Making Sense of Stackable Credentials

Stackability is all the rage: Students want more options, employers want better-trained employees, and universities are eager to meet the demand.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on January 18, 2024
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  • Stackable credentials such as certificates, microcredentials, and badges build on prior learning and boost employability.
  • Students can accumulate credentials while working, ultimately earning a bachelor's degree and beyond.
  • Both traditional universities and OPMs offer various types of programs, but such variety can confuse students.
  • Some liberal arts colleges enable students to tack on certificates to help them transition to the job market.

It used to be so simple.

Earn a bachelor's degree. Or an associate degree. Perhaps a master's.

Students were clear about options, and employers knew what graduates brought to the table.

No more. Fewer students march lockstep through higher education full time on a linear path, and industries continually change what knowledge and skills they require of employees.

As educational demands have changed, so too has the supply side. Colleges and universities have embraced nontraditional credentials, and new alternatives have emerged to offer quicker, cheaper, and more flexible options.

Central to this shift is the notion of "stackability." But what exactly does that term mean, and why does confusion abound?

What Are Stackable Credentials?

In the simplest terms, stackable credentials sequentially build upon prior learning, complementing each other to reflect an accumulated set of knowledge and skills people can use to improve their employability.

The OG stackable credentials were the associate and bachelor's, ostensibly designed to blend seamlessly in the progression toward a degree. But littered along that pathway are a slew of abandoned credits that don't transfer, or neatly stack, sapping students' momentum and, perhaps, motivation.

No wonder that while almost 80% of community college students wish to eventually earn a four-year degree, only 16% realize that goal within six years of starting their studies.

And having some education but no degree means you have loan debt without the credential.

Today, students have far more options. Traditional universities and nontraditional providers alike have lined up to provide courses, certificates, microcredentials, badges, and licenses, all presumably stackable in the service of educational and career advancement.

At Harvard Extension School, for example, students can stack two-course microcertificates and three-course certificates en route to a bachelor's degree and various master's degrees.

Miami Dade College offers college credit certificates, career technical certificates, and industry certifications, along with its associate and bachelor's degrees, all of which are stackable in some form. To help students navigate these academic waters, the college provides various "credential maps" to chart pathways.

Online program managers, or OPMs, have eagerly leapt into the fray hoping to capture market share. EdX, for example, which is now part of 2U, offers "MicroBachelors" programs across various fields in partnership with institutions such as New York University, Arizona State University, and Southern New Hampshire University. These programs constitute steppingstones toward a full baccalaureate.

And they're relatively cheap. Imagine listing on your resume a MicroBachelors degree in statistics from the London School of Economics and Political Science, a five-course sequence for which you paid less than $900.

Ensuring stackability among programs within a university seems easy enough. But students often encounter friction when trying to stack credentials across different institutions. Ideally, stackable credentials should be portable, allowing students to move intermittently among institutions and programs that accept credits for prior learning.

Another roadblock is the sheer confusion students face when sorting options. There's no uniformity among universities and third-party providers when it comes to the nomenclature they adopt for their programs. Some, like edX, have invented their own terms, even claiming "MicroBachelors" as a registered trademark.

Kaplan, another OPM, trademarked the abomination "Credegree."

What's more, students encounter different ways to stack: progression stacking, supplemental stacking, independent stacking, horizontal stacking, vertical stacking, and the ever-popular lattice pathways.

Despite their bewilderment, students are flocking to these alternative programs. In 2020-21, almost 1 million certificates were awarded in the U.S., almost equaling the number of associate degrees earned. A Strata-Gallup Education Survey found that 40% of working-age adults have completed a nondegree credential.

One estimate suggests 32-43% of those who earn them re-enroll in college and continue stacking credentials.

"We have 39 million people in the U.S. with some college but no degree," James Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), told Inside Higher Ed. "We could reverse [that trend] by giving them educational products that will get them reconnected, that will value their prior learning, that will get them to that degree."

Credentials Gain Value When Tied to Industry Needs

Earning a stackable credential can be a quicker, cheaper option, but does it pay off? Maybe.

Third Way, a public policy think tank, found that "[e]ven with substantially higher graduation rates than two-year institutions, certificate-granting institutions still show poorer earnings outcomes."

Success can vary by field. Stacking credentials in healthcare, IT, or engineering technology can pay handsome career dividends, but not so much in, say, culinary arts.

The value of a nontraditional credential ultimately may be its role as a gateway to degrees rather than a substitute for one.

"There's still very little evidence that microcredentials will necessarily land someone a job in the same way that a degree will," Sean Gallagher, executive professor of educational policy at Northeastern University, told Inside Higher Ed.

Perhaps that's because employers encounter the same confusion students do. A 2023 UPCEA report revealed that 46% of employers can't determine the quality of a nontraditional credential listed on an applicant's resume, and 42% don't know what skills and competencies have been acquired.

At the same time, though, in 2023 the OPM Coursera found that 86% of students believe earning a microcredential will help them secure a job, while 72% of employers said they're more likely to hire someone who has one. And almost 90% of employers said such a credential strengthened a candidate's application.

To help ensure value for students and employers, universities and other providers are teaming with industries to design programs that meet workforce needs. The State University of New York (SUNY) system, for example, offers more than 500 stackable microcredentials in business, healthcare, criminal justice, education, manufacturing, engineering technology, and computer science, all designed in concert with industry partners.

In Colorado, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring the state's Department of Higher Education to work with government agencies and industry stakeholders to develop 10 stackable credential pathways across high-growth fields by 2026.

"Microcredentials can play a critical role in the new economy," Fong said in a statement about UPCEA's report.

"However, similar to how online degrees were perceived two decades ago, some are critical about the quality of non-degree programs, despite a lack of evidence to support a systematic problem. The findings from [UPCEA's] research show that organizational leaders value microcredentials and non-degree programming but are often unaware of them. Those that are aware agree that quality can be addressed with greater collaboration between employers and higher education."

'Tackable' Credentials Complement Liberal Arts Degrees

Let me add my own term to the growing nontraditional degree lexicon: "Tackable."

For some students, it makes sense to begin their educational journey with a certificate. That's what Brigham Young University's "Pathway Worldwide" proposes through its "Certificate First" approach, encouraging students to move from a certificate program to an associate degree to a bachelor's, all while making career progress and boosting earnings.

But what if you're already in a bachelor's degree program, particularly one in the liberal arts and humanities, and want to improve your job prospects? You might consider earning a certificate along with your degree, one that's not necessarily stackable but certainly is tackable.

At Temple University, students in the College of Liberal Arts can choose among 20 certificates in fields such as cybersecurity, geographic information systems, and Arabic.

Wayne State University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recently added a certificate in cannabis chemistry to sweeten the pot for students hoping to blaze a career in this budding field.

Sacred Heart University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, offers students certificates in computer gaming, coding, database design, paralegal studies, and even play therapy.

A survey conducted by Quest Research and Kaplan found that employers were four times as likely to hire an English major with a credential in cybersecurity than one without.

"We don't want to lose the richness of the liberal arts," John Petillo, Sacred Heart's president, told The Hechinger Report. "At the same time, we want to prepare you for life out there."

Not surprisingly, both the demand for and supply of alternative, stackable credentials promise to continue growing. Several states, from Indiana to New Jersey to Virginia to Louisiana, have launched initiatives to expand nontraditional educational offerings to meet workforce needs.

"Change may come slowly, but it is happening," Omer Riaz, vice president for strategy, corporate development, and innovation at Jenzabar, wrote on University Business. "We're at the start of a movement demanded by students and businesses alike. As the call for stackable degrees grows, institutions should prepare to meet the demand."