Daniel is the Executive Director of an advocacy based nonprofit and is a graduate student at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government.
Should You Enroll in an Online Graduate Certificate Program?
An online graduate certificate can be a rewarding endeavor. It can also be intimidating due to its significant cost with no assurance of financial return.
I debated enrollment for two years due to articles discussing cost and return. I finally committed to a program in 2018 and graduated a year later with a certificate in public management from Texas A&M's Bush School of Government. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
This article provides insight from my experience. It reviews certificate worth, the financial commitment, time commitment, class experience, and additional benefits. All were part of my personal deliberation prior to enrollment.
The decision to pursue an online graduate certificate is much more than cost and return.
Is an Online Graduate Certificate Worth It?
The topic of value is discussed extensively regarding online graduate certificates.
A graduate certificate can range anywhere from 12 to 18 credit hours and cost over $10,000 at an affordable university. This is a large investment for most individuals and was the largest factor in my initial delay.
The easiest answer for value is examining return on investment (ROI). If the $10,000 program does not refill your bank account, then it is not a good investment.
Financial return, however, is not the only measurable value when pursing an online graduate certificate. Its worth can also be considered relative to personal gain.
In my circumstance, I always intended to pursue graduate education after college but life took over. I entered a career field I loved, started a family, and woke up one day in my thirties. The online graduate certificate offered a low risk opportunity to reenter formal education with limited commitment.
In hindsight, it was well worth it. The certificate program expanded my professional capabilities, increased my personal confidence, enriched my professional network, and provided a great anchor point for determining future direction. It also didn't cost me the full sticker price (see next section).
I finished my program with a 4.0 and gained many answers, resources, and relationships along the way.
The key to worth is evaluating the cost of the certificate compared to what you value most. If it's financial return, evaluate it according to ROI. If it's personal gain, make a list of what you value and find a program that compliments those needs.
Overall, the worth of an online graduate certificate is relative to how you value what you gain.
The Financial Considerations
The sticker price for an online graduate certificate can be intimidating.
However, the financial aspect is extremely manageable.
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First, most online graduate certificate programs allow flexible scheduling with a reasonable completion date. This allows you to take one course at a time and spread tuition costs over two years.
Second, most universities allow an installment plan. This allows tuition to be paid over several months during the semester with some leniency for delayed payments. Universities may even offer emergency loans to cover tuition if a significant event occurs.
Third, universities do have scholarships for online graduate certificate students. Over half of my tuition was covered by various types of scholarships. Prior to enrollment, I assumed no financial aid was available to certificate students. Fortunately, I met an online classmate on scholarship and finished my program with back-to-back award letters.
The biggest takeaway is that universities want their programs to succeed. If you determine a program is worth pursuing, don't be intimidated by the sticker price.
I started my program thinking I was on my own. I ultimately found that my program had advisers and resources dedicated to online certificate students. They only needed me to speak with them.
If you're a dedicated student with financial concerns, contact the program to learn more about available opportunities. The sticker price is manageable once you figure out the resources.
The Time Commitment and Class Experience
The time commitment was one of my greatest concerns in addition to the quality of the online class experience.
I found that both time commitment and class quality are what you make of it.
In an online graduate environment, the coursework relies heavily on you reading, learning, and understanding the content on your own. Each week normally has a set amount of reading and lectures followed by assignments with specific due dates.
Personally, one class would take three to six hours each week with regular assignments. Larger assignments, such as research papers or projects, would require ten to fifteen hours per week
My intention was to always secure a 4.0 GPA. Some classmates, however, prioritized course completion and submitted work exhibiting less effort. It all depends on your goals.
The biggest time consumer is writing graduate level papers. For those who struggle with academic writing, a significant amount of time is spent figuring out the writing process in addition to learning course material. Stronger writers have an easier time with course work because of this.
The class experience is similar to time commitment. The level of interaction with peers and professors is relative to your goals.
Some courses facilitate peer interaction while others limit it. My program required peer reviewed assignments in all courses. This was achieved by posting in a dedicated forum. Some courses required group projects.
Interaction with professors is similar to on campus courses. You can limit exchanges to necessary discussions or you can contact them for further dialogue. They have the same student availability requirements as an on campus professor.
I had great exchanges with my professors. Two of them were heavily published in my field of work and shared significant guidance for my professional life.
Overall, the time commitment and class experience are relative to what you want. If you are an independent learner and strong writer, the time commitment is much easier. It is a much harder path if you are not.
The Additional Benefits
The final consideration involves the additional benefits with enrollment.
As an online graduate student, I gained access to the Texas A&M Career Center, the Veterans Resource and Support Center, academic advisers, professional advisers,library research programs, student discount programs, student software programs, and more.
As a program graduate, I gained even more resources to help me succeed professionally. The increased network alone is worth the money spent on my education.
Prior to enrollment, I never considered the benefits beyond the certificate. The certificate, however, was only the baseline for the benefits gained.
The additional perks are worth consideration when debating the pursuit of an online graduate certificate. They often create new values for ROI.
Should You Do It?
If the online graduate certificate meets a need you deem valuable, you should strongly consider it.
The financial cost is heavy at sticker price but opportunities may be available to receive financial aid or to spread out the total costs.
The time commitment and class experience are relative to your effort and the additional benefits could be life changing.
In my experience, it was a great decision that I delayed too long. If it aligns with something you value, it is very much worth enrolling and exploring as you go.