What Is a Certificate at a US University?

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By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Interested in pursuing higher education in the US? Certificate programs at US universities and colleges can help you build specific skills at different stages of your life.

A group of international students with backpacks walk and laugh together on their US university campus

Depending on your career goals, you can take different pathways after you receive your high school diploma (also known as a matriculation certificate or secondary school certificate in some countries). Typically, most students choose between applying for a degree at a university or college. However, certificate programs that focus on building specific skills are increasing in popularity — and can also be a cheaper alternative. 

So, is a certificate a good option for you? Read on to learn more about the types of certificate programs and their benefits, which certificates are available at Shorelight universities, and the  value of certificates compared to degrees.

What Is a Certificate Program?

A certificate program at a US college or university helps you gain knowledge and train your skills in a specific field over a short period of time. Receiving a certificate indicates that you have developed a specialization in the area you studied and can act as a qualified credential to add to your professional portfolio, resume, and/or CV

Certificate programs are available in a variety of different industries, experience levels, career paths, and trades, including business, health care, technology, legal, social services, health and fitness, arts and design, and more. They can be earned in a traditional classroom setting, and also via an internship, where you receive an internship certificate from your employer at the end of the program. More universities are also offering online certificate courses to students, and there are a variety of free online courses with certificates from top US companies, such as Google. 

Here are two types of certificate programs:

  1. Undergraduate certificate programs — Geared toward high school graduates, undergraduate certificate programs focus on teaching fundamental career skills in a specific field and help you work toward entry-level careers. For example, if you want to work in cybersecurity, you might consider an Information Systems Security certificate program, which may help you meet the requirements and qualifications for cybersecurity roles.

  2. Graduate certificate programs — Tailored for advanced students with work experience, or those who have already completed their bachelor’s or master’s degree, graduate certificate programs cover advanced concepts, best practices, and industry-specific training. These types of certificates may help employees stay on top of current industry trends and/or work toward professional advancement, such as a promotion.

What Are the Benefits of Enrolling in a Certificate Program?

No matter your education level or work experience, certificate programs are a way to acquire new skills or improve your existing skills. 

With a certificate program, you can: 

  • Start your career early — Certificate programs allow you to immediately start working toward your desired area of interest without the requirement of completing general education courses. This is ideal for students who are passionate about a specific career and want to begin working as soon as possible. (Remember to look into requirements of jobs you are applying for first before enrolling in a certificate program. Some roles may still require a bachelor’s degree.)

  • Improve your career prospects — For students who want to qualify for higher-paying roles and/or a promotion, certificate programs help you develop real-world skills you can apply to your trade. You will receive specific training from industry professionals to gain expertise and a deep understanding of the area you are studying.

  • Get more flexibility — Some degree programs require you to complete specific courses before you apply. By already having a certificate in a related field, you may already be a qualified applicant for the program that interests you. You can also pursue a certification in a new field to help you switch to a new career path.

What Are Some Examples of Certificate Programs for International Students?

Each university offers its own selection of certificate programs. Here are a few examples of certificate programs at Shorelight universities, designed especially for international students.

Career Premium Certificate — Select Shorelight Universities

Career Premium is an exclusive service from Shorelight universities which allows you to participate in a virtual externship. Externships run for eight weeks and since they are virtual, you can start them from your home country. 

During the certificate program, participate in online professional boot camps before you begin your externship, then work with top employers around the world. Learn from industry experts with the opportunity to work on real projects and presentations as you receive direct feedback and guidance from your employer through timely check-ins. When you complete the program, you receive a recommendation letter and certificate signed by your employer. 

When you travel to the US to complete your degree, you will already have valuable working experience to help you apply for more advanced jobs. 

Global Citizenship Course — American Collegiate Live

With the Global Citizenship Course (GCC), learn what it means to be a part of a global community and explore the importance of diversity and understanding different cultures. The program is offered exclusively online to students enrolled at American Collegiate Live. GCC workshops have been held across 18 different countries since the program began in 2016, and more than 3,500 students have earned certificates. Additionally, all certificates are endorsed by the University for Peace in Costa Rica (created by the United Nations).

As world cultures become increasingly interconnected, the GCC helps build your professional portfolio and stand out to companies seeking globally aware, culturally fluent employees.

What Is the Value of Certificate Programs Compared to Degrees?

A certificate program can offer a high-quality learning experience that develops professional qualifications, while also saving time and money. 

Depending on the type of program, certificate programs usually run for several months (e.g., three to nine months) or up to a year, which is much shorter timeframe compared to the two to four years required to complete a university degree. If you currently work and want to add to your professional credentials to secure a promotion or advance your career, it is much easier to fit a certificate program into your schedule compared to a degree program. 

The shorter duration and more specific focus of certificate programs also makes them more affordable compared to full degree programs. While the cost of some undergraduate degrees can exceed $40,000 (USD) for international students, undergraduate certificate programs generally cost approximately $1,000 to $5,000, and graduate certificate programs can cost up to $20,000, according to BestColleges. This is a significant benefit if you are looking for more cost-effective options to get a head start in your career.

However, note that many employers do still require a four-year degree, even for entry-level positions. So, in many cases, a certificate program offers a competitive edge in addition to your degree, and is not necessarily a replacement for a bachelor’s degree. Speaking with a career counselor can help you determine the best study options for your professional goals.  

With certificate programs, you can access a cost- and time-effective program with flexibility that allows you to pursue unique jobs or further your education. With research and guidance, a certificate program may help fast-track your career.

Shorelight can help you find your best-fit program at a US university >>