Many educational, training and professional development entities seem to use these words somewhat indiscriminately, adding to the confusion.   One can earn a certificate here, a diploma there, etc.  This adds to the confusion, and frankly, it often appears that they choose one word or another primarily to enhance or embellish the perceived status of a particular course offering rather than to clarify the true value.

When a good friend recently asked me to comment on the subject, I went to my old faithful “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” looking for assistance.  Actually, I already knew what I thought, but I hoped that Mr. Webster would support my own take on the matter.  I discovered the following definitions that I believe offer a reasonably clear distinction about the use of the three words as they apply to the area of learning and education.

Certificate:  a document certifying that one has met specified requirements.

Diploma:  a certificate issued to a student by a school, college, or university, indicating graduation or the conferring of a degree.

Degree:  a rank given by a college or university to a student who has completed a required course of study.

Note that the terms diploma and degree both are characterized by and connected to the terms “school, college, or university”.   The word “Certificate” is not tied to the terms “school, college, or university”.  

In addition to the above dictionary definitions, I believe that the majority of people do normally associate the terms “degree” and “diploma” with universities and colleges (and high schools) – all multi-year academic programs overseen by some type of accrediting or governing body.  Thus, one is awarded a “Diploma” recognizing they have earned a “Degree” in some subject, such as Mechanical Engineering, etc.   These two terms appear to be correctly linked and somewhat interchangeable when the discussion centers on education and formal training.  Further, I think the average person accepts that a “Certificate”, while a recognition of significant accomplishment, is typically awarded at the conclusion of an activity much shorter in time than a formal multi-year educational process.

So, is it inappropriate to use the three terms indiscriminately as many entities seem to do?  I believe it is, based on the dictionary definitions and what I think the average person’s use of the terms is.  It certainly adds to the confusion, and as a minimum, it appear to be misleading.

This is not to say that those non-university/college entities (some of which advertise that they are offering degrees, diplomas, licenses, etc.) do not provide excellent training or educational opportunities.  On the contrary, many of them do.  They certainly play a critical and necessary role in providing continuing education and professional development activities.  Their courses help advance the understanding and application of various technologies as well as other areas of knowledge and expertise.  Their offerings provide a key portion of the ongoing learning we need in order to keep our industries viable.  We need these types of opportunities just as much as we need the opportunities provided by colleges and universities

However, I think there would be much less confusion in the reliability and maintenance field if the terms “Degrees” and “Diplomas” were left to the universities and colleges and the term “Certificate” was utilized to mark the successful completion of those programs delivered by non-university/college entities.

Tom Byerley is Director of the University of Tennessee’s Reliability and Maintainability Center, located on the Knoxville, TN campus.  The RMC is an industry sponsored Center with 30+ member companies.  

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