career. Do employers care about graduate certificates? The answer to that depends on your field of work and what you studied. But if you have an environmental certification or some other professional certification, you know that you can carry it into your job of choice since it’s specifically designed to complement it. 

#4: High Success Rate

When comparing a degree vs certificate, it helps to remember that certificates are laser focused on what they want to accomplish, namely improving the knowledge and expertise of participants within a specific field. Because of their relatively narrow goals and built-in prescreening (meaning that those interested in certifications already possess its prerequisites), certifications have a higher success rate than graduate degrees. 

#5: Relevancy

One of the reasons a certification may be better than a grad degree involves how employers may view it. Your degree may come from a well-respected, accredited institution, and you may have excelled in your academic performance as you got it. However, if a prospective employer doesn’t see it as applicable, they may question its relevancy. Certifications, on the other hand, are standardized and recognized by multiple employers within a specific field. 

#6: Get Started Sooner

Do you have specific career goals that you want to pursue? Are you focused on a particular field and want to remain so for the foreseeable future? Would you like to start maximizing your earning potential sooner rather than later? Then your choice is clear: You ought to begin working on a professional certification. Some students ask, “Can you get a certificate and a degree at the same time?” While a determined few might be able to manage it, most will only manage to focus on one or the other — and those who want to get started sooner have a clear choice to make. 

#7: Staying Current

Different professional fields are constantly changing, and it’s difficult for workers in those fields to keep up if they don’t remain constantly vigilant to new developments. When considering a degree certificate vs diploma, it’s worth remembering that graduate degrees tend to be a “one and done” proposition. Professional certifications, though, must stay abreast of changes in the field. As employees advance throughout their careers, it’s not uncommon for them to achieve multiple certifications and remain on the cutting edge in their fields. The same cannot be said for more time-consuming and less conceptually nimble graduate degrees. 

#8: More Open to More Levels and Backgrounds

One of the certificate vs degree facts for students that you should know is certificates offer much more flexibility when it comes to program acceptance. Graduate degrees require multiple levels of academic achievement and extracurricular activities. Even though certifications are highly tailored in terms of application, they can often accept applicants from many different academic and professional backgrounds. For example, here at NREPSM, our certification programs may require a bachelor’s degree in any environmentally related subject and a certain number of years of experience in an associated field. 

#9: Sometimes Experience Matters More Than Education

Graduate education excels at teaching theoretical frameworks and philosophy, broad conceptual ideas, and common schools of thought. It doesn’t do so well at teaching students the nuts and bolts of a particular way of working. And while there’s nothing wrong with a more cerebral focus, many jobs require hand-on, tacit knowledge in order to succeed in everyday operations. Not only do many certificate programs require just this sort of knowledge in order to apply, they also teach knowledge and skills that certified individuals will use on a daily basis. 

#10: More Flexible

One of the great advantages of certificates is that they can prepare you for multiple types of jobs within a single field. Additionally, one type of certification might provide a natural steppingstone to another — and potentially another job. For instance, the Associate Environmental Professional certification offered by NREPSM dovetails naturally with our Registered Environmental Professional® certification. Indeed, if you have an Associate Environmental Professional certification, you can work in multiple environmental fields without needing any additional credentialing. 

Let us be the first to say that graduate degrees are valuable and can certainly boost your career. Before you dive into higher education in the environmental field, though, consider the certifications that NREPSM has to offer. For more than 25 years, NREPSM has provided credentialing services for many different types of environmental professionals, and our network contains more than 15,000 individuals. Additionally, NREPSM is recognized by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency