Vocational Certificate vs. Associate Degree

Deciding on the type of degree that you get can make a difference in your career track.
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If you're considering a skilled trade or a career in the health-care field, vocational certificates and associate degrees offer a shorter road to professional practice than a traditional four-year college. While both of these options provide the knowledge and skills you'll need to tackle new career, a vocational certificate and an associate degree aren't the same and may not get you the same job or salary level.

1 Vocational and Technical Schooling

Vocational programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, include both secondary and post-secondary schools. High school students may earn a vocational certificate along with a diploma as part of a specialized in-school program or through a public district-led vo-tech school. Students who already have a high school diploma can opt for a vocational certificate through a post-secondary trade school. These programs, at either level, typically include areas such as business and office assistant, marketing and distribution, health-care, industry -- such as auto mechanic or construction -- and technical or computer-based content.

2 Understanding an Associate

The NCES notes that between the 1996-97 and 2009-10 academic years, the number of associate degrees earned rose by 49 percent. An associate degree is a diploma that two-year colleges, technical schools and junior colleges offer. Associate degrees come in an array of areas from the arts to the sciences -- and almost everything in between. These include creative arts, social sciences, health-care, physical sciences, mathematics, information technology and much more depending on the school. Additionally, a general associate degree -- such as a liberal arts or general studies concentration -- provides an easy option to transfer into a four-year institution.

3 Looking at the Similarities

While a vocational certificate and an associate degree aren't the same thing, you'll find some overlap between the two options. Many of the same fields -- such as trade-oriented and health-care professions -- have both types of programs. Some specific programs or areas of content may even offer both kinds of degrees. For example, the Community College of Allegheny County near Pittsburgh, Pa., offers a surgical technology certificate or an associate of science in surgical technologist practice. Both programs provide essential information and skills that will help the degree-holder to work in surgical centers or hospitals, assisting doctors and nurses during procedures.

4 Defining the Differences

Although vocational and associate-level degrees may have similarities, in that they are short-term schooling options and often lead to technical or health-care careers, you'll find that there are key differences between the two. Vocational certificates are often shorter in duration, leading to less time in school than what an associate program would typically take. While you can find vocational programs at the secondary -- or high school -- level, associate degrees are only post-secondary types of education. Additionally, a longer, more complex associate degree may prove to earn you a higher salary or make you eligible for a professional licensure -- such as becoming a registered nurse -- that a vocational certificate can't.

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.