Building Degrees – Attracting Students

Stackable Credentials

In the dynamic landscape of today’s higher education, many colleges are grappling with declining enrollment figures. Traditional degree programs, once considered the gold standard of post-secondary education, are now being challenged by the evolving demands of the job market and the diverse needs of modern students. The solution, arguably, may lie in exploring the potential of stackable credentials.

Stackable credentials are a series of certificates or awards that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications. They allow students to earn credentials in incremental steps and provide a pathway to higher levels of education or career advancement. Each credential is a stepping stone, a building block leading towards a more comprehensive degree. This system allows for flexibility and adaptability, catering to those who may not have the time, resources, or inclination to commit to a full degree program at once.

Colleges struggling with enrollment can leverage the power of stackable credentials. By offering these credentials, colleges can attract a wider range of students, including working adults, part-time students, and those seeking to upskill or reskill in response to job market demands. Stackable credentials can provide a more accessible entry point for these individuals, offering them the opportunity to gain valuable qualifications without the daunting commitment of a full degree program.

Growth of Stackable Credentials

In recent years, there has been growth in the offering of stackable credentials as nontraditional academic programs. Traditional universities and nontraditional providers alike are providing courses, certificates, microcredentials, badges, and licenses, all presumably stackable in the service of educational and career advancement. The demand for and supply of alternative, stackable credentials are expected to continue growing.

  • Seventeen 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.
  • Several states, including Indiana, New Jersey, Virginia, and Louisiana, have launched initiatives to expand nontraditional educational offerings to meet workforce needs.
  • In Ohio, there has been rapid growth in certificate programs offered by colleges, and students who completed certificates in colleges with more credential options were more likely to re-enroll and stack credentials.
  • Enrollment in the stackable information technology bachelors program offered by Western Governors University has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.
  • The number of students taking microcredential programs from edX, the online course provider created by MIT and Harvard, has also increased.

The implementation of stackable credentials has used several approaches:

1.    Embedding Short-Term Credentials into Degree Programs. This approach is a practical way of helping students progress along the education continuum while earning credentials with labor market value. By organizing programs into a series of certificates that build on each other, colleges can offer incremental milestones on the path to degree completion. This approach also aligns with industry credentials, making it easier to award credit for prior learning and enabling individuals to make quicker progress towards college credentials.

2.    Certificates Leading to Degrees. This approach provides a more accessible entry point into college, preparing the student for employment upon completion of the given stackable module. It offers flexibility and enhances employability skills, validating knowledge while also increasing employment opportunities. It also suggests that students who begin with a stackable credential are more likely to pursue a degree than those who do not.

3.    Microcredentials. The offering of over 500 stackable microcredentials by the State University of New York (SUNY) system is an example of a large-scale effort to rethink credentialing through alternative approaches. These microcredentials, designed in collaboration with industry partners, provide a wide range of options for students to improve their position in the labor market.

4.    Industry-Specific Pathways. The initiative by Colorado’s Department of Higher Education to develop 10 stackable credential pathways across high-growth fields by 2026 is an example of a strategic, industry-focused approach. This approach involves collaboration with government agencies and industry stakeholders, ensuring that the credentials offered are relevant and valuable in the current job market.

5.    Career-Specific Programs. Universities like BYU-Pathway Worldwide are creating pathways of stackable credentials that lead to a degree. These pathways allow students to earn while they learn, which can be key to eventually completing a degree. This approach can help not only people who need credentials quickly to reenter the workforce, but also reduce the number of people who leave college before finishing.

 Barriers to Offering Stackable Credentials

The implementation and use of stackable credentials are not without challenges.

1.    Regulatory Constraints. State laws and regulations can pose a barrier to the implementation of stackable credentials. For instance, some states may restrict certain types of academic credentials, such as four-year colleges offering associate degrees. This can limit the flexibility of institutions in designing and offering stackable credentials, and may require legislative changes to fully realize the potential of this approach.

2.    Financial Constraints. One of the main barriers to building stackable credential programs is the need for more funding. These programs are often built in fields like healthcare, engineering technology, and information technology, which require expensive equipment that must be updated as technology advances. They also require a pool of qualified faculty who can receive competitive wages from the industry.

3.    Lack of Financial Aid. Most colleges do not offer financial aid for stackable credentials since students won’t be enrolled full-time or in a degree-seeking program. This can be a significant barrier for students who cannot afford to pay for these programs out of pocket.

4.    Variety and Confusion. The variety of stackable credentials such as certificates, microcredentials, and badges can confuse students. Both traditional universities and online program managers offer various types of programs, and navigating these options can be challenging for students.

5.    Data Limitations. A central challenge is that the data around short-form programs are often inadequate or lacking in detail. This can make it difficult to assess the effectiveness of these programs and to include them in federal financial aid programs.

6.    Alignment with Noncredit and Credit Systems. There are barriers between noncredit and credit systems that need to be addressed to encourage more stacking. States are working to align reporting requirements across noncredit and credit programs, provide guidance on how to bridge funding across programs, and tie funding and accountability to college enrollment and earning of multiple credentials.

Opportunity for Collaboration

These challenges may make the implementation of a stackable credential strategy beyond the capability of an institution especially smaller colleges and universities. Fortunately, the modular nature of stackable credentials makes them ideal for cooperation between institutions. Colleges can form alliances, pooling their resources and specialties to offer a broader range of credentials. This may include all or part of entire state college systems or state independent college associations. This can be particularly beneficial for smaller colleges, allowing them to expand their offerings and reach without the need for substantial investment.

Stackable credentials also offer a compelling answer to the question of relevance. With the job market evolving at a rapid pace, traditional degree programs can sometimes struggle to keep up. Stackable credentials, on the other hand, can be more easily updated or modified, allowing colleges to respond quickly to industry trends and demands.

Furthermore, by leading to a degree, stackable credentials can offer students a clear, achievable pathway to higher education. This can be a powerful tool in boosting enrollment, as it allows colleges to engage students who might initially be hesitant about committing to a full degree program. Over time, as students accumulate credentials and see the tangible benefits of their education, they may be more inclined to continue their studies.

Stackable credentials offer a promising avenue for colleges struggling with enrollment. By exploring this approach, either independently or in cooperation with other institutions, colleges can expand their reach, enhance their relevance, and provide a flexible, accessible pathway to higher education.

Building degrees – attracting students. – by Robin Capehart (

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