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Certificate Program vs Certification - What's the Same? What's Different?

Though I've covered them before, there is so much confusion between certification and certificate programs, it’s worth another look at them. Many groups promoting their certification program really have a certificate program or perhaps a hybrid of the two programs.

Certification and certificate programs are both voluntary credentials issued to individuals, but despite their similarities, certification and certificate programs also have significant differences. 

The primary distinctions between them are in their focus and design. The focus of certification is on assessing current knowledge and skills and identify those who meet the minimum criteria established. In a certificate program, the focus is on educating or training individuals to achieve specified learning outcomes and identify those who have achieved them.

An organization grants certification after verifying an individual has met established criteria for proficiency or competency, usually through an eligibility application and assessment. While certification eligibility criteria may specify a certain type or amount of education or training, the learning events are not typically provided by the certifying body. Instead, the certifying body verifies through an application process education or training and experience obtained elsewhere and administers a standardized test of current proficiency or competency. Also, certifications have ongoing requirements for maintaining proficiency/competency and can be revoked if certified individuals do not meet these ongoing requirements.

In contrast, in a certificate program, an individual participates in learning events designed to assist him or her in achieving specified learning outcomes and the individual receives a certificate only after verification of successful completion of program requirements, including but not limited to an assessment of the learner's attainment of intended learning outcomes. The learning events and the assessment instrument(s) are both developed and administered by the certificate issuer, and there is an essential link between them. Also, certificates do not have ongoing maintenance or renewal requirements and therefore, cannot be revoked.

Individuals attaining a certificate usually are not granted a title and associated initial designation like certification (e.g., “Certified Association Executive” and “CAE”), but they may be. If one is granted, it's critical that the title or associated initials do not state or in any way imply that certificate holders are certified or licensed. 

The following chart that I developed highlights the distinctions between the two program types.

Cert vs cert p

These are the generally accepted distinctions and are in alignment with industry standards, such as:

ASTM E2659-18 - Standard Practice for Certificate Programs

ICE 1100: 2019 - Standard for Assessment-Based Certificate Programs

ISO/IEC 17024: 2012 Conformity assessment — General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons

NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs

However, many hybrid programs do exist in the marketplace (e.g., certification programs that require an educational component, certificate programs that have ongoing renewal requirements, etc.). However, before you decide to develop such a hybrid program, it is important to weigh the advantages of a blended program versus the disadvantages, such as 1) the potential for confusing stakeholders and 2) the possibility that a hybrid program would not meet the industry standards for either certification programs or certificate programs.