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Degrees, Diplomas, Certificates: What Difference Does It Make?

Technical schools offer a variety of awards at graduation: certificates, diplomas, and degrees. Major differences in these three awards include time it takes for completion—generally about a year for many diploma and certification programs, and generally about two years for an associate degree. Required courses also differ: diplomas and certificates are usually solely occupation-specific, meaning you’d be taking all auto-related courses, while associate degrees include core classes similar to those at a four-year university, meaning you’d be taking standard math and English classes in addition to your automotive curriculum. Another reason that some schools offer degrees, while others award diplomas or certificates, stems from the accreditation of the particular school. Please keep in mind that these are generalities, and you should check with your school to make sure that upon graduating, you’ll be given the award you hope to achieve.

So what difference would earning a diploma make in your career, instead of, say, earning an associate degree? In many cases, the difference is actually minimal. Students earning motorcycle technology diplomas go on to be employed by such businesses as Harley-Davidson. Other diploma-earning students achieve similar success. If you’re determined and have a game-plan you believe in, earning a diplomaor a degree can take you where you want to go.

You should keep in mind what you hope to do after you’ve earned your initial award. If you want to continue to a four-year university for additional training to earn a bachelors degree, you’ll save most time by pursuing an associate degree first, then transferring to a four-year university to complete the last two years of study there. If you want to focus solely on automotive classes and go to work straight after earning your automotive award, you might want to enroll in a diploma program. In some cases, you can even first earn an automotive diploma, then continue study at a community college to earn an associate degree there. Discuss your plans with your academic advisors to make sure classes and awards will transfer and check to make sure you're on the right track.

“Certificates” are many times the same thing as diplomas, but at some schools, certificate programs are usually extra education to add on after you’ve completed and graduated with the initial associate degree or diploma. It’s the icing on the cake, so to speak, sharpening and building on skills learned during that first period of study. When first beginning your automotive education, you should think about if you’ll want to pursue advanced certifications, since your study in the beginning can affect your eligibility for certain highly competitive manufacturer-specific certificate programs later.

The main thing to remember is that in the end, your degree, diploma, or certificate is just a piece of paper, and what matters is how you use it. Where and what you study, the proficiencies you develop, how you apply what you learn, as well as your willingness to work hard to stay up-to-date in your skills and stay plugged in to the industry, are all just as important to predicting your success.