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MBA vs. Business Certificate: Which Is a Better Career Move?


Business Certificate vs MBAThe journey toward reaching your career goals can often seem overwhelming. Should you pursue an MBA or a graduate certificate? What program is best? Which offers the greatest return-on-investment?

The answer to all of those questions depends on your goals and where you are in your career. For example, if you want to gain expertise across many elements of business and management or pursue leadership roles, a top online MBA program can help you succeed. In contrast, a business graduate certificate may help you build specific skills that can supplement the rest of your expertise. Both an MBA degree and a business certificate are valuable in different ways.

In this article, we’ll highlight how each type of business graduate program can benefit your career.


Why Choose an Online MBA?

1. Broader Knowledge Base

An MBA program gives students a wider breadth of knowledge. With a comprehensive curriculum that covers functional business areas like accounting, data analysis, finance and marketing, MBAs give students opportunities to develop a robust set of business skills. At the same time, MBA graduates can develop the leadership and management skills they need to drive decision-making for many different types of organizations.

By contrast, most online business certificate programs will be solely focused on one discipline. Certificate programs provide opportunities to develop specific skill sets without the same commitment as an MBA, but they do not provide the same breadth of knowledge.

2. The X Factor

What sets a great MBA program apart is their ability to not only cover a comprehensive set of business knowledge areas, but also develop soft skills like communication, mentorship, work ethic and accountability. Every MBA can give you a basic business acumen, but only the best can facilitate the informal interactions and collaboration — locally and/or globally — that create effective leaders and promote innovation.

3. Networking

Not only do online MBA students have the flexibility to earn their master’s degrees while continuing to build their careers, they also get the chance to have in-depth conversations with other business leaders from all over the world.

In fact, the best online MBA programs help students forge professional connections that last a lifetime.

“We have so many students who tell us they feel more connected to their OMBA classmates and faculty than they did to their undergraduate classmates who were residential,” said Miriam Burgos, Academic Director for USC Marshall School of Business. “Five of our recent alumni grew so close during the program that they are now starting a business together.”

Administrators and faculty from top MBA programs aren’t just transposing recordings of their classroom lessons into online platforms, they’re specifically tailoring their programs for online education. This ensures that online students gain the flexibility of an online program without sacrificing academic rigor or opportunities to connect with each other.

4. Better Job Opportunities

The knowledge learned through an MBA can help you pursue careers at any level of business, and employers recognize the value MBA graduates can offer their organizations. According to a 2018 survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 78% of employers stated that they planned to hire as many or more MBA graduates into full-time positions as the year before.

While business certificates can be beneficial, their value is highly dependent on whether employers are looking for the specific skill set taught in the program. Another factor is whether the certificate program makes sense with the rest of your background.

“I think it depends on the employer’s intent as to whether or not they need a really specific skill, or if just the fact that they’ve proven they can pass an online graduate degree program is enough for them,” Amy Glaser, senior vice president at the worldwide employment agency Adecco Staffing, told U.S. News.

5. Higher Pay Potential

One of the key questions to consider when deciding on your path for career advancement is return-on-investment. A business certificate may have a lower upfront cost, but an MBA can make a serious long-term impact on your earning potential. According to PayScale, the average salary for MBA graduates is about $87,000 a year, whereas, someone with a business certificate will earn around $60,000 a year on average.

While some discrepancies in pay may be caused by higher leadership opportunities available to MBA degree holders versus certificate holders, PayScale data also shows that, even for many of the same positions, MBA graduates typically earn more than professionals with a business certificate.

For example, in the position of Operations Manager, a person with a business certificate earns an average of $65,000 a year, whereas an MBA graduate in this role earns an average of $78,000.


Why Choose an Online Business Certificate?

1. Cost

Because there are fewer classes required, business administration certificate programs are relatively inexpensive compared to MBA degree programs.

While the cost is considerably lower to complete business administration certificate programs, it is important to know that it may be more difficult to get financial assistance because the government doesn’t always allow student loans for non-degree programs.

2. Advancement in a Specific Discipline

If you are already established in your field and want to build certain skills, an online business certificate program could be perfect for you. For example, if you’re leading a marketing team, and want to expand your expertise in an area like analytics, a graduate certificate in business analytics can help you fill that gap.

However, if you’re looking to completely change careers or advance to leadership, an MBA program may be the better option because it will provide a more well-rounded business education and give you more opportunities to hone your leadership skills.

3. Time Commitment

While an MBA takes one to two years to complete, graduate certificates can be earned in a matter of months. For example, USC’s graduate certificate in business analytics can be earned in as little as one semester.

When looking to improve upon your existing skills, a graduate certificate can provide a return on your investment in a relatively short amount of time.

4. An Extra Step

The cost and time commitment of an MBA may not be feasible for someone just starting their career. A business certificate allows students to dip their toe into graduate-level learning or prepare for a full MBA program.

In addition, many professionals go back and earn graduate certificates in specific fields after completing their MBA. An MBA prepares students for the world of business and leadership roles, but additional certificates help students attain specialized knowledge once they’ve found their niche.


Planning for the Future: MBA or Business Certificate?

One more factor to consider is how flexible you want to be in your career. If you only have a business certificate, you may need to pursue additional education to adapt to changes in the job market without a solid foundation to build upon. MBA graduates, on the other hand, are equipped with a breadth of knowledge across business functions and leadership skills that act as a perfect base to specialize.

As a result, professionals with an MBA have historically benefited from exceptional employment rates. In 2019, for example, employment for graduates from several top business schools was 95% or higher.

As you’re considering the next step in your career, it may be helpful to plan out the skills and experiences you’re looking to gain. If you need skills all within one specific area, a graduate certificate may be the quickest way to help you achieve your goals. However, if you’re looking to build relationships with other business leaders, gain practical leadership skills and build multidisciplinary business knowledge, an MBA program will likely be a better return-on-investment in the long term.


About the USC Marshall School of Business

USC Marshall is one of the premier business schools in the U.S. and internationally recognized as a home for path-breaking research that emphasizes entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership and social responsibility. The USC Online MBA from the Marshall School of Business is built to help students succeed in the digitally driven business landscape, providing a curriculum focused on the practical skills expected of today’s global leaders. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Marshall brings undergraduate and graduate students a unique perspective on the world, including global opportunities for experiential learning. The vibrant and active Trojan alumni community includes more than 89,000 people in 92 countries.


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