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. 

ANSI Personnel Certification Accreditation Cited in Department of Defense Directive

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has been named the sole approved accreditor of certification bodies by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) for its Information Assurance (IA) Workforce Improvement Program.

ANSI’s designation as the accreditor for the program is stated in revisions to a manual issued under the authority of DoD Directive 8570.1, Information Assurance Training, Certification, and Workforce Management. Originally published in 2004 and revised in April 2010, the manual provides guidance and procedures for the training, certification, and management of the DoD workforce conducting IA functions in assigned duty positions.

According to the manual, IA personnel must receive and maintain certification for the highest level functions that they perform related to data management, use, processing, storage, and transmission. Bodies issuing this certification must be accredited to the International Standard ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024, General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons. The new revisions to the manual state that ANSI is the sole approved accreditor for these certification bodies.

More information here.

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: 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 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.

Certificate Program as Certification Alternate

I heard several conference speakers indicate that certificate programs are a good option for organizations to implement when the target market is too small to support a full-scale certification program, or when the organization doesn't have the resources to develop certification.  I respectfully and emphatically disagree! 

These are both inappropriate reasons for an organization to develop a certificate program.  A certificate program is not a back-up option for certification.  The decision as to which credentialing program to develop should be based upon what the program is intended to accomplish, not the size of the market or resources of the organization.  The appropriate reason to develop a certificate program is that your target audience has a knowledge or skill gap that can be addressed through an outcomes-based training program.  Certification programs do not address knowledge or skill gaps; on the contrary, they recognize those who demonstrate they already have the knowledge and skills within the scope of certification.

Certificate Program or Certification?

What's the difference?  Here's the table I often use to show the distinctions:


So, one of the key distinctions is that in certification, you may verify education/training received elsewhere (as an eligibility requirement), but you are not providing required training; you are assessing current knowledge and/or skill.  In a certificate program, in contrast, you ARE providing the required training/education and then assessing for the attainment of the intended learning outcomes of that training/education.  So, the focus of certification is on verifying past education and experiences and assessing current knowledge and skill.  In certificate programs, the focus is on providing the needed learning and assessing the attainment of it.

Also important, unlike certification (and more like a degree program), a certificate program does not have ongoing requirements and therefore cannot be revoked.  Once you receive a certificate, it's yours forever; there are no continuing education or re-examination requirements to maintain it.  However, certificate issuers should assign a term to the certificates in order to inform stakeholders of the currency and relevancy of any given certificate.   (Note, that if it is determined that the content of the certificate is unchanging, then the term may be indefinite.)  Consider, as an example the American Heart Association CPR certificate which has a term of 2 years.  There are no ongoing requirements to "maintain" the certificate, and it is never officially revoked.  But if you want or need a valid certificate,  you need to successfully accomplish the training/assessment again.

I'll cover designations more thoroughly another time, but the key point here is that both certification and certificate programs can issue designations and associated acronyms.  It is important, however, that certificate issuers that confer them do not state or imply the individuals are certified or licensed.  

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 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.

ANSI Selects ASTM Standard for Certificate Program Accreditation

It's official.  The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has selected the ANSI/ASTM E2659-09 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs to use as the foundation for its accreditation program for certificate programs. 

ANSI conducted a thorough analysis before making their determination.  Speaking for ASTM, we developed a substantial backgrounder to accompany our presentation to the Accreditation Committee in February, including a side-by-side comparison of the ASTM International and NOCA standards, organizations, and standards development experience and capacity.  Then, we submitted a 22 page response to the Committee's questions (linked to their selection criteria) detailing, among other things, the degree to which the standard will increase training and education program overall quality, how the standard is evidence-based, aligned with education and training industry best practices, and was developed with broad participation by appropriate stakeholders.  There's no question the Accreditation Committee had significant information on which to base their decision.

Now that the standard has been selected, things will be moving quickly.  Here's where ANSI is on the program:

  • the accreditation committee is already in place (they made the standard determination),
  • assessors have been selected through an application process, nominating committe review and recommendation, phone interviews, and final approval by the accreditation committee,
  • the call for pilot testers will soon be issued,
  • the pilot tester selection criteria have been established and a selection committee is being appointed to review applications and recommend pilot testers to the accreditation committee, and
  • training has been scheduled for the accreditation committee, assessors and pilot testers.

As always, I'll post here as more updates are available, including a link to the official press release which should be released today or tomorrow.

Standard Practice for Certificate Programs Released!

It's been a long time in coming but I'm finally thrilled to announce that the new American National Standard for certificate programs has just been released by ASTM International.  The official announcement can be found here and the standard can be purchased here.  This standard will provide much-needed guidance to certificate issuers on how to develop a quality certificate program and to consumers on how to identify such a program. In addition, the standard will help organizations make informed judgments about whether to develop a certification or certificate program, and should they choose to develop a certificate program, provide guidance on how to do so.

I'll be following up with educational posts about the standard soon. In the mean time, if you have any questions about the standard or its use, feel free to contact me at 317-810-0013 or [email protected]

Official Launch of ANSI Certificate Program Accreditation

Check out the press release to learn more about the launch of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accreditatation of certificate programs.  The governing body (Certificate Accreditation Committee) and assessors have been selected and the Committee has established a plan for pilot testing the program this spring/summer.  The Committee also began deliberations on February 13 to select the standard to form the basis of the accreditation program.  On that date, representatives from both NOCA and ASTM International were each given an hour to make their case on why their standard should be selected.  I had the opportunity to represent ASTM International and its Standard Practice for Certificate Programs at this meeting, and I felt our presentation was convincing.  I shared an in-depth comparison of the two standards, and the differences are extensive and crucial.  Do not believe it when you hear that the two standards are similar; in the most critical areas, they are NOT. 

As follow-up, the Committee sent a list of questions for each organization to answer (related to their criteria for selection).  Let me just say that I am impressed with the Committee's deliberations. Throughout this process, they have asked some important and tough questions.  This has probably been the most objective and thorough decision-making process I've seen.  And for good reason.  It's also been very contentious.  The Committee knows that their decision may be scrutinized and they need to be able to defend it. 

As I understand it, the Committee will reconvene as soon as their schedules allow (in early to mid April) to consider the NOCA and ASTM responses, and hopefully select a standard.  But, the possibility remains that they'll need further information.  As soon as the standard determination is made, I expect that there will then be a fast transition to pilot testing...as I believe everything is ready and awaiting the standard!

And, as an update on the Standard Practice for Certificate Programs:  The standard is in final form (and has been for quite a while) but has not yet been published as an American National Standard.  Unfortunately it has gotten caught up in procedural reviews, which I dare not detail (let's leave it at saying the tactics deployed to stall our progress have been unprecedented and unconventional).  I'm trusting in karma on this one (as in, you reap what you sow).

As always, I'll update here as I learn more.