HVAC Degree vs. Certificate

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Those who are interested in working independently in the field of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) may either obtain a certain level of education before seeking out employment, or pursue a lengthy apprenticeship that can last 3-5 years. Of course, those with academic certificate or degree have a shorter path to professional certification (many HVAC programs prepare you to sit for specific professional certification exams), and often have an easier time being hired.

That being said, anyone opting to pursue a formal HVAC education may find themselves asking which is better: a certificate, an associate degree, or even a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, each of these options has its pros and cons. To better understand the similarities, differences, and overlap between these options, please read this overview and retain this side-by-side comparison to help you make an informed decision.

Similarities, Differences, and Overlap

Ultimately, all accredited HVAC programs help students achieve a similar objective; specifically, to obtain a greater knowledge of this area of study, including core technologies and systems and how to tune them for performance and reliability. Many programs prepare students to sit for a professional HVAC certification like the EPA Section 608 certification to further demonstrate competency and, in the case of some states, to qualify to practice as an HVAC technician. More advanced programs may also include business courses and even the option to specialize further to prepare for additional certifications, like a commercial refrigeration certification.

Perhaps one of the most glaring differences between pursuing a certificate focused on HVAC, and obtaining an associate (or bachelor’s) degree in this subject, is the amount of the time each takes to complete. In general, a certificate program can be completed in less than one year, whereas an associate degree generally takes two years of study, and a bachelor’s degree an additional two years on top of that (depending on the specifics of the program). For example, at Redstone College, students can earn a diploma in HVAC in as little as 10 months; the same school offers an associate degree track that takes a full 17 months to complete. Online programs are available as well, such as the one available through Penn Foster, allowing students the chance to pursue a certificate at their own speed, depending on the amount of time they have to dedicate to their studies.

Furthermore, simply based on the time spent in the classroom, those who pursue an associate degree or bachelor’s will generally emerge with a more comprehensive understanding of HVAC technologies, and be better prepared for the breadth of responsibilities an HVAC technician may have, as compared to those who obtain a certificate. In turn, the knowledge obtained while pursuing an associate degree or bachelor’s degree can assist an individual if he or she decides to complete certifications in the industry, for example, through North American Technician Excellence, a non-profit certification organization, or through the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers tests for technicians.

But while many future HVAC employers may look favorably on an individual who has obtained an associate or bachelor’s degree in this field, that will not likely be the only determining factor leading to a job offer. Indeed, although level of education is extremely important, many employers will likely take into consideration a number of other variables, including interpersonal skills, and previous experience in the form of HVAC or HVAC-related apprenticeships, internships, or jobs.

Of course, it is also important to take into consideration industry statistics regarding future career growth; indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics asserts that HVAC employment opportunities are likely to grow by 14 percent by 2024, or 39,600 altogether. While this doesn’t guarantee that an HVAC technician will find a job after obtaining employment, it should come as welcome news to anyone who decides to take one of these paths.

Side-by-Side Comparison: HVAC Certificate vs. Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree

The table below lays out similarities and differences between HVAC certificate, associate degree, and bachelor’s degree programs, across a number of dimensions.

Certificate Associate Degree Bachelor’s Degree
How long does it take to obtain this level of education? Not all programs are identical, and, as such, the time it takes to complete an HVAC certificate or diploma will vary. That being said, in some programs an individual can complete this level of formal education in less than a year, and even in as little as 10 months. Generally, it will only take a student two years to complete an associate degree with a focus on HVAC. Some programs may require additional time to obtain the degree, although this ultimately depends on the institution. A bachelor’s degree in HVAC will likely take a full four years to complete, and provides the most comprehensive level of HVAC instruction. In some cases, an individual may be able to obtain a bachelor’s in less time if he or she has already completed college credits or if he or she takes additional classes in the summer.
What types of classes should the individual expect to take on this path? The following is a short list of topics that those in HVAC certificate/diploma programs may expect to cover:

  • Refrigeration systems
  • Electrical systems
  • Residential and light commercial systems
  • HVAC system design and installation
In addition to those courses covered in a certificate program, the following is a list of topics that an individual pursuing an associate degree may be exposed to:

