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Why You May Want to Get a College Certificate

Inexpensive certificate programs let you brush up your skills or pick up new ones

By Lisa Holton | February 29, 2012
certificate rolled up and tied with ribbon
A college certificate could be the best present you give yourself
iStockphoto | Thinkstock

The college degree you earned 30 or 40 years ago may no longer be enough to stay competitive in today’s job market. Or it might be the wrong diploma for a field you now want to enter. But by enrolling in a certificate program, you can refresh your job skills or pick up new ones.
 
A certificate program provides specialized training in a particular discipline. You can either enroll in person at a local college (some programs are available on nights and weekends) or on your laptop, through an accredited distance-learning program. Completing the program typically takes less time than earning an associate’s, undergraduate or master’s degree.
 
This type of degree is often far less expensive than an undergraduate or graduate school degree. Some certificate programs cost as little as a few hundred dollars. MIT, a leader in online coursework, recently rocked the education world with the announcement of an online certificate program launching March 5 whose inaugural class — in circuits and electronics — will be free.
 
Certificates Are Booming

The number of students over 50 getting certificates has exploded in the last five years, particularly since the publication of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life, by Marc Freedman, the founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, work and social purpose.
 
Some of the nation’s largest universities and community colleges have redefined their traditional adult education curriculum to meet the burgeoning demand of prospective midlife students. And hundreds of industry associations are developing certification programs to help advance members in their fields.
 
“We’re seeing a proliferation of distance and on-campus programming, including certificate programs,” says Thomas F. Gibbons, dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University and president-elect of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, based in Washington.

With so many of these programs available, it can be hard to choose the right one for you. Here are some tips:
Determine what type of training you need. If there’s a company or organization you want to work for, or you want a different job where you already work, ask the head of human resources what kind of training you should get. Ask for suggestions of respected programs and schools, too.
Network with people who have jobs like the one you want. Talk to members of your industry's association or of an association in the field you want to enter. Ask how and where they received their training. Your library can probably let you use its free databases of professional associations.
Consider the name of the school that will appear on the certificate. As you investigate programs, weigh the value of what you’ll pay for training in a college known for top instructors, compared with a lesser-known, less expensive school that may not have seasoned educators. In short, vet the school behind the certificate fully.
Use an online directory of online certificate programs. Websites such as onlinecertificateprograms.org, elearners.com and onlinedegreeprograms.com let you sort through online certificate programs by specialty.