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Degree vs. diploma

Updated April 17, 2017

The terms "degree" and "diploma" are often used interchangeably. However, the subtle distinctions between the two can make a big difference in your actual qualifications. Read on to learn what the differences are.

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The American Heritage Dictionary defines "degree" as being the actual title given to one who has completed a course of study. "Diploma" is defined as the document presented to the student upon completion (see Resources).


Diplomas are often handed out for simpler courses of study, such as upon completion of high school. Diplomas in nursing and business schools also indicate shorter lengths of study and less specialisation than degrees.

Time Frame

Diploma programs for business can be as short as under a year; diploma programs for nursing can take 2 to 3 years. Sometimes a diploma program can be a subset of a degree program. Degree programs for both nursing and business usually require at least 3 to 4 years.


Diploma programs provide education within your given field and get you into the work force sooner. Degree programs give more in-depth knowledge and potentially start you at a higher level.


Have a plan in mind before you decide on a program. Read all information carefully, as different schools may define the terms slightly differently. Be aware of what your dream position actually requires in the way of education.

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About the Author

Andrea Coventry

Andrea Coventry has been writing online since 2007. Her expertise includes teaching, working with children and Montessori schools. Her work has appeared in various online publications. Coventry is certified by the American Montessori Society.

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