The job market is changing, so schools are fine-tuning their programs. Students can pursue degrees or opt for diplomas that offer a quicker transition from the classroom to the field. What you seek should reflect your personal and professional goals, but significant differences exist. The path you choose shapes your career trajectory.
What is the Difference Between a Diploma and a Degree?
A diploma and a degree are both academic credentials, but they differ in the depth of study. Degree programs offer a comprehensive education, including liberal arts and humanities courses. Diploma programs focus on job-related skills.
Diploma programs are designed to provide hands-on training for a particular trade or profession in 6-18 months. Degree programs typically take two or more years of full-time study to complete.
Two-year associate degrees are entry-level credentials. It takes four years to earn a bachelor’s, but programs offer a more thorough exploration of your chosen field. Master’s degree programs expand your professional expertise but will take an additional 1-2 years in the classroom. In general, however, the higher your academic credentials, the more competitive you will be in a tight job market.
The good news for students is that many universities now offer degree and diploma programs in the same field, offering students their choice of pathways.
Degree Versus Diploma — The Options
Master’s Degree Programs
A master’s degree comes after a bachelor’s degree but before a doctorate. In some professions, it is the highest possible academic credential.
Popular programs include:
Nursing careers can begin at the diploma level. Licensure at all levels, however, has minimum education requirements, making healthcare one of the few fields in which you will need more than on-the-job experience to move your career forward.
Advanced practice roles, such as nurse practitioner or nurse educator, require an MSN or higher by law. So, while you can start with a diploma and then get a degree, students aspiring to independent practice or teaching positions should consider a master’s degree from the outset.
Health Services Administration
Health services administrators oversee the daily operations of medical facilities. A bachelor’s degree qualifies you for mid-level positions, but becoming a top healthcare executive requires a master’s degree and relevant experience. If you see yourself in a VP’s chair, a master’s is worth the investment.
An MBA is the key to professional growth. Programs emphasize the strategic thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills required to lead large, global organizations.
A master’s degree in criminal justice is the gold standard for leadership positions. Programs cover the strategic planning, policy development, and community engagement skills needed for management positions within police departments, correctional facilities, and government agencies.
Bachelor of Science Degree Programs (BS)
BS programs focus on scientific and technical fields.
Health Services Administration
Bachelor’s degrees in health administration provide a healthcare policy and management foundation. Graduates are prepared for office manager, unit supervisor, or admissions coordinator roles. Upper management positions are a stone’s throw away with a master’s degree.
RNs need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree to apply for licensure. As the complexity of healthcare grows, however, the push is on nationwide to hire more BSN-educated nurses in acute care facilities, making a BSN program a solid foundation upon which to grow your career.
Physical Therapist Assistant
Physical therapist assistants implement therapist-designed treatment plans. These professionals’ responsibilities include patient assessment, performing therapeutic exercises, and managing pain issues.
Most PTAs have an entry-level associate degree, but good reasons exist to consider a bachelor’s. BS programs offer a broader range of knowledge, including healthcare management and leadership courses that could provide you with more job options in education, research, or administration.
Information Technology (IT) is a highly diversified field. Associate degree and diploma programs are available, but only bachelor’s programs cover the expanded skillset necessary to keep pace in a rapidly changing industry. A bachelor’s can also pave the way for entrepreneurs to start their own consultancy or software development business.
A diploma or associate degree can kickstart an accounting career. Still, a bachelor’s is a prerequisite for becoming a certified accountant. In the financial world, the best-educated candidates get the highest-level positions. A BS covers the essentials and paves the road to an Accounting or Business Master’s.
Bachelor of Arts Degree Programs
BA programs emphasize general education in the liberal arts and humanities. Examples include:
A Bachelor of Arts in Legal Studies covers the skills required for various legal professions. There are many career paths; graduates can become paralegals, court clerks, title examiners, and labor mediators.
A BA in STEM education prepares educators to teach science, technology, engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields at the K-12 level. All that is needed is the desire to teach and high school credits consistent with these subjects.
Associate of Science Degree Program
Associate of Science degree programs prepare students for entry-level roles in technical and healthcare fields, such as:
Dental Laboratory Technician
Dental laboratory technicians create and adjust dental prosthetics and appliances. Responsibilities include taking impressions, making wax models, and fabricating crowns, bridges, and dentures under the supervision of a dentist.