  • Metal fabrication
  • Electricity in relation to HVAC systems
  • Heat pumps
  • Technical physics
In addition to those courses covered in a certificate program and associate degree, the following is a list of topics that an individual pursuing a bachelor’s degree may be exposed to:

  • Control theory
  • Load analysis
  • Energy audit and analysis
  • Commercial HVAC system design
  • Contracting issues
  • Hydronic system design
In what types of educational institutions is this program available? A student can obtain a certificate in HVAC, at community colleges, trade schools, technical institutes, and some career-oriented colleges. Pursuit of an associate degree is most often possible within a community college or career college. An individual may be able to obtain a bachelor’s degree in the field of HVAC at a number of accredited institutions, including colleges and career colleges.
What types of jobs will the individual be eligible for after completion of this program? Upon completing a certificate in HVAC, the individual will be eligible to work as an HVAC technician, as long as he or she has met all other prerequisites for this industry based on state law. Similar to a certificate, those who have an associate degree in HVAC will be prepared to work as an HVAC technician upon completion of the program. An individual who holds a bachelor’s degree in the field of HVAC will likely be fully prepared to work as a technician upon graduation, as well as complete additional competency exams, should he or she so desire.
What level of salary can an individual expect after completing this program? Although the level of salary depends on the specific job, as well as the location of employment, the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides that the 2015 median pay for HVAC technicians was approximately $45,110 per year, or $21.69 per hour.

Available data does not demonstrate much difference between the starting salaries of a certificate- and associate-prepared HVAC technician.

However, an associate degree better prepares candidates to pursue a bachelor’s degree (in order to qualify for management responsibility), or further specialization in the form of professional certifications. And specialization and management increase salary potential.

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in HVAC shows a commitment to the industry, and (along with some experience) may qualify a candidate for management or supervisory positions. HVAC Supervisors earn a median salary of $67,298, as compared to a median of $41,930 for an entry-level HVAC Mechanic (Salary.com, June 2016). Associate-prepared HVAC technicians can complete a Bachelor’s program in as little as 2 years.
Will completion of this program prepare the individual for additional certifications in the field of HVAC? Additional competency exams exist, for example through the EPA, that allow students to maintain greater responsibilities throughout the course of their work. In general, a certificate program will help prepare individuals for these exams, although additional study may be necessary. Associate degree programs provide broader coverage on topics related to HVAC, and will help prepare students for taking competency exams in the future, for example through NATE or the EPA. A common example would be the commercial refrigeration certification. Due to the demanding nature of most bachelor’s degree programs, an individual with this degree is likely to be prepared for additional competency exams, with only minimal outside study required. A bachelor’s degree may also prepare the graduate for a managerial or supervisory role.
Name specific schools that offer these programs. The following is a partial list of schools that offer certificate programs in HVAC:

The following is a partial list of schools that offer associate degree programs in HVAC:

The following is a partial list of schools that offer bachelor’s degree programs in HVAC:

Bottom line: specifics of each A certificate in HVAC is the least time-consuming way to dive into the industry and work towards becoming a technician. Although it may not provide the same level of education as that of a higher degree, it will quickly prepare a student (often in less than a year) for a career in this field, allowing him or her to pursue additional education through on-the-job training. This is an excellent choice for someone who hopes to begin working as a technician in the shortest period of time. Although an associate degree may take longer to complete than a certificate, it is certain to provide a greater level of knowledge, as well, which can be utilized throughout the individual’s career. To be sure, much of the education necessary to work in this industry will be obtained on the job; that being said, an associate degree allows a student to learn about various aspects of HVAC before moving into the workforce. This is an ideal option for those who are interested in developing a comprehensive knowledge of this subject, yet still hoping to begin a new career in less than two years. A bachelor’s degree program generally takes four years to complete; as such, students in such a program should expect to develop the most comprehensive knowledge of HVAC-related subjects out of these three options. Students who obtain bachelor’s degrees in the field of HVAC will be fully prepared for nearly all types of jobs in this industry, including supervisory roles, and will be highly competitive upon graduation. This is a great choice for someone who is interested in spending up to four years in the classroom in order to enhance his or her education, and makes particular sense for those looking to move into a management role, or perhaps even start their own business eventually.

Barry Franklin

Barry is the Editor in Chief of HVACClasses.org, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures, which he joined as partner in 2013 after almost 20 years in the financial software industry.