Fact or Fiction? Five Myths about Certificates

The value of certificates and the myths that certificate holders believe graphic.

Certificates play a vital role in today’s skills-based economy, signaling to employers the learning outcomes that potential hires have achieved, and allowing job seekers to gain specific skills and knowledge to bolster their progress on a desired career path. In spite of their growing visibility—in 2020 there were 318,792 unique certificates, which is an increase of 20.7 percent since 2019 (Credential Engine, Counting U.S. postsecondary and secondary credentials, 2021)—many misconceptions about certificates persist among employers and employees alike. These “myths” can hold people back from obtaining valuable credentials to increase their knowledge and boost their desirability to employers.

Common Certificate Myths, Debunked

Myth 1: All types of certificates measure the achievement of learning outcomes.

Fact: Only assessment-based certificates or certificates of achievement measure the achievement of learning outcomes. There are two broad categories of certificates: assessment-based certificates and certificates of completion. Assessment-based certificates (also commonly referred to as certificates of achievement) are issued upon completion of an education or training program and include an assessment (or multiple assessments) to measure whether the learner achieved the intended learning outcomes. Certificates of completion signify that a person attended an education and training program, without inclusion of an assessment of learning. These certificates do not indicate whether learning outcomes were achieved.

Myth 2: Only educational institutions offer certificates.

Fact: Certificates are offered by a variety of providers. Certificates can be issued by community colleges, universities, employers, for-profit training providers, labor unions, government agencies, and professional or industry associations. Community colleges and universities issue both credit and non-credit certificates in academic disciplines; some university certificates complement an academic degree, and some community colleges offer certificate programs that may be stackable with other certificates that lead to associate degree programs. Employers and labor unions often issue certificates through apprenticeship or professional development programs. Government agencies, professional associations, and industry associations are other common issuers of certificates.

Myth 3: Both certificates and certifications are issued upon completion of an education or training course.

Fact: Only certificates are issued upon completion of an education or training course. Certificates are awarded at the end of a training or education course. They indicate education, knowledge, or skills, and often have no time limit or renewal requirement. However, some assessment-based certificates or certificates of achievement may include a date to indicate how long the knowledge is valid. This is especially true of assessment-based certificates in industries with rapidly changing knowledge and skills, such as information technology. Certifications are awarded by a third-party organization for successful performance on competency assessments. They indicate skill mastery and competencies, and are time limited and require recertification in order to maintain the certification.

Myth 4: There are no standards for certificates.

Fact: There are standards for both assessment-based certificates and certificates of achievement. Two standards provide guidance to certificate issuers: ANSI/ASTM E2659-18, Standard Practice for Certificate Programs, and ICE 1100:2019, Standard for Assessment-Based Certificate Programs. These documents guide the process to develop and administer certificate programs; establish requirements for both the organization issuing the certificate and the certificate program for which certificates are issued; and provide a foundation for the accreditation of an organization to issue a certificate upon an individual’s successful completion of an education or training program.

Myth 5: Certificates are only relevant in the beginning stages of a career.

Fact: Certificates can be beneficial at all stages of one’s career. Certificates are available for individuals at all levels of education, from sub-baccalaureate through post-graduate. People throughout their careers seek to gain and demonstrate specific skills to employers, especially in today’s skills-based economy. The recent proliferation of certificates available in a wide variety of fields allows people to earn them and further their professional goals, from entering a new field to rising into a senior staff position.

The Facts about Certificates

The details behind what certificates demonstrate, how they can be earned and issued, and how they support employees and employers can be confusing. Workcred’s new brief – The Role of Certificates in Signifying Knowledge and Skills Attainment – addresses the misperceptions about the purpose and characteristics of certificates and how they differ from certifications. Download this brief at no cost on Workcred’s website.

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