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The idea behind stackable credentials is that seamless academic programs -- ranging potentially from six-credit certificates to terminal degrees -- allow students to leave higher education for a job and then return later, with their credits counting toward the next certificate or degree.
However, some worry that stackable pathways could shunt students, particularly those from underserved populations, away from degrees and toward short-term credentials of questionable value.
A new research paper validates some of those worries.
The study examined 11 health care credential pathways that a consortium of nine community colleges in five states created with a 2011 grant of $19.6 million from the federal government. The money was part of $2 billion in workforce development funds the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor distributed in recent years.
On the positive side, researchers found that many of the students who completed a short-term program went on to earn more involved credentials or were still enrolled. And even students who earned minimalist certificates -- 12 credits or fewer -- were more likely to get a job.
However, certificates of 12 credits or fewer did not lead to a raise, the study found. In some cases, such as short-term certificates for certified nursing assistants or community health workers, certificate holders earned less than their peers without a credential.
Those findings raise questions about the labor-market value of brief academic programs, said Matthew Giani, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study, which was published by the Journal of Vocational Education and Training, which is based in the United Kingdom.
“Some of the earning benefits for these short-term credentials are really minimal,” he said.
Also troubling were achievement gaps the study identified. Specifically, 28 percent of white students and 26 percent of students from Asian backgrounds earned either a longer-term certificate or an associate degree, compared to only 17 percent of black students and 16 percent of Latinos.
The gap is concerning in part because white and black students were roughly as likely to earn very short- and short-term certificates (28 percent versus 23 percent, respectively), but black students were less likely to move on to longer-term credentials.
“It is important to continue to monitor whether the short-term programs improve equitable outcomes by giving underrepresented students a novel pathway into longer programs,” the study said, “or whether these programs instead have a diversionary effect on historically underrepresented groups such as students of color and low-income students, given longstanding criticisms of the diversionary effects of sub-baccalaureate education on marginalized populations.”
Giani cautioned against reading too much into the findings, offering caveats about the study’s limitations. He said labor market returns or student persistence might vary across different stackable credential pathways -- in information technology, for example.
In addition, the study stressed that it gives a relatively brief view of students’ longer-term results.
The shortest-term certificates were the most popular among all credentials offered by the participating community colleges, accounting for more than 40 percent of credentials awarded. And while just one in nine participants who earned a short- or very short-term certificate went on to complete a longer-term program during the four years covered by the study, more than 40 percent of those credential earners were still enrolled at the end of the examined period.
“It is possible that the stackable credential strategy was more effective than estimated in this study,” the researchers wrote.
Getting to the Payoff
The health care pathways the study examined were funded by the first wave of the Labor Department grants. Many of the resulting programs were created quickly and included noncredit credentials, said Judy Mortrude, director of the Center for Law and Social Policy’s Alliance for Quality Career Pathways.
“They seemed to be stumbling around,” she said, with a focus on shorter-term, quick-win credentialing. “You had one year to put up a program, get people through and be done.”
Ideally, however, a stackable credential pathway is credit bearing and includes a healthy dose of degrees, said Mortrude. They should be designed with plenty of input from employers, she said, with every credit stacking up to the “parent award.”
Under that approach, Mortrude said there are “on-ramps” for students to go back to college without losing time and money -- and to not be stuck in low-wage job.
Not surprisingly, the study found a higher wage premium for longer-term credentials. An associate degree, which was the highest available in the 11 pathways, paid the most -- an average of $5,952 in annual pay above participants’ previous wages.
Those numbers declined farther down the scale, with a $3,042 pay bump for a short-term certificate and $1,489 for certificates of 12 credits or fewer -- a smaller wage gain than the $1,524 earnings bump for students who earned no credential.
The negligible, or negative, earnings gains for the shortest-term certificates is concerning, said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of New America’s Center on Education and Skills with the Education Policy.
“I don’t think that these results mean that the strategy of stacking credentials is not a good one, but it does point to the need for schools to be aware of the labor market returns of those shorter credentials,” she said via email. “In cases where it is very low, success should be measured by the degree to which they help students persist and earn more valuable credentials.”
However, the shorter credentials examined by the study are for occupations that tend to be low wage, McCarthy said, adding that many low-income women pursue short-term certificates in health care and education.
Indeed, 81 percent of the 4,888 students enrolled in the study’s programs were women. Roughly 71 percent were employed when they began, but their wages were generally quite low -- participants’ median annual earnings at intake was $17,396, which is just above the federal poverty line for a household of two.
That’s one reason stackable pathway designers need to know their target populations, said Mortrude. And they need to work with students to help ensure they eventually earn a credential that leads to a well-paying job. That means having a strategy in place to attempt to “re-engage” students after they complete a credential.
McCarthy said stackability should not be an end in itself, particularly in industries with many low-wage jobs.
“In those cases, stackability needs to contribute to persistence,” she said. If it doesn’t, colleges should spend “more time on ensuring students can succeed on the longer certificate or degree programs.”
“If this is a stepping-stone,” he said of short-term credentials, “they’re really worthwhile.”
The stakes are high. Giani said it’s not an option to ditch stackable credentials, given their potential. But colleges should be honest about their benefits.
“These pathways have to work,” he said. “We just have to be cautious in how we sell them.”