Before looking at vocational schools, you need to decide whether you should earn a certificate or an associate degree. Asking yourself these three questions can help you decide.

Getting a Certificate vs. an Associate Degree

When you decide on a vocational education, you have many options and you want to make sure you choose the correct education for you: This is a case where one size doesn't fit all. Whether an associate degree or a certificate from vocational schools is better for you depends on a number of criteria. Before you decide, ask yourself the following three questions:

  • What are my career/educational goals?
  • How much time do I have for education?
  • How much money can I realistically afford to spend?

What are my career/educational goals?

Your educational and career goals can have a significant impact on whether you should pursue a certificate or associate degree program. Let's look at the difference between a certificate program and an associate degree program.

  • Certificate. Certificate programs generally focus very specifically on one area of expertise. They come with a variety of points: those that apply to upgrading yours skills in an existing job, increasing your knowledge in a specific specialized area, or helping you gain the skills for an entry level job. For example, a nurse may choose to pursue a certificate in gerontology to supplement general nursing skills. Likewise, a business officer may want to obtain a certificate in accounting or human resources management for a broader scope of knowledge or for a promotion. IT professionals may also need certificates from vocational schools to keep current in changing technologies. Some certificates, however, lead to a specific job such as nursing assistant, automotive technician or pharmacy technician.
  • Associate degree. Associate degree programs can include coursework in your specific field, much like a certificate, but also include general education classes, which are not part of a certificate program.

If the career you want to pursue specifies that you must have an associate degree, you don't have a choice. But in some instances, you can obtain an entry level position in your career by completing a certificate program with a vocational school. Keep in mind, however, that having an associate degree could help you get started in your career at a higher level than a certificate.

How much time do I have for my education?

You can complete an associate degree in two years of full-time study. Depending on the type of certificate you need, vocational education programs can take anywhere from a handful of weeks to many months. If you need to begin working immediately and you can get into your field with only a certificate, that could be the way to go. But your future job opportunities could be enhanced by having an associate or bachelor's degree from one of the vocational schools. Some certificate programs offer coursework that you can apply toward an associate degree, which means you have more options. At some point in your future, you could work toward an associate degree and then a bachelor's degree by enrolling in an online vocational education program even while you're working. Based on information from the Census Bureau, each year of education you add beyond high school increases your lifetime earnings potential.

How much money can I realistically afford to spend?

Shorter term certificate programs often cost less than longer term degree programs because their focus is generally to get you into the job market as soon as possible with a specific set of vocationally-related skills. Studying online can also save you some money, particularly if you need to continue working while you work on your certificate or degree.

In the final analysis, whether you earn a certificate or associate degree from vocational schools depends on your answers to these three key questions. Researching and formulating the answers should help you decide whether a certificate or associate degree is best for you.

Vocational & Technical Schools by State

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