What’s The Difference Between A Diploma, Degree and Certificate?


Why choose a diploma level study

In today’s rapidly evolving job market, acquiring the right qualifications is essential for advancing your career and personal growth. But with so many options available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right educational path. Should you study for a diploma? Or is a degree better? And where do graduate certificates and associate degrees fit in? It’s enough to make your head spin.

Three of the most popular qualification types you’ve probably heard of are certificates, diplomas and degrees. Each has its own merits, outcomes and target audience. Find out which learning journey is right for you. 

What is the difference between a certificate, diploma and degree?

Before we dive into the deeper differences between certificates, diplomas and degrees, let’s clarify what qualification types exist. The Australian Qualifications Framework is a system that divides qualification types into 10 different levels, depending on the course complexity, how difficult the qualification is to obtain, and the level of independence students require to complete the course. It considers the depth of knowledge gained, the technical skills levels received and how knowledge is used in the real world. They each indicate different levels of mastery and expertise in their area of study. These include:

  • Level 1 – Certificate I
  • Level 2 – Certificate II
  • Level 3 – Certificate III
  • Level 4 – Certificate IV
  • Level 5 – Diploma
  • Level 6 – Advanced Diploma or Associate Degree
  • Level 7 – Bachelor’s Degree
  • Level 8 – Bachelor Honours Degree, Graduate Certificate or Graduate Diploma
  • Level 9 – Master’s Degree
  • Level 10 – Doctoral Degree

What is a certificate IV?

Certificate IV qualifications are often undertaken by students who wish to begin their career journey with well-rounded knowledge in a single area. Certificate qualifications are heavily practical, coupled with important theoretical content. They are an excellent choice for those with limited or no experience in their chosen field as a way to start their future career with a broad range of skills.

A certificate qualification is earned when a student chooses to specialise in a single skill set or industry area. Plumbers, electricians and other trades will fall into this category, but so will literature, business, and technological fields. The study will often be restricted to a single field and will require a large amount of practical training, which can often take the form of an apprenticeship. For studies outside of trades, certificates are an excellent pathway to take if you do not have previous experience in the field of study or want to test the waters of an industry.

The duration of a certificate IV will vary depending on the content and pacing but is usually completed in less than a year if studied full-time.

What is a diploma?

Diplomas are a natural step up from a certificate III or IV and are one of the most common levels of qualifications for a variety of industries. Diplomas combine technical skills training with applied theory. ‘Applied theory’ refers to a more advanced way of working where critical thinking is used to make decisions grounded in real-world facts. Critical thinking skills give graduates an advantage over others who complete solely theoretical training.

Diplomas are ideal for those seeking a career change or looking to begin their tertiary studies. They focus on highly practical skills that are applied directly to the workplace. Those already working in the field often choose diploma qualifications to increase their skills and be a contender for senior opportunities within their industry.

The duration of a diploma varies but can usually be completed in a year if studied full-time.

What is an advanced diploma?

An advanced diploma builds on the diploma qualification, with learning materials and more advanced outcomes than a diploma. It’s a highly regarded course for those looking at securing senior management or leadership positions in the future.

Advanced diplomas offer an excellent choice for those with significant work experience in their industry, looking to formalise and upskill their expertise. A great way to fast-track your career, advanced diplomas focus on practical education alongside theoretical, conceptual and problem-solving skills. The course provides students with advanced skills such as planning, decision making and critical analysis. Therefore, advanced diploma graduates are eligible for highly skilled and challenging roles in their chosen industry.

The duration of an advanced diploma may change based on the specialisation but can usually be completed in 18 months if studied full-time.

What is a degree?

Degrees come in many different forms including associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. Studying for a degree can lead to more opportunities in specific fields, as degrees cover a broader range of theoretical knowledge over a longer study period. Degrees are typically taught in allocated slots of semesters or trimesters, with mostly face-to-face and some online learning options available.

The level of complexity and theory taught will vary depending on the level of degree you pursue (as referred to in the AQF levels). Similarly, duration differs dramatically. A bachelor’s degree is typically completed in three years of full-time study. A master’s degree adds an additional year or two and a doctoral (also known as a PhD) degree adds a further three to seven years.

What is the difference between an advanced diploma and associate degree?

Both advanced diplomas and associate degrees are at AQF level 6. The main difference is that advanced diplomas are highly practical and offer a real-world application. In contrast, associate degrees comprise more theoretical course material.

Employers highly regard both qualifications. However, advanced diplomas are often favoured over degrees due to graduates being job-ready, with the well-rounded skills needed to hit the ground running in the workplace.

Those who complete a degree often need up to 12 months to learn the practical nature of their role, to accompany the theoretical skills they received during their course.

Advanced diplomas are an excellent choice for those looking to secure a dream role and be employable from graduation (or even while doing the course). The advanced skills received mean that graduates are more likely to be considered for senior roles or promotion opportunities as they arise.

Which qualification is right for me?

Duration requirements

Certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas are generally able to be completed in under 24 months. At the College for Adult Learning, you can complete your qualification in your own time, at your own pace. If you want to complete your studies quicker than your allocated course duration or need to defer or extend your course, you can. 

Degrees take by far the longest time to complete, ranging from two to six years or more, depending on the level of study. 

Career prospects

Certificates can enhance your employability, especially in specialised fields where specific skills are highly valid. They can serve as a valuable credential for career advancement or a pathway to further education.

Diplomas can open doors to entry-level positions and mid-level career opportunities. Diplomas often incorporate hands-on training and practical experience to prepare students for the workforce – an excellent choice for those seeking a career-oriented education. 

Advanced diplomas are perfect for those seeking senior-level positions where you’re ready to expand upon your previous experience and knowledge.

Degrees have a focus on theoretical learning. They provide in-depth academic knowledge on a topic but may not provide the practical skills needed to go straight into your chosen career path. 


Not all qualifications are made equal. It’s important to study accredited courses at any level. ‘Accredited’ means that the qualification meets the Australian Qualification Framework and is being delivered through a registered training organisation (RTO). If it’s a Vocational Education and Training (VET) course (AQF levels 1–6), it must also meet Standards for VET Accredited Courses and be independently assessed. In higher education (AQF levels 6–10), the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) is the national accrediting body.

The College for Adult Learning is proud to be an established RTO providing nationally accredited and endorsed qualifications in the VET sector. Our certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas all are accredited courses. 


Certificates are generally the cheapest study option, with diplomas and advanced diplomas getting slightly more expensive. However, the cost of a VET qualification is a fraction of the price of a degree. Where a certificate can cost as little as $2,000, the average tuition for a bachelor’s degree is between $20,000 and $45,000. 

Another option is to study a double diploma qualification for a significantly more affordable price than a degree. 

Study options

Certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas have a wide range of study options, depending on the RTO and what suits the learner best. At CAL, you can enjoy flexible learning options to get qualified your way, including studying at your own pace, completely online. You’ll also have access to our industry experts and learning coaches to help create a tailored learning plan for you, making sure your study fits your life, not the other way around. 

Degrees may offer more limited flexibility with set lecture times and exams (whether those are completed in person or virtually). 

Starting the perfect course

Choosing the right qualification level to study will depend on your learning and career goals. However, studying a certificate IV, diploma or advanced diploma has a range of real-time benefits to getting qualified faster and more affordably. Find the perfect course for you at the College for Adult Learning. 

Discover the perfect course for you

Explore the College for Adult Learning's range of courses, across a variety of industries and qualification levels – from certificate IVs to double diplomas, construction management to human resources and leadership.

Discover the course that will help you change careers, upskill, get qualified, promote yourself or find your passion.