Stackable Credentials Are Worth the Effort

By Tim Harmon

What’s a “stackable” credential? Are they truly valuable? Is it worth the effort for community colleges to develop them? In a word: yes.

CLASP strongly supports career pathways that help low-income and lower-educated workers get well-paying jobs that are in demand. Many career pathways use shorter-term credentials that can be earned all at once or more slowly over time. These credentials “stack,” building toward a longer-term credential like an associate’s degree.

The credentials are stackable because each one includes courses required for the associate’s degree. That means students don’t have to retake any coursework to meet their degree requirements. In theory, stackable credentials enable students to complete a degree by building toward it in increments. Stackable credentials are also valuable to employers because students can more quickly qualify for jobs that are in demand locally or regionally.

Dr. Sandra Kiddoo, vice president of academics at Mid-State Technical College, Wisconsin Rapids Campus, used data on Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) students enrolled in 2008 to examine two research questions:

  • Does enrollment in a stacked credential program increase associate’s degree completion?
  • For students enrolled in a stacked credential model, what is the relationship between students’ initial selection of program pathways and their eventual credential completion?

For the first question, Dr. Kiddoo compared students who enrolled in a program with stacked credentials to students who enrolled in a program that did not have stacked credentials. She found that “students enrolled in a stacked credential model are neither more likely nor less likely to complete an associate[‘s] degree.” Historically, some experts have worried the model might encourage students to leave their associate’s programs before they otherwise would have. However that wasn’t the case with the students studied by Dr. Kiddoo.

For the second question, Dr. Kiddoo focused only on those students enrolled in a program with stacked credentials, comparing those who enrolled first in the technical diploma (the stacked credential) with those students who did not initially enroll in the technical diploma. She found that “students who enroll first in a technical diploma are likely to complete an AAS, suggesting warming up.” In other words, these students came to believe the degree credential was valuable and were more likely to pursue one than students who did not begin with the stackable credential.

In 2014, Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) leaders created an Embedded Technical Diploma and WTCS Pathway Certificate Recognition Process to allow embedded, industry-valued credentials within existing AA or AAS degrees. Importantly, in WTCS, ”stackable credentials” exist in defined pathways. But in other systems, the term is much looser. In CCRC’s recent study, ‘stackable’ only meant a postsecondary credential plus another sub-degree award that may or may not exist within a defined pathway.

The onus should be on postsecondary systems and institutions to wholly embed credentials within longer pathways. That way, each credential has labor market value and the ability to ‘stack’ completely into the next postsecondary award.

While further research into more mature stackable credential models is needed, these initial results from WTCS are encouraging. Stackable credential offerings in WTCS colleges have increased from 50 to 350 over the past four years, as colleges work with their Career Pathway Steering Committees on a cross-functional basis to consider how stackable credentials can fit into each college’s program offerings. States, community colleges, and local workforce boards shouldn’t be afraid to embrace stackable credentials as part of a robust career pathways system.