Diploma vs Degree: What’s the Difference?

by Staff Reporter

Ah, the age-old debate: diploma vs degree. It’s like the classic showdown between cats and dogs or pineapple on pizza (let’s not go there). You’re standing at the crossroads of your educational journey, scratching your head and wondering which path to take. This is where we come in to save the day. In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between diplomas and degrees to help you make an informed decision about your future.

Key takeaways:  

  • Diplomas are at NQF Level 6, whereas degrees are at NQF Level 7
  • Diplomas are quicker to complete, usually taking about 1-2 years, while degrees need around 3-4 years.
  • Diplomas offer practical, hands-on training, while degrees provide deeper academic knowledge.
  • Degrees can be more expensive than diplomas, but they often lead to higher earning potential.
  • Diplomas allow for faster entry into the workforce, whereas degrees offer more flexibility and better career advancement options.
  • When deciding between a diploma and a degree, consider your educational and career goals, personal preferences and budget.

Table of Contents

diploma vs degree

Diploma Vs Degree: Key Differences

As a student, understanding diploma vs degree differences is kind of a big deal. Each path serves different needs and dreams. Exploring the key differences between diplomas and degrees can ultimately guide your decision.

Diplomas are NQF Level 6 qualifications that focus on hands-on learning. It usually takes 1 to 2 years to complete. They’re perfect if you want to jump straight into practical work. 

On the other hand, degrees are NQF Level 7 qualifications and take longer to complete, roughly 3 to 4 years, and dig deep into theories and research.

Getting in is different too. You can start a diploma with a Grade 10 or 12 certificate, but degrees need a Grade 12 matric certificate or something equal. 

In South Africa, the diploma scene is changing. The Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) is upgrading diplomas to match real job skills better. This change is to ensure diplomas really prep you for your career.

To help give you a better idea of the differences between diplomas and degrees, let’s analyse the key differences:



Focus on practical and vocational skills for certain jobs

Provide wider academic knowledge on a subject

Train you for a specific skill set or career

Allow you to land better-paying jobs and grow your career in various directions

More affordable than degrees and take less time to complete (1 to 2 years)

More expensive and take longer to complete (3 to 4 years)

Flexible, making it easier for you to work part-time while studying

Generally full-time studies

Cannot change fields while studying

Enable you to switch fields while studying

Both diplomas and degrees are worth considering. But is one really better than the other? Well, that depends on what your academic and career goals are. Let’s dive deeper to see whether a diploma or a degree is best suited to your needs.

students graduating with a degree

What is a Degree?

Degrees qualifications that are offered by universities and take between 3 to 4 years to complete (that’s if you’re sticking to undergraduate programmes). They provide a more in-depth education, covering a wide range of subjects within a chosen field.

Types of Degrees

South African universities have a whole range of degrees. These degrees are designed to fit the changing job market. You’ll find degrees like:

  • Bachelor’s degrees: They build the basis of your studies. For example, you could study for a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) or a Bachelor of Science (BSc).
  • Master’s degrees: After your bachelor’s, you might continue for 2 more years. This allows deep study in your chosen area.
  • Doctoral degrees: Going even further, a PhD requires years of research beyond a master’s. You finish with a thesis or dissertation.

A BCom degree offers a broad look at fields, whereas a Diploma in Financial Management focuses deeply on finance. Choosing a degree means gaining deep knowledge and having lots of options.

Pros and Cons of a Degree

Getting a degree can lead to higher pay, more jobs, and more advanced skills. Yet, it takes more time and money than a diploma does. With that said, it’s important to really weigh out the pros and cons of studying toward a degree before making any final decisions:

Pros of degrees:

  • Depth of knowledge: Degrees offer a comprehensive understanding of a subject, not just the basics.
  • Career advancement: Many employers prefer or even require a degree for higher-level positions.
  • Networking opportunities: Universities are breeding grounds for future CEOs, Nobel laureates, and maybe even your future spouse.

Cons of degrees:

  • Time: Four years can feel like an eternity, especially when you’re living on 2 Minute Noodles and coffee.
  • Cost: Degrees can be pricey, and student loans might follow you like a bad smell for years.
  • General education requirements: Sometimes, you have to take courses that make you question your life choices (hello, calculus).

Now that you know more about what a degree is and what it entails, let’s dive into diplomas!

Student studying at technical school for a diploma.

What is a Diploma?

Diplomas are usually offered by technical schools, community colleges, and some universities. Diplomas are ideal if you’re looking to jumpstart your career or gain specific skills without spending years in school.

