Dianne LaVanway got a certificate in world art history through Smithsonian Associates to follow her passion for art without a lengthy degree program. (Jason Hornick for Express)

A year ago, Dianne LaVanway took her first continuing education class with Smithsonian Associates, and it’s fair to say she got hooked.

“In December I will have completed my 15th class, and I’m enrolled for four more starting in January,” she says.

LaVanway is a senior program manager who implements cybersecurity-related projects for a government organization, but over the years art has been her persistent passion. “Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, I took an art history class and I absolutely loved it, but it was too late [to pursue that],” she says.

In November, she completed the Smithsonian Associates certificate in world art history, a self-guided program where students complete four core courses — such as African art through the centuries — and six elective courses at their own pace. It’s all part of LaVanway’s plan to create her own master of fine arts experience — without having to go back for another degree. The courses and half-credit courses range from about $30 to $185 (Smithsonian Associates members pay a little less), so the 10-credit certificate should cost well under $2,000.

“There’s that structure that comes with a degree program that wasn’t particularly appealing because I have a bachelor’s and two master’s at this point,” says LaVanway, who has studied Germanic languages, higher education and business in more formal settings.

Certificate programs like LaVanway’s and those offered at local universities offer an alternative to full-fledged master’s degrees at a fraction of the cost, but they vary in requirements and what doors they might open for your career. They may be a good fit if you want to:

1. Climb the ladder
Some certificates are tailored for professionals with a general expertise in an area who are looking for more grounding or specialization in a particular facet of their field, says Sukari Pinnock, an adviser at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies who teaches several courses in the university’s strategic diversity and inclusion management certificate program. Designed for executives, managers and consultants with diversity or talent management responsibilities, that certificate program takes six months to complete and costs $5,970.

Many students parlay their certificates from Georgetown into a promotion or additional specialization at their jobs, while others use it to land brand-new gigs, Pinnock notes.

“Students have gone on to get White House appointments,” she says. “A Georgetown certificate opens a lot of doors.”

2. Get a credential
Other certificates help students get the official credentials they need to advance their careers. At its Washington, D.C., campus (and online), the Chicago School of Professional Psychology offers a one-year graduate certificate in applied behavior analysis that allows students who already have a master’s degree in a field such as psychology or education to become board-certified behavior analysts. Behavior analysts are perhaps best known for working with children with autism to reduce problem behaviors (or for tracking down serial killers on “Criminal Minds”), but the applications of the skill set are vast.

“Our field is developing so rapidly,” says Mary Caruso-Anderson, chair of the Department of Applied Behavior Analysis at the Chicago School’s D.C. campus. “[Certification] allows us to meet a need as a field more quickly.”
Sonali Ratnayake, an educational consultant and advocate for children with autism and other special needs, started the certificate program in D.C. in August so she can provide behavioral analysis services to children in the community.

“The certificate program adds on to what I’m currently interested in,” she says. “It allows you to build on what you already have and to serve.”

3. Test a new field
Certificates also allow students to gauge interest in a field without committing to a master’s degree right off the bat, says Bobbe Baggio, associate dean of graduate programs in online learning at American University.

“It’s a way for someone to get into a field and take a deep dive but not to 10,000 feet,” she says. “We’re going to snorkel a little here, and see whether they really like the field.”

Some students will then go on to get that master’s, Baggio says, so students should make sure that the credits they receive as part of the certificate can be applied toward a degree, too. Tuition for American’s certificate programs ranges from about $18,000 to $28,000.

4. Pursue a passion
Some certificates, like the Smithsonian Associates’ program in world art history, come with no credit attached and may not lead to a lucrative new career. But, as LaVanway knows, finally pursuing a longtime passion is reward enough.

“This is much more satisfying that any degree program,” she says. “This is right in the sweet spot of what I want to do.”

More in higher education:

Thinking of leaving the country? It could be a good career move.

Should you join a prep course or study alone for your graduate admissions test?

Dual degree programs mean you can get two diplomas in one fell swoop