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What is the Difference Between a Certificate and a Micro-credential?

By Charlene Lattea, WVU Online | Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Explore the difference between online certificates and micro-credentials. Discover which suits your career with WVU Online.

Alexandra Ashworth chose online learning because it gave her the flexibility to pursue her education to the fullest.

"WVU Online provided avenues for me to complete a second degree, hold two jobs, and complete my academic work anywhere within the United States," she says.

She found the online class offerings within her major to be extremely beneficial, and the flexibility was exactly what she needed.

Online learning offers many opportunities today that non-traditional students didn’t have in the past. But what kind of online educational program is right for you, especially if you need that flexibility and time is also a major factor?

That’s where certificates and micro-credentials come in.

Both online certificates and micro-credentials can enhance your educational and professional skills in a short period of time, but they serve different purposes.

In this article, we will explain the differences between certificates and micro-credentials, so you can decide if one of them is right for you.

What is an Online Certificate?

Online certificates, like the ones offered by WVU Online, allow you to study a concentrated area in your field of interest, earning certain professional skills you need to advance in your career. They are taught by college and university faculty or industry experts.

You can earn an undergraduate certificate or a graduate certificate that either stand alone or complement your degree. Most take a year or two to complete, with multiple courses required.

Now, let’s break down the details about online certificates.

Online Certificates: Key Facts to Know

An online certificate is narrower in scope and shorter in duration than a full degree and there are fewer courses required to complete them.

You can earn certificates at a college or university or at a trade school, two-year technical school, or through a private provider such as Coursera.

Like micro-credentials, certificates give you documentation of skills you have learned in a course.

The difference between a graduate certificate and an undergraduate certificate is usually in background requirements, the amount of time it takes, and the scope of the work involved.

In an undergraduate certificate program, students can enroll without prior college coursework, or a degree.

It may take about a year or two to complete the program’s requirements and they can usually transfer those credits later if they later choose to pursue a full degree.

Graduate certificates require you to have a baccalaureate degree and perhaps computer or other advanced skills or courses to enter the program.

Students typically take one or two classes per semester, completing the 12 to 25 credits in 1-2 years or more, including a final capstone course and perhaps a final research paper.

What’s a Micro-Credential?

Micro-credentials are much smaller than a degree and even smaller than a minor or a certificate. They take less time to complete and focus on enhancing or updating a particular skill set.

They are fast, flexible, reputable, and customizable for individual needs. They are usually offered on demand and are also less expensive than a degree or a certificate.

Micro-credentials are a good opportunity for students, and also for professionals who need to upgrade their skills. They are a great way to showcase your skills and expertise to an employer and to build a professional portfolio that is unique to you.

When you complete a micro-credential, you receive a digital certification, usually in the form of a "badge" that you can attach to your resume or include in your portfolio when you apply for a job.

You can also "stack" micro-credentials to cover a particular topic in more detail. By stacking them, you can combine them in a variety of different ways to create your personal portfolio.

What is the Difference Between A Certificate and a Micro-Credential?

The terms "micro-credential" and "certificate" are similar, and the terms are sometimes interchangeable, but they are not the same.

Micro-credentials and certificates are both credentials and both provide documentation of specific skills learned in the coursework.

But how are certificates and micro-credential different? The differences aren’t always clear-cut because certificates and micro-credentials can vary across industries and educational institutions.

Here, we will break down the differences between certificates and micro-credentials and compare them to help you decide which is best for you.

1. Time Commitment

Because micro-credentials are not full-length courses, they take less time. They can be completed in weeks, instead of the years it takes to earn a certificate or a traditional degree.

A full undergraduate degree usually takes four years, while a graduate degree takes about two years. A certificate is usually 12-21 credits, and also takes a year or two, or perhaps more in some fields.

A micro-credential is typically made up of at least 6 credits, depending on the program and can be completed in a few weeks or even days.

2. Cost

Micro-credentials are usually less expensive than certificates because they are shorter in length and are usually offered online. They are also more cost-effective for a company to implement than traditional employee training programs.

