The Elephant in the Room
Retired Status for Certification: Good Idea or Not?

Credentialing Terminology is Still Baffling

We had a great audience Friday on ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership's virtual conference that I lead on Certificates Versus Certification:  Which is Right for Your Organization?  We did a little knowledge assessment via poll where I presented four brief scenarios and asked the participants to indicate whether the case described certification, curriculum-based certificate, accreditation, or licensure.  I was surprised at the significant level of confusion among the terms.  The only case for which the clear majority of participants were right was licensure.  For the rest, the votes were across the board.  That wasn't a bad thing in this case since a primary focus of the session was to distinguish among the the right audience showed up!

With that said, although I've done it before, I thought it important to again distinguish among the program types here on the blog since it's clearly still a problematic area that can't seem to be overdone.

In brief, the key distinctions are:

  • Accreditation is granted to organizations or programs; certification, licensure, and certificates are granted to individuals.
  • Only governmental agencies confer licensure; associations, corporations, and universities confer certification, certificates, and accreditation.
  • Licensure is the only credential that is required to practice or operate legally within a jurisdiction, usually the state.  Certification, certificates, and accreditation can have high value in the market, and be written in job descriptions, building specifications, etc., but they are considered voluntary because individuals can still practice and organizations can still operate without them.
  • To become licensed or certified, an individual usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment (usually a multiple-choice test).  To earn a certificate, individuals must participate in a comprehensive training program, usually on a focused topic, and successfully demonstrate attainment of course learning objectives.  To earn an accreditation, an organization must demonstrate that their organization and/or program has met predetermined and standardized criteria.

Here's the long version:


Licensed Real Estate Agent
Licensed Practical Nurse
Licensed Cosmetologist

Things you should know:

  • The goal of licensure is to ensure that licensees have the minimal degree of competency necessary to ensure that the public health, safety, and welfare are reasonably well-protected.
    If a state has licensure for a given occupation, an individual in that occupation must be licensed to work in that state without penalty.
  • In the U.S., licensure is granted at the state level. 
  • To become licensed, one usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment (usually a multiple-choice test).
  • The licensure assessment usually covers a broad area of knowledge and skills at the entry level. 
  • Licenses usually have ongoing requirements (such as continuing education or retesting and renewal fees) that need to be met to maintain the license.
  • Associations do not grant professional licensure.  However, they often have a role in licensure activities.  As examples, they may advocate for licensure to be instituted in states (including providing model language) and they may collaborate with the state agencies during development and administration of licensing.

Professional Certification

Certified Association Executive (American Society of Association Executives)
Certified Meeting Planner (Meeting Planners International)
Certified Project Manager (Project Management Institute)

Things you should know:

  • Certification is voluntary.  Unlike licensure, an individual does not need to be certified to engage in a given occupation.  However, sometimes the certification becomes so important to job attainment that it can be considered quasi-mandatory.  This occurs when the certification is written in as a requirement in job descriptions, career laddering systems, or project specifications, as examples.
  • To become certified, one usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment.
  • The certification assessment usually covers a broad area of knowledge and skills – at entry, specialty, or advanced levels.
  • Certificants usually have ongoing requirements (such as continuing education or retesting and renewal fees) that need to be met to maintain the certification.
  • The National Organization for Competency Assurance is a membership organization for organizations offering or interested in offering certification. Visit for more information.  Its accreditation body, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, accredits certification programs that meet their standards.  The standards are available for download on the Website.
  • The American National Standards Institute also has an accreditation for certification programs.  More information including the standards is available at  The standards are for sale in the site’s store.

Curriculum-based Certificate

Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management  (Commission on Dietetic Registration)
Certificate in Supplier Relationship Management (Institute for Supply Management)

Things you should know:

  • A curriculum-based certificate is a comprehensive training program on a focused topic for which participants receive a certificate after completion of coursework and successful demonstration of attaining the course learning objectives.
  • Unlike certification, curriculum-based certificates usually do not have ongoing requirements, do not result in an initial designation, and cannot be revoked.
  • In certification, the focus is on the assessing current knowledge and skills.  In a certificate, the focus is on training individuals to achieve a certain knowledge and skill base and then assessing their attainment of them.
  • The training and assessment usually cover a focused area of knowledge and skills.
  • There are usually no ongoing requirements to maintain a certificate; they are more like educational degrees that are granted and never revoked.  Some associations do date the certificate, however, so individuals retake the course at certain time intervals.


Association Management Company Accreditation (ASAE)
Accredited healthcare facility (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations)
Continuing education provider accreditation (Commission on Dietetic Registration and American Institute of Architects)
Accreditation of certification programs (National Commission for Certifying Agencies)

Things you should know:

  • Accreditation is a voluntary process through which an organization grants recognition to an organization or program after verifying that it has met predetermined criteria.
  • Accreditation is voluntary.  However, sometimes the accreditation becomes so important that it can be considered quasi-mandatory.  As an example, colleges and universities do not need to be accredited, but there are significant ramifications of not being, such as reduced or no funding, degrees not being accepted by other entities (such as certification boards), etc.
  • Accreditation usually has ongoing requirements (such as applications, site visits) that need to be met to maintain the accreditation.


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