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. 


Can Certificates be Required?

I received a question about the ASTM E2659 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs and thought others might benefit from hearing the answer.

The question was related to the clause:

5.5.2.1 The certificate issuer shall not state or in any way imply that certificate holders are certified, licensed, accredited, or registered to engage in a specific occupation or profession.

The question asked if it was a violation of 5.5.2.1 if the certificate is required to practice a certain aspect of a profession?  The answer is no. 

This clause prevents a certificate issuer from making misleading and confusing claims about the type of credential granted.  The certificate issuer should state that a certificate is issued for the attainment of an educational program's intended learning.  They should not state the certificate holder is certified or licensed (or anything other than that a certificate was issued) since those credentials are not the outcome of a certificate program.  However, if the attainment of a certificate is required by some entity for individuals to act in a certain role, that is a different issue and is fine.  A certificate issuer can state what regulations or employers require related to the certificate is since these are truthful and not misleading statements.


Can Certificate Issuers Grant Learners a Designation?

I serve as the convener and technical lead on the ASTM E2659 standard. Early on, we recognized early on that the issue of granting designations was a problematic area since certificate issuers currently do grant the use of designations that could easily be confused with those of certifying agencies. The question became: should designations be completely restricted or was there a way to ensure only accurate and responsible use?  We ultimately determined that the latter approach was the appropriate path; following is the rationale.

Fully restricting certificate issuers from granting designation use seemed at first to be a reasonable path and was the original position considered.  However, we could not find sufficient justification for this restriction.  In our research we found that organizations grant designation acronyms for a variety of program types.  Certifying and licensing boards grant designations to certificants and licensees, respectively. Professional societies grant designations for certain categories of membership and types of honorees, such as Fellows and Diplomats.  Our brief online searches for “membership designation” and “fellow designation” alone yielded page after page of existing examples (hundreds, if not thousands), including many from reputable, well-established societies.  In addition, we found that companies use designations and associated acronyms to designate certain levels of employment.  And, organizations have long been conferring designations and associated acronyms for certificate programs; this is not a newly introduced concept.   As one prominent example, for the Institute for Organization Management (U.S. Chamber of Commerce), program graduates are issued the designation, “IOM.”

It became very clear that there is a long history of designations being used by a myriad of organizations for a multitude of reasons, and that designations were not a clear determinant of certified or licensed status, as has been asserted by NOCA representatives.   Given this and the recognized market value of a designation, we felt it inappropriate for a standard to restrict the competitiveness of certificate programs. However, it was clear that there needed to be measures taken to ensure appropriate use.
 
The problem occurs when certificate issuers use designation acronyms that state and/or imply an individual is certified or otherwise credentialed; this could clearly confuse the public so this is where the Standard Practice for Certificate Program focuses.  It is important to note that the standard does not encourage the use of designation acronyms, but they are allowed only under certain conditions that ensure differentiation from certification and licensure.  The standard's Section 7.1.2 addresses this:  

“A certificate issuer may grant a designation or designation acronym or both to certificate holders only under the condition that the designation and/or designation acronym granted shall not include the words “certified,” “certificated,” “licensed,” “registered,” or “accredited” or in any other way imply such statuses.”

Section 5.5.2.1 further ensures accurate and responsible uses of designation acronyms:

“The certificate issuer shall not state or in any way imply that certificate holders are certified, licensed, accredited, or registered to engage in a specific occupation or profession.”

Section 5.1.2 provides even more assurance to the public by requiring that the issuer is an appropriate and qualified issuer of the certificate (so that a non-medical society would not issue a medical certificate, for example).

“The certificate issuer shall be an appropriate and qualified issuer of the certificate.”

Further, in our conversations with the existing certificate issuer community, we found that several certificate issuers that currently issue a designation acronym in the “Certified XYZ” format said while they would likely be unwilling to stop using a designation, they would likely be willing to change it to a format that would conform to the standard.  We concluded, then, that current certificate issuers would likely ignore a standard (since it is voluntary) that restricts the use of any designation.  A restriction stance, then, would simply result in a continuation of current certificate issuers in granting designations that state and/or imply certified status.  In contrast, the ASTM standard stance on designations would actually assist in ridding the marketplace of the confusing certificate designations that imply certification. 

Thus, we have found that allowing the use of designation acronyms with the appropriate safeguards increases the likelihood of broad adoption of the standard while at the same time prevents the use of those designations that would be confusing to the public and other stakeholders.  This is consistent with all aims of the standard.


Designations for Certificate Programs

ASTM E2659 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs does allow certificate issuers to grant a designation and/or associated acronym to certificate holders.  (It does not encourage it, by the way.) 

This has been controversial and I do understand why some certifying bodies do not want certificate issuers to issue a designation.  However,  when we were developing the standard, what we consistently heard through the stakeholder community is that if a standard forbids designations completely, then many in the community will just ignore the standard and the accreditation program (which will both be voluntary).  This means programs can continue to use any designation they like, including calling certificate holders "Certified." This gets us nowhere. 

So, we determined to allow designations to be used, BUT NOT designations that use "Certified" or similar, confusing words.  For example, for the Institute for Organization Management, graduates use the IOM designation which really isn't confusing with certification, and that would conform with the ASTM standard.  On the other hand, if a certificate issuer issues a "Certified XYZ", that is confusing, and it would also be a non-conformity (not allowed under the standard).

Here's the actual portion of the ASTM standard related to this issue:

7.1.2 A certificate issuer may grant a designation or designation acronym or both to certificate holders only under the condition that the designation and/or designation acronym granted shall not include the words "certified," "certificated," "licensed," "registered," or "accredited" or in any other way imply such statuses.

We felt strongly that preventing ALL designation use would just further splinter the industry and those with certification-implying designations would simply ignore the standard.  Allowing designations with the appropriate safeguards increases the likelihood of broad adoption of the standard while at the same time prevents the use of confusing designations.