Whether you need new skills to boost your career, you’re between jobs, or thinking of starting a business, continuing your education could be key. According to a recent study from Georgetown University, certificates are the fastest-growing qualification you can earn. Unlike degrees, their primary goal is to prepare students for jobs and careers—with very little general academic coursework. They offer affordable occupational training you can put to use right away. Here’s how the right certificate can work for you.

The Value of Certificates

For experienced workers, the opportunity cost of leaving work to gain education is high. That’s one reason certificate programs make sense: More than half take less than a year to earn, and none takes more than two years to complete, says Andrew R. Hanson, a research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce who co-authored a pioneering study on certificates released in June 2012. (That’s compared with an average of five years to earn a Bachelor’s degree.)

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Cost is another advantage: A one-year certificate from a public, two-year institution ranges in cost from about $1,500 to $3,000; double that if the certificate program takes two years. Hanson says your income payoff also depends upon the field you’ve chosen and how much education you already have.

“People are increasingly cost conscious, and certificates leverage them into a better job at the lowest cost they can afford,” Hanson says. On average, certificates offer a 20% pay boost over a high school diploma. Workers with an associate’s degree earn 6% more with a certificate, and workers with a bachelor’s degree can expect a 3% pay boost, on average. “But there are softer benefits. A certificate can support a longer career and offer more options and flexibility in your field.” Certificates can help dig you out of a dying industry by helping you get your foot in the door in a different, thriving field.