top of page

Certificate Programs vs. Degree Programs within the Student Loan Debt Crisis


In the U.S., student loan debt continues to be a significant obstacle to financial freedom for young people. In 2020, student loan debt totaled nearly $1.6 trillion, with Black Americans owing a substantial portion of this amount. The student loan crisis disproportionately impacts Black borrowers, with Black graduates five times more likely to default on their loans. Moreover, Black women have the highest student loan debt of any racial or ethnic group. Most borrowers take on these loans as a result of pursuing multiple degrees with the promise of job security. As a result, individuals with a graduate degree account for over one-half of the student debt crisis. Fortunately, graduate degree programs are not the only pathway to secure high-paying jobs. Recently, certificate programs have increased in popularity, with many young individuals seeking them as a cost-efficient option. With this growing trend in mind, is it possible for certificate programs to help alleviate the student loan crisis for Black Americans?

What are certificate programs?

Certificate programs are non-degree programs offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Undergraduate certificate programs are aimed at students with a high school diploma or GED. Graduate certificate programs are for students who already possess an undergraduate degree but need further training in a specific area. Unlike degree programs, certificate programs are skills-orientated and have a direct impact on a particular industry. With degree programs taking two to four years to complete, certificate programs often only take several months to complete. Currently, some degree programs are incorporating students to acquire certificates as part of their curriculum. Universities that house these programs hope to bolster students’ competitiveness within the job market with the inclusion of a certificate.

With price being a significant factor in higher education, it is essential to note that certificate programs are significantly less expensive than degree programs. In higher education, the price is based on the cost per course, varying among different universities. For example, an accounting certificate at Northeastern University costs $9,540, while the accounting degree program's total cost is approximately $58,830. This stark price difference could be a significant factor in Black borrowers' career decisions.

Companies such as Google and Amazon have begun offering certificates for those seeking a career in IT or computing. Google states that they want to remove college degrees from being a barrier to entry in the job market. In turn, this means that they are preventing many people from going into debt to secure a job in these fields. Google indicates that 59% of people enrolled in the IT support program do not have a four-year degree. However, Google details that individuals who do have a degree can partake in the program. The program is also complementary for individuals who do have a degree, and it can be used to bolster their marketability in the workplace. In terms of cost, the certificates are offered for $39 a month, with a six-month course costing $234 in total. The certification exam costs $149 per attempt, and scholarships are available for both.


Adults today face a higher burden of student debt than in the past. Among these adults, Black women bear the largest burden in this crisis. Certificate programs can be the solution to combat this high uptake of student loan debt. These certification programs not only offer less time commitment but are significantly less costly than getting a degree. They offer directly actionable skill sets that can make an individual more marketable. Additionally, they contribute to the continuous education for those who already hold a degree, as well as providing them with affordable career advancement.



bottom of page