Diploma vs. Degree: What's the Difference?

Updated June 28, 2023

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A woman looks at a laptop while diplomas float behind her. There's also a list entitled, "Diploma vs. Degree" with these details:

• Length
• Types
• Cost
• Qualifications
• When to choose

Professional and academic qualifications equip people to learn new skills and expand their knowledge. Diplomas, degrees and certifications are three different types of qualifications available for professionals to pursue. If you're interested in earning an academic or professional development credential, it's important to learn about the various options available to you. In this article, we compare diplomas, degrees and certifications, discuss the differences between them and provide suggestions for how to choose which credential is right for your career goals.

Related: How To Decide Whether Professional Certificates Are Worth It for Your Career

What is a diploma vs. a degree?

Diplomas and degrees are both professional and academic qualifications that prepare students for success. A diploma is a document that asserts that a student has completed a course of study, a few classes or a set of experiences within a specific field. For example, a common diploma to receive is a high school diploma after the successful completion of four years of study at the high school level.

A degree communicates a student's qualifications, similarly to a diploma. However, there are a variety of degrees that represent various levels and lengths of academic study. These degrees include:

  • Associate degree: You might receive this degree after completing two years of study beyond high school. It's common for people to receive an associate degree after attending a community or city college.

  • Bachelor's degree: This degree is for students who complete four years of study with a specific amount of credits. It's common for people to receive this degree after attending a college or university, and to select a particular subject for their major.

  • Master's degree: This degree is for students who complete two or more years of study after their bachelor's degree. It's typical for these degrees to continue the education the student pursued in their undergraduate studies.

  • Doctoral degree: Earning a doctorate, such as a Ph.D. or an M.D. requires extensive schooling beyond a bachelor's or master's degree. These students engage in several years of study and typically complete a large-scale research project, academic thesis or dissertation to earn their doctorate.

Read more: Your Guide to Types of College Degrees

Diploma vs. certificate

Just as degrees and diplomas differ, so do diplomas and certificates. Some of the main differences include:


It's common for degree programs to last between one and four years. These programs vary based on the course structure, the amount of hands-on experience required and the field of study. Certificates may take between a few weeks to a few months for a student to complete. These programs are shorter as a result of the lesser qualification, and may entail a couple of classes or trainings in a specific skill.


Types of diplomas vary widely. There are formal diplomas, issued through a governmental or widely recognized institutions, such as universities or colleges. Nongovernmental entities, such as NGOs, companies or societies are responsible for issuing informal diplomas.

There are also two types of certifications. Students receive an academic certificate after completing a set of academic courses or trainings. However, there are also legal certificates. These certificates provide professionals with the legal ability to work in certain professions. Some professions that require legal certifications include:

  • Hairdresser

  • Manicurist

  • Web developer

  • Dental assistant

  • Automotive mechanic

  • Machinist

  • Welder

  • Personal trainer

Related: Certificates, Certifications and Licenses: Differences and Jobs That Require Them


The cost of diplomas and certifications may vary based on the institution you earn the credentials from or the location of the course. It's common for certification course to cost less than diploma courses because of the shorter time frame. Consider conducting research on the various costs of certification and diploma programs before selecting the best one for your needs.

Related: Is It Worth It To Get a Bachelor's Degree?


It's common for certification and diploma programs to require a few qualifications. For example, a professional diploma course may require all students to have a high school diploma before taking the course. Additionally, certification courses may require a similar credential. It's best to research what qualifications are necessary for the programs you want to pursue.

When to choose

Deciding between a diploma or certificate depends on your particular needs, budget and professional requirements. If you want to pursue a profession that requires a legal certification, it's best to choose that certification course. However, if you have flexibility to choose between the two, consider the various options before making a choice. It's important to select a program that has the potential to advance your professional and academic skills and knowledge. Try to conduct research about various diploma and certificate courses that interest you before deciding.

Related: Career and Technical Education: Definition, Benefits and Career Options

General diploma vs. technical diploma

As well as formal and informal diplomas, there are also general and technical diplomas. These have different offerings and equip students for various professions. Some differences between a general diploma and technical diploma include:

  • Focus: General diplomas may have a broad scope and teach you information about a wide range of subjects, like a high school diploma. Technical diplomas focus on specific skills that employers require or desire in a certain field.

  • Content: A general diploma may have more class-based learning. However, it's common for technical diplomas to encourage students to engage in hands-on learning.

  • Length: General diplomas and technical diplomas may vary in length based on the specific industry of the course. Each industry may require a certain length of studying to ensure students fully master a skill or subject.

When choosing a diploma course, it's best to choose one that fits the industry or profession you're pursuing. For example, if you want to work as a dental technician, it's likely that you need to find a technical diploma that teaches you various skills and practices to successfully complete the job. You can earn a diploma at any point after you've met the qualifications for a particular program, so there's flexibility in the process.


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