By organizing programs around stackable credentials that build upon each other, colleges and universities can offer milestones on the path to the workforce or degree completion

How stackable credentials help fast-track students to the workforce

By organizing programs around stackable credentials that build upon each other, colleges and universities can offer milestones on the path to the workforce or degree completion

The traditional system of higher education puts students’ focus on earning, at minimum, a four-year degree. The traditional student is fresh out of high school and entering college or university with the intent of completing those four years consecutively and graduating with a degree in hand. That traditional student, however, is no longer typical. Statistics show that more than 47 percent of people entering college are over 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are over 35. Many are actively working, have families, are returning to school with plans to change careers, or are seeking specific new skills or training to enter or advance in the workforce.

To serve the goals of these nontraditional students, an increasing number of institutions—and in particular, community and technical colleges—have developed “stackable credentials” as a component of their degree programs, or even as standalone certifications.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines stackable credentials as those that are “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time and move an individual along a career pathway or up a career ladder.” In other words, stackable credentials, which are developed to support industry needs, are building blocks or incremental milestones that assist students in acquiring marketable skills at several points as they work towards degree completion or workplace advancement.

For the past calendar year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of students have turned to online courses to earn certificates or credentials in anticipation of returning to a changed workplace, to better their chances for advancement in their field, or to obtain the necessary training to find a new occupation. Enrollment in a stackable information technology bachelor’s program offered by Western Governors University more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, to 10,711 in May 2020, from 4,410 in March 2020, according to Wired. The number of students taking microcredential programs from edX, the online course provider created by MIT and Harvard that also offers a microcredential program, rose to 65,000 by the end of April of last year, a 14-fold increase from early March.

Students seeking stackable credentials can do so along several paths. The traditional, or progressive, path, is linear. The student will earn a credential or certificate that allows them to enter the workforce— by passing a qualifying exam to become an approved veterinarian assistant, for example—and then continue their education to acquire more advanced certifications; to become a registered veterinarian technician (or perhaps eventually a veterinarian). The first certificate or credential allows the student to enter the workforce and gain experience in their chosen field; additional credentials allow them to advance in their career.

Supplemental stackable credentials are those where students earn credits to enhance or supplement a degree they have already earned. Someone with a bachelor’s degree in information technology might earn a supplemental certification in cyber security to increase their marketability to potential employers or open up advancement opportunities with a current employer.

Independent stackable credentials are those where a student may earn multiple credentials or certificates but doesn’t pursue a degree. For example, an individual who earns certificates in Microsoft products and/or CompTIA certifications and then pursues a career in information technology systems along a career track that doesn’t require a degree.

According to the Brookings Institution, 17 states have allocated funding to colleges to develop stackable credentials pathways, and 10 states require that their community college systems offer and advertise stacking options. Brookings also reports that “the most common stacks are in health or business, and individuals who complete a stack in health or business have especially high returns—a 5 and 10 percentage point increase in employment and $640 and $760 quarterly wage increase, respectively.”

Authors of the EdWorking Paper No, 20-317, “Stacking the Deck for Employment Success: Labor Market Returns to Stackable Credentials,” report similar findings: “We find stacking increases employment by four percentage points and quarterly wages by $570 (seven percent). Returns are larger for individuals whose first credential is a short-term certificate and in health and business.”

As institutions develop new programs to better attract and serve students—especially nontraditional students—stackable credential programs evolve as well. While these programs have a broad and successful base in community and technical/career colleges for Career and Technical Education (CTE), they continue to emerge at the four-year bachelor’s degree level and even into graduate-level programs.

In meeting today’s students’ needs, offering stackable credential tracks that lead to earning or enhancing a two- or four-year degree or that allow students to step directly into the workforce upon completion of a certificate program benefits both the college or university and its students.

Colleges and universities interested in developing stackable credentials programs can download the booklet “Introduction to Stackable Credentials.”

Examples of community college and career college stackable certificate programs:

Florida Advanced Technological Education Center

Greenfield Community College, Greenfield, MA

Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana

Examples of stackable certificate programs that lead to a bachelor’s degree:
Miami Dade College, Miami, FL

University of Denver, Denver, CO

University of Toledo, Toledo, OH

Examples of graduate-level stackable certificate programs:
Colorado State University Global

Baldwin Wallace University, Berea, OH

Thomas More University, Crestview Hills, KY 

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Shannon O'Connor, Editor at Large, eCampus News
Latest posts by Shannon O'Connor, Editor at Large, eCampus News (see all)

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.