Certificates usually cost a lot more, with the cost per credit hour being about the same as a full degree in the same subject. However, you might be able to get financial aid, which is usually not available for micro-credentials.

3. Target Audience

Certificates are usually a good choice for students looking for a more in-depth understanding of a particular field. With a certificate, you gain more general knowledge of a subject and this can sometimes lead to a full degree in that area.

Micro-credentials are better for students who do not want to take any hours of coursework that they don’t want or need. They are great for professionals who want to gain skills in a specific area, enhance their resume, or stay up to date with current industry trends.

4. Scope of Study

Certificates cover a broader subject area and provide a more extensive understanding of the field. They are designed to complement your degree program or give you a specific set of skills.

Micro-credentials are smaller in focus, target a specific skill or topic, and are designed for a specialized subject. They are competency-based, which means they may provide students with more hands-on learning opportunities directly related to their career.

5. Flexibility

Online certificates are more flexible than a traditional degree, but they still require a set time for classes or assessments over a longer duration, perhaps a year or two.

Micro-credentials, on the other hand, are very flexible. They allow students to progress at their own pace and complete a course in a few days or weeks.

6. Career Mobility

Micro-credentials are especially appealing for working professionals or those who are looking to advance in a particular area quickly, because students only need to register for courses that cover specific skills they wish to learn.

Certificates may take as long as two years to earn, but often give students the specialized qualifications they need to enter an entirely new career field.

7. Recognition

Certificates have long been recognized as a qualifying credential that you can add to your resume or portfolio. Receiving a certificate indicates that you have developed a specialization in the area of study.

Micro-credentials are quickly becoming very popular and many employers recognize them as a valuable tool. However, some employers may not be familiar with them yet and may not value them as highly as they would a traditional degree or certificate.

8. Quality

Certificates and degrees from colleges and universities must meet certain standards to be accredited. They are evaluated for the quality of their programs so that students can be sure they are getting a high-quality education.

However, this is not the case with micro-credentials. There are no regional accreditation standards and they can vary widely. With so many options available, it can be difficult to know which ones are reputable unless they are also associated with a well-known college or university.

Which Aligns with Your Goals?

Be sure to consider your career when researching certificates and micro-credentials and carefully consider the many options available to you and how they align with your goals before enrolling in a program.

When deciding whether to earn a micro-credential or a certificate, you should always consider what fits best into your life situation.

For example, consider the following:

1. Skills Needed

What skills do you need in order to achieve your career goals? Look at the courses you need in a specific subject and whether it would be more beneficial for your career to earn them through a certificate program or through a micro-credential.

2. Time Availability

How much time do you have to devote to learning new skills? If you are working full-time, it might be better to learn new skills via a short-term program that is more flexible. But if you have the time, a certificate program would give you a more general overview of a subject and possibly lead you to a brand new career.

3. Family Responsibilities

What are your family obligations, both now and in the near future? If you have day-to-day obligations to young children or elderly parents, and need to work in classes around a tight schedule, micro-credentials might be a quicker and easier solution.

Financial Situation

Can you possibly reach your goals without the time and expense of earning a certificate? A micro-credential is less expensive because it takes less time. With a certificate, you will probably be paying the same tuition per credit hour that you would pay for a full degree.

Invest in Your Education with WVU Online

It is now time to do further research and evaluate whether online learning aligns with your personal learning style and life situation.

Educational pathways can be challenging, but you need to take the time to make informed decisions. Whether you choose a certificate or a micro-credential, WVU Online supports your choice and is here to help.

WVU Online is an ideal starting point in your search for the right school. Our degrees are perfect for working professionals or others who want the convenience and flexibility of online learning from a nationally recognized university.

Learn More

Contact the Coaches at Our Learning Engagement Center

After reading this article, if you are unsure about your goals, or how to identify your interests and skills, be sure to reach out to one of our WVU Online admissions coaches. They are trained to help you look at your individual situation and make the right choice for your future.

Contact WVU Online Ambassador Angie Berna Milliren if you have questions about micro-credentials:

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