Advantages of a Diploma

One of the biggest advantages of diplomas is that they take less time to finish – usually just 1 to 2 years. This means you can start working and building your future job sooner. Compared to degrees, diplomas are also more cost-effective, which is perfect if you’re looking to save money (a definite plus!).

A major benefit of the diploma path is its focus on what the real world needs. You learn skills that you can use right away in your career. This can really give you a head start in the workforce.

For those already working, diplomas provide a flexible way to study. Part-time and evening classes are often available. This makes it easier to learn new skills or switch careers without giving up your job.

Added to the advantages above are the following pros of studying toward a diploma:

  • Speed: If you’re eager to start earning, a diploma can get you there faster than a degree.
  • Cost: Generally, diplomas are less expensive than degrees.
  • Focused learning: Diplomas zero in on the skills you need for a particular job, without all the extra fluff.

Disadvantages of a Diploma

Choosing a diploma over a degree is not all rainbows and sunshine. Although diplomas have many positives, they also have some drawbacks. They might not go as deep into academic topics as degrees do. Instead, they focus more on practical, job-related skills.

Because diplomas are specific to certain jobs, it might be hard to change career paths. The skills you learn are tailored to a particular field. This could limit your options if you want to switch careers later on.

It’s also worth knowing that, generally, those with degrees earn more. This is because degrees are often seen as more prestigious and they offer broader knowledge. But, a diploma can still lead to success in many well-paid careers. 

To sum up, the cons of diplomas are:

  • Limited scope: While you’re a whiz at one thing, your broader knowledge might be lacking.
  • Less prestige: Let’s face it, in some circles, a diploma doesn’t carry the same weight as a degree.
student with bsn degree

Diploma Vs Degree: Popular Courses

In South Africa, students can choose from a wide range of diploma and degree courses. Diploma programmes focus on specialised, hands-on learning in certain fields. This helps students get into work faster. 

Popular diploma courses in South Africa include Project Management, Marketing, and more. These courses help students develop practical skills. They are often found at technical or vocational schools.

On the other hand, degree courses are more varied. They cover areas like Arts, Commerce, and Engineering and provide a deep education. Degrees also equip students with skills needed for a wide range of jobs.

Diploma Courses

Degree Courses





Fine Arts

Fine Arts

Automotive Engineering




Business Studies

Business Administration

Both diploma and degree courses are important in South Africa. They meet the needs of different students. Choosing between them depends on personal goals and job plans. It also considers how you like to learn. Plus, what employers in your field look for.

Diploma Vs Degree: Employer Preferences

Employers’ preferences can vary widely depending on the industry. In some fields, practical skills that you get from a diploma are valued over formal education, while in others, a degree is essential for career progression.

Below, we’ve outlined some of the most popular fields and indicated whether employers would prefer a degree or diploma for each:

Trades and Technical Fields

In trades and technical fields, such as plumbing, welding, or IT support, diplomas and certifications are highly valued. Employers look for candidates with hands-on experience and specific skill sets. In these industries, a diploma can be more valuable than a degree.

Professional and Managerial Roles

For professional and managerial roles, such as those in finance, healthcare, or engineering, a degree is often a requirement. Employers in these fields value the depth of knowledge and critical thinking skills that come with a degree.

Creative Industries

In creative industries like graphic design, marketing, or film production, both diplomas and degrees are valued. What matters most is your portfolio, experience, and ability to innovate. A diploma can get you started, but a degree might open more doors in the long run.

A student learning about diploma vs degree differences.

Diploma Vs Degree: Which is Better?

It’s diploma vs degree, so which should you choose? Well, it’s important to remember that this is a significant decision that depends on your career goals, financial situation, and personal preferences. Both options have their merits and can lead to successful and fulfilling careers.

Keep in mind, your choice doesn’t have to be final. Many professionals start with a diploma and later pursue a degree or vice versa. 

For example, you could start with a diploma in nursing and later pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) for advanced career opportunities. The key is to stay curious, keep learning, and be open to new opportunities.

Whether you choose the practical, quick path of a diploma or the comprehensive, in-depth journey of a degree, both can pave the way to a rewarding future. Consider your goals, do your research, and make the choice that’s right for you. And who knows? You might just find that the best path is a combination of both.

Fund Your Diploma or Degree with Fundi

Once you’ve chosen between pursuing a degree or a diploma, it’s time to look into funding for your studies. This is where Fundi steps in. Fundi offers study loans to prospective students within the public sector.

The student loans cover everything from tuition fees to study devices, and more! Eager to see if you qualify for a Fundi study loan? Be sure to try out the Fundi Loan Calculator and start your academic journey today!

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