The Meaning of Higher Education Certificates

The low-down on what certificate programs can (and can’t) accomplish for professionals.

The United States’ labor market is – and will likely remain – highly competitive in many professional fields, due to a host of factors including, but not limited to: computers and automation technology (which often reduce the need for employees); companies’ outsourcing jobs overseas; and, in general, a cut-throat global marketplace.

Against this backdrop, US workers’ wages have statistically stagnated, and while it can be argued that there are additional causes for this, the bottom line for many professionals is: ‘How do I increase my income while, at the same time, engage in meaningful work that aligns with my innate talents, intrinsic motivations and personality?’

A master’s degree is generally considered the major credential needed to bolster one’s career, especially when it is combined with nonpareil employability skills and a successful career track record, among other factors.

What, then, of certificate programs? Is it possible to attain a certificate from an accredited college or university and use it to foster the aforementioned goals of increased wealth and personal satisfaction?

The answer is: It depends.

On the cautionary side, Daniel J. Julius, EdD., provost and senior vice president at New Jersey City University, says, “What one needs for career advancement or career transition rests on individual characteristics – whether or not a person is willing to move, whether or not a person is doing well in particular job, at what point someone is in his or her career – all kinds of questions enter into whether or not a particular type of study is going to advance a particular career. That’s really highly variable. But, from an academic perspective, the content involved in a master’s degree, as opposed to a certificate, is not all the same. So, I would be suspect of anyone – or any group – who might argue that having a certificate is the same as a master’s degree. That would be very, very strange to me.”

That said, in certain instances, certificates can be part of the equation when growing one’s career, as evidenced by Centenary College’s new Social Media Marketing Certificate. The college says, “Recent trends in job postings indicate that employers increasingly cite social media as a required skill for many traditional marketing positions. In fact, jobs requiring social media skills increased 1,357 percent from 2010 and 2013.”

Kathy Naasz, dean of the Social Media Center of Expertise, at Centenary College, says, “For social media – because there are not many accredited institutions really focusing on having students study it, and there are so many jobs out there – the employers are hungry for this, and the employees are hungry for this. … The certificate is filling this huge void of expertise that is needed. In this case, there are just not that many master’s programs.”

A Broader View

The word “certificate” can mean different things, ranging from a $200, one-day certificate offered by a company to a for-credit, multi-course certificate program offered by an accredited higher education institution.

Regarding the latter, if neither a bachelor’s degree nor master’s degree is the lone silver bullet necessary for multi-factorial professional success, Michael Williams, PhD., dean of the School of Business and Management at Thomas Edison State University, seems to take the middle road: “I find that, increasingly, people who are coming for certificates are looking at them as an add-on to an existing degree. For example, somebody could have an MBA in general management, but he or she might say, ‘I really need to have increased focus in finance, too. So, they come back to me to get a graduate certificate – 18 credits in finance, which is really all they need.

“[Meanwhile], somebody was saying, ‘I want to work for ‘X’ employer.’ For example, ‘I want to work for Goldman Sachs. And I want ‘this’ and ‘that.’’ Then, this is a very different conversation, because the graduate degree or graduate certificate can only take you so far. That’s where the ignorance part sets in: ‘You have to know the markets, you have to know what you can really do with [the certificate], and how viable this conversation really is.’”

The Varieties of Certificate Experiences

Peter Jeong, PhD., vice president for global programs and professional studies at Bloomfield College, has been in charge of all of the institution’s certificate programs since 1997. He has witnessed: the high demand for information technology certificates from approximately 1998 to 2002; a high demand for healthcare certificates (e.g., medical billing, medical coding and pharma-tech certificate programs) from about 2006 to 2010; and, today, he says certificates exploring marketing, building effective call center skills, human resources, project management and Six Sigma are popular, for example.

Jeong elaborates, “Now, corporate employees are into certificate programs. If the employees get a certain score, they can get promotions and some incentives.”

He adds, “We are [offering] training in specialized technology certificates, as well as other specific [certificates]. A degree is good. But, industry needs [people with] very specific certificates to run their operations, [computer] hardware, sales – whatever it might be. Certificates are different, in that they are more specialized.”

Echoing at least some of these sentiments is Rosa Diaz-Mulryan, assistant vice president of the Center for Innovative and Professional Learning at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She says, “Certificates are very popular right now, and actually have been for quite a number of years. What is driving it is, truly, the competition for jobs and promotions, and it has really increased in this current employment marketplace that we are in, and also because of the vast growth in technology.”

She says technology is infused throughout all industries, and since it rapidly changes, employees must upgrade their skills. For example, in the IT arena, she explains that maintaining certifications is “really key” to being hired and advancing in that industry, because a certification demonstrates the person has the enhanced level of skill and expertise in the newest technology. On that note, some certificate programs prepare students to pass a certain test (and thus gain “certification”), such as exams offered by the Project Management Institute, for example.

Diaz-Mulryan adds, “Certifications really stand out on resumes – again, for that competition of jobs and promotions. They are also portable credentials. You can earn them from a professional association or an educational institution, such as us. They really show that an individual has professional knowledge and expertise, and that it is current. That’s the key; that it’s very, very current.”

Thinking Long Term

Before one enrolls in a certificate program, it is advisable that he or she communicates directly with an esteemed higher education institution as well as successful professionals in the field of one’s interest.

Career counseling is often viewed as something a 22-year-old undergraduate student might seek, but, in reality, many professionals (even those with experience), require quality advice. While it may be surprising, some professionals are equally as unclear about their abilities, objectives and the labor market’s realities as recent college graduates.

Experts say determining the logistics for advancing one’s career is secondary to ensuring that the day-to-day duties of an occupation align with what a person truly desires and how they would like their overall life to unfold.

Underscoring the complexities involved in pursuing higher education certificates, Diaz-Mulran stresses: “It is really going to depend on [the person’s] goals; what they are pursuing, and where they are currently in their career.”


As is true with almost any investment, knowing both the value – and limitations of – certificate programs is key to reaping the most from the knowledge they impart. In broad terms, NJCU’s Julius concludes, “What really matters is the time people take to make decisions about what they want, and why. Jobs are very important, but there are a number of individuals who go to school not necessarily to get a job. They go to school to get educated.”


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