Going to graduate school isn’t cheap: According to Peterson’s, the average tuition cost for a two-year master’s degree program is $60,000 to $80,000. That’s not even taking into account living expenses, books, and fees, which can push the cost of your degree well over $100,000.
While there are ways to ease the burden of a graduate education, such as employer reimbursement programs and scholarships, spending thousands of dollars for a master’s isn’t practical or even possible, for many people. Not to mention, not everyone has the time required to complete an entire master’s degree program, which usually requires at last 12 courses.
At the same time, if you are like many people, you are looking for every possible competitive advantage for your career. There may be gaps in your knowledge or experience that are keeping you from reaching your career goals, and while a master’s degree may help fill some of those gaps, there is another alternative: a graduate certificate.
Smaller Commitment, Faster Payback
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the number of people who hold post-baccalaureate certificates has increased by more than 50 percent since 2005 — and the numbers continue to grow.
The growth in certificate programs is in large part due to the smaller commitments of time and money. Usually specific and subject-focused, they 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.
The increasing popularity of online schools has made it so you can earn your certificate from just about anywhere. It is easy to sign up online and earn a graduate certificate in a number of programs such as Project Monitoring and Evaluation, and you can balance your online classes easily with work or any of the other unexpected curves that life may throw at you. Plenty of online Universities offer graduate certificates, so a little research could save you money and advance your career.
Certificate programs tend to fall into several categories:
Programs that build a specific skill set that allow for a higher salary or new opportunities in your current field. These programs provide a credential that sets you ahead of others.
Programs that offer specific job training, such as paralegal studies.
Programs that are purely academic, such as women’s studies, which allow you to pursue a passion.
Programs that build skills in a new or growing specialty area, such as Internet marketing, that increase overall marketability.
Regardless of which type of certificate you pursue, there’s a good chance that it will lead to higher pay and more opportunities. In general, when you earn a certificate, you can expect anywhere from a 13 to 25 percent boost in your annual salary. And given that they require fewer courses to complete, most people can complete a certificate program in under a year. In fact, most schools that offer certificate programs cater to working professionals and offer courses online, in the evenings, or on weekends.
A Few Important Considerations
Of course, while earning a certificate can give your career a boost, there are a few important points to keep in mind.
First, in some cases, a master’s is your only option. There are some fields where, if you want to earn a license or even land a job, you have to earn a master’s degree, no if’, ands or buts about it. That being said, a certificate can be a stepping-stone to a full master’s. Not only does it help you refine your thinking about what you actually want to study, it can also serve as a good introduction to grad school. In many cases, you can also transfer the credits you earn toward your certificate toward a full degree as well.
Second, you have to pay for a certificate just as you would a master’s, and you may not always qualify for student loans if you need them. Some programs designed to update your skills for a job you already have may not qualify for government funds. However, if your employer offers tuition reimbursement, your certificate courses will most likely qualify, as they are graduate level courses.
Finally, keep in mind that while a certificate program might take less time to complete, it’s still challenging. You’ll still have to make time to attend classes or participate in online discussions, read and complete assignments. Like any academic program, you get out what you put in to your studies, so consider your current lifestyle and commitments and whether or not you can devote the time necessary to excel in your coursework.
Whether you’re looking to give your career — and earning power — a boost or you just want to add some new skills to your repertoire, a graduate certificate is a nice credential to add to your resume. If you’ve ruled out grad school because of the time or the cost, or you can’t find a program that meets your needs, look into this option. It might just be the solution you’re looking for.