What is Certification?

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What is the Difference Between Certification and Licensure?

Discussion and information have circulated about the differences and benefits of certification and licensure. The general public uses the terms interchangeably; however, there are important functional distinctions between the two concepts. Confusion between the terms “certification” and “licensure” arises because many states call their licensure processes “certification,” particularly when they incorporate the standards and requirements of private certifying bodies in their licensing statutes. Likewise, some states use certification as the basis of granting individuals the right to practice through rule, and call the authorization granted “certification”. Below we make our best effort to clarify and define these two terms.

What is Certification?

The federal government has defined “certification” as the process by which a non-governmental organization grants recognition to an individual who has met predetermined qualifications specified by that organization. Similarly, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies defines certification as “a process, often voluntary, by which individuals who have demonstrated the level of knowledge and skill required in the profession, occupation, role, or skill are identified to the public and other stakeholders.” In general, certification is a non-statutory process whereby an accrediting body grants recognition to an individual for having met predetermined professional qualifications.

National certification ensures that a professional’s credentials are transferable to other states and that the practice content or scope is the same. Professions which have rapidly grown, and whose use continue to diversity, have found themselves limited by licensing statutes in some states due to outdated scope of practice descriptions which legislators are hesitant to change once in place.

Nearly every profession certifies its members in some way, but a prime example is medicine. Private certifying boards certify physician specialists. Although certification may assist a physician in obtaining hospital privileges, or participating as a preferred provider within a health insurer’s network, it does not affect his legal authority to practice medicine. The state is the only entity which can legally authorize practice within a specific profession.

What is Licensure?

Licensure refers to the laws which regulate a given occupation. Its purpose is essentially twofold: 1) the prevention of unqualified individuals utilizing the given title, and 2) defining the specific tasks that constitute the practice of a given occupation. Under the licensure system, states define, by statute, the tasks and function or scope of practice of a profession and provide that these tasks may be legally performed only by those who are licensed. As such, licensure prohibits anyone from practicing the profession who is not licensed, regardless of whether or not the individual has been certified by a private organization.

The path to licensure most often includes completion of a specific academic degree and passing a national certification examination. For example, in most states counselors and social workers must first pass the national certification boards prior to applying for state licensure. This requires the state to take a more active role in monitoring the practice, typically through knowledge based tests and continuing education. Licensure is often an added expense, not only for the state, but also for the practitioner.

Having a license to practice simply means that an individual has met a set of criteria set forth by the state. Without incorporating the national standards and requirements of private certifying bodies, licensure alone does not ensure the quality of services or the competence of practitioners.

Why Would a State Choose to Incorporate Certification in Licensing Statues?

Licensure occurs at the state level, and therefore, scope of practice descriptions can vary from state to state. Licensing also provides the state with added authority to remove someone from practice within the state, regardless of the national credential the individual holds. However, the primary reason why states choose to incorporate the national standards and requirements of private certifying bodies is to ensure the competence of those providing a specified service.