To point out the obvious, let’s state that there are two ways students get credit for completing high school. They can either get a high school certificate or a high school diploma. Now, parents, as well as students often get confused when these terms are thrown around; what does it mean to get a diploma or a certificate, and what is actually the difference between the two?

For both, students, and parents, it is essential to know and be aware of the major difference between a certificate and a diploma. Both impact a student’s educational future and life in a different way. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, we’re going to provide a quick insight into the difference between a high school diploma and a certificate.

High School Diploma

A high school diploma is a high school completion qualification that students are awarded upon high school graduation. A high school diploma can only be awarded to a student who meets all of the graduation requirements that are outlined for each school and state. The requirements for receiving a high school diploma include studied and completed courses over a period of three to four years, acceptable passing grades and other, specified criteria students are supposed to meet. These requirements can vary from state to state, even country to country, however, in order to receive a high school diploma a high school student needs to graduate. Here’s an outline of all the characteristics of the diploma and the requirements essential to receiving a high school diploma;

  • High school diploma means a student has met all the requirements for graduation.
  • Students must pass grade-level math, English, social studies, science, and additional classes. Some high schools require an additional, high school exit exam in order for students to receive a diploma.
  • A high school diploma is accepted by colleges, employers, military. Moreover, a student with the diploma is eligible for federal student aid for college.
  • A high school diploma is similar to the GED certificate; the GED certificate is accepted by colleges, military, and employers. Moreover, a high school diploma is also similar to the vocational diploma (a diploma student receives when they’ve acquired the technical skills required for a certain job).
  • Honors high school diploma is a special diploma high school student receives when they’ve achieved a high academic level. This means that their performance during high school has been exceptional and that their grades above average or advanced.

High School Certificate

A high school certificate, just like the diploma, is a high school completion qualification awarded upon the completion of high school education. Schools aren’t usually prohibited against awarding such a document, but this document does not certify the student has graduated or received a diploma.

However, unlike the high school diploma, a certificate directly implies that a student has not met all the requirements necessary for graduation. That might be the main difference between a high school diploma and a certificate. The high school certificate can have different names, one of the most common ones being the Certificate of Completion, Certificate of Achievement, and the Certificate of Attendance; the names differ from state to state, and some states offer even more than two types of high school certificates. Students who are awarded a high school certificate are not considered as having graduated from high school and may continue to pursue a diploma. Here’s an outline of all the characteristics of the certificate and the requirements essential to receiving a high school certificate;

  • High school certificate means that the student did not meet the requirements for graduation, but the student has completed high school.
  • The requirements for a high school certificate are flexible and are often connected to a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • A high school certificate is not accepted by the military; however, it might be accepted by colleges and employers. This, of course, depends on the college, the employer and the job qualifications/requirements.
  • A high school certificate is similar and connected to the IEP or special education diploma. This diploma is unique to a student’s needs/abilities and may not provide access to the general education curriculum.
  • A student with a high school certificate will not be eligible for federal student aid for college.
  • Students with a high school certificate are allowed to see ‘school cooperation’ to issue diplomas or certificates of graduation, especially when it comes to students with disabilities.

More Information on High School Diploma and Certificate

Here’s more information regarding high school diploma and certificate you may find useful;

  • Parents should be aware of their child’s high school completion, diploma, and high school curriculum as soon as possible. Some parents even plan everything out while the child is still in elementary school.
  • Students with a high school diploma may be able to enroll in community colleges, but the students may not be able to receive financial aid.
  • Special education services, for students with high school certificates, are allowed by federal law by the age of 21.
  • Special education entitlement in regards to special education services for students with a high school certificate can last even up to the age of 26.
  • Certain states in the US do not recognize the high school Certificate of Completion. For example, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) only recognizes the Michigan Merit Diploma.


When it comes to education, and this especially applies to the parents, it is important to know what is it that your child can expect from high school. It is also essential to be familiar with the concept of diploma and certificate, as both can impact your child’s educational path differently. High school diplomas and certificates are completely different, and they yield different results at the end of high school. Hopefully, this brief insight has helped clear out the main differences between these two high school qualifications.