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Medical sonographers, or ultrasound technicians, take diagnostic images using sound waves. Programs cover the theory and practical skills required for certification. The demand for medical sonographers is increasing nationwide in hospitals, clinics, and private practices.
Medical Assistant Technology
Medical assistant students can earn diplomas or degrees. The difference lies in the depth of education. Degree programs cover the broadest range of skills, including phlebotomy, electrocardiography, and laboratory science. Medical assistants with degrees qualify for more complex roles.
ASN programs fulfill all licensure requirements for registered nurses. However, because the curriculum focuses on entry-level, higher-level roles may be limited until you gain experience and higher education. Still, it’s a good option for students who need a shorter program to get into the field faster. You can earn money while saving for further education.
Physical Therapist Assistant
An associate degree is the standard for physical therapist assistants. With experience, you can grow into supervisory positions without further education. However, some aspects of PT require bachelor-level education, and requirements may change as the field advances.
Radiologic technicians take X-rays, helping physicians diagnose illnesses and injuries. Programs cover radiology theory and imaging techniques. An associate’s degree qualifies you for certification and a hospital, clinic, or surgical center job.
Respiratory therapists treat patients with breathing issues, such as asthma, or conditions more serious, like tracheotomies. Responsibilities include patient assessment, assisting with treatments, and managing ventilators.
Associate of Arts Degree Program
Associate of Arts programs provide general education in liberal arts fields, including:
An AA in accounting qualifies you for entry-level positions, such as accounts receivable clerk, tax preparer, or payroll specialist. Higher-level roles require a bachelor’s degree or significant work experience. However, an AA is a good start and an excellent way to explore diverse career tracks in accounting and finance.
An associate degree in business administration prepares you for work as an administrative assistant, a retail store manager, a bank teller, or similar roles. It helps open the door to various exciting industries.
An AA in criminal justice leads to entry-level positions in the criminal justice field. While a bachelor’s degree is required for advanced roles, an associate’s can be the first step onto the career ladder. Graduates work as correctional officers, police dispatchers, bailiffs, court clerks, and TSA agents.
Health Services Administration
An associate degree provides employment opportunities in various healthcare settings. With experience, you will qualify for managerial positions. However, you can work as an executive assistant or a patient services coordinator while considering a concentration for your bachelor’s degree.
Different than legal studies, an associate’s degree in paralegal studies prepares you specifically for the paralegal or legal assistant role. Most paralegals have bachelor’s degrees. An associate’s degree allows you to work in the field before applying for bachelor’s programs.
Dental Lab Technician
Dental lab technician diploma programs teach the hands-on skills required to assist dental professionals in the laboratory. Shorter than a degree program, you’ll be work-ready in months.
Medical assisting diploma programs prepare students for less involved roles. The curriculum prepares graduates for front-office and back-office procedures.
Medical Billing and Coding Specialist
Medical billing and coding specialists handle insurance claims and other financial responsibilities in healthcare settings. Entering the field as a billing representative, coding specialist, or medical records clerk requires a diploma. Once you learn the ropes, a degree in coding can lead to valuable certifications.
Rehabilitation aides help therapists and therapist assistants manage non-clinical tasks in therapy environments. Duties include scheduling appointments, greeting patients, verifying insurance, setting up equipment, and general gym upkeep. To provide clinical care, you need a degree such as PTA, but earning a diploma is a great way to get a paying job while gaining experience in the healthcare field.
Patient Care Technician
The role of a patient care technician incorporates nursing and laboratory technician duties. You will make patients’ beds, help with hygiene, draw blood, and collect urine samples. Currently, a diploma is the sole gateway into this profession. If you are already a certified nurse’s assistant or a medical assistant, a Physical Care Technician diploma expands your skillset and career potential.
Certificate programs are the shortest education programs designed to teach basic skills. Some provide quick, entry-level preparation for in-demand roles. Others provide add-on skills that improve the value of a diploma or degree.
Certificate programs for dental assistants are shorter and less comprehensive than diploma programs. It is an attractive option if you need a good job quickly. In many areas, there is a greater need for dental assistants than there are students in degree programs, so jobs can be easier to find even with the minimum credentials.
English as a Second Language (ESL)
ESL certification programs improve the language proficiency of non-native English speakers. Employers often prefer hiring bilingual workers with an ESL certificate for communications-based positions.
Whether you get a diploma or a degree, taking steps to secure your professional future opens up possibilities. Seize yours.