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Stackable credentials are a top priority for many states and colleges these days. The term can be used to mean different things, from college efforts to embed short-term credentials into their degree programs to larger-scale efforts to rethink the way credentialing is done through alternative approaches, like skills badges. The goals of these initiatives are twofold: (1) to ensure individuals can get credit for a range of different learning experiences and better integrate these different types of learning, and (2) to better align our education and training systems with workforce needs, which often require reskilling through training and credentials below the bachelor’s degree level.

More than one million individuals earn college certificates in the U.S. each year (i.e., credentials that require less than two years of coursework). Many of the students who earn these certificates go on to stack credentials. In Colorado and Ohio, more than 40 percent of students who earned a certificate between 2006 and 2015 went on to stack credentials within four years. In California, 32 percent of the people who earned certificates in 2014 went on to stack credentials. When individuals stack college credentials, they see gains in earnings—this is especially the case when they move on to earn degrees.

To scale stackable credential pathways, states and colleges across the country are taking action. Based on RAND’s work in several states that offer policy and funding to support stackable credentials and our understanding of the national stackable credentials landscape, we highlight five actions that states and colleges are taking to scale stackable credentials.

Five Actions States Are Taking to Scale Stackable Credentials

  1. Defining credentials of value. All credentials are not equal. For example, returns to short-term credentials and stacking vary widely across different fields and types of credentials. Some states are engaged in efforts to define credentials of value and provide clear guidance to institutions on which credentials offer value to students. State frameworks for credential quality (for example, this Non-Degree Credential Quality framework from Rutgers) tend to emphasize value in the labor market, stackability and the degree to which a credential conveys a set of knowledge and skills clearly and credibly. State agencies can ensure consistency in which credentials are promoted across the state and may be well positioned to support institutions with labor market analysis and resources on quality credentials.
  2. Providing funding to support credentials of value. We asked policy makers and practitioners in two states about barriers to building stackable credential programs, and many of their responses boiled down to a need for more money. Stackable credential programs are commonly built in fields like health care, engineering technology and information technology, which require expensive equipment that must be updated as technology advances and draw on a limited pool of qualified faculty who can receive competitive wages from the industry. College efforts to link and embed programs, align curricula with industry, and design learner-centered programs can also be costly. To fund stackable programs, some states are providing institutions with program start-up funding and dedicated funding for equipment or faculty costs. States are also starting to incorporate certificates into formula funding, which provides colleges with money each time a student earns a certificate. Some states have even created financial aid programs that provide students with help to cover the costs of tuition for short-term programs, which often aren’t covered by federal financial aid.
  3. Streamlining credit for prior learning through statewide or systemwide articulation policies. Many colleges have policies in place to award credit to students who hold industry credentials and military experience. However, these opportunities are often underutilized because the policies are confusing to navigate, often require costly assessments and burdensome paperwork, and policies often differ from institution to institution. Florida and Ohio, however, are streamlining credit for prior learning and now offer common statewide credit for industry credentials. Systems such as the Louisiana Community College and Technical System and Ivy Tech Community College have similar standardized credential policies in place.
  4. Eliminating silos and aligning incentives for skills training and credit-bearing education. While many students earn multiple credit-bearing credentials, very few make the transition from noncredit to credit programs. Beyond credit for prior learning, there are many things states can do to address barriers between noncredit and credit systems and encourage more stacking. For example, states are aligning reporting requirements across noncredit and credit programs, providing guidance on how to bridge funding across programs and tying funding and accountability to college enrollment and earning of multiple credentials.
  5. Spreading the word about the range of education and training options colleges are offering. At a time when many are questioning the value of higher education, stackable credentials may offer an opportunity to convey to the public and to industry how colleges and states are being responsive to their concerns about the limitations and costs of the traditional degree system. Stackable credentials can help to rebrand what a college education is and open up the minds of individuals and employers to community colleges and regional universities as trusted resources for applied training pathways.

Five Actions Colleges Are Taking to Scale Stackable Credentials

  1. Building programs that offer value. It may seem obvious, but the first step is “build it and they will come.” We saw rapid growth in Ohio 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. Stackable credentials offered within the same institution can ensure seamless movement from one program to the next, and most students stack within the same institution. Stackable credential pathways can also span several colleges, and many colleges are engaged in building strong bilateral and state transfer agreements to support these cross-institution pathways. To ensure that the programs offer value, colleges may be subject to state standards around credentials of value, and colleges can gather evidence from industry partners and prospective students to assess the value of the credential in the local context. New programs also must be financially sustainable, so college leaders will need to weigh the costs of developing new programs against these benefits.
  2. Embedding short-term credentials into longer-term credential programs. In Ohio more than two-thirds of health-care and IT certificate programs offered at colleges reported aligning their programs with industry certifications and licenses. When colleges make the effort to align their programs with industry credentials, it also makes it easier to award credit for prior learning so that individuals who already hold the industry credential get partial credit and can more quickly make progress toward college credentials. And we know from the research that stacking to the degree level leads to the highest wage gains, which also helps close income gaps. In Ohio, 38 percent of health-care certificate programs and 63 percent of IT certificate programs reported embedding these shorter-term credentials into degree programs.
  3. Working closely with learners and industry to develop realistic pathways. The initial vision for stackable credentials was one of a learner moving between education and full-time employment, earning credentials throughout a career as needed. But in reality, many students who stack credentials stay enrolled continuously, and many work while enrolled, but few are moving in and out of college programs throughout a career. Some institutions have recognized the importance of getting students through quickly and have invested in intensive programs that do just that. One such program at Lorain County Community College offers 15-month associate degree programs. However, more intensive programs may require individuals to take more time off work, which may be less appealing to employers and working individuals. Colleges should talk with prospective students and their employers to understand how best to structure programs that meet employed students’ needs.
  4. Clearly communicating the connection between stackable credentials and careers. Very few individuals understand the full range of options that colleges offer and how different credentials map onto each other. When college programs are hard to navigate, they can turn prospective students off and keep them from enrolling. Colleges must take the lead in telling a clear story about what they offer and how these credentials can be stacked to prepare for better jobs and careers. And they must find a way to tell this story to individuals with limited time and interest. One resource that can be valuable to telling this story is a pathways map with visuals that help to convey how programs/credentials are linked, what types of jobs programs lead to and sometimes which courses need to be taken to get to where students aim to go in their career. Colleges can also provide proactive advising to students to support informed program selection and re-enrollment when students first enroll and when they are nearing completion of college.
  5. Providing comprehensive student supports. The individuals who enroll in short-term programs tend to be older, working adults and often have lower incomes than those who enroll in degree programs. It is important to ensure that these programs offer financial support to cover tuition costs and resources to support basic needs like food, childcare and housing. Employers may help to shoulder some of these costs through tuition assistance programs. Ivy Tech’s Achieve Your Degree program is an example of an effort to build shared responsibility for supporting students and employees between colleges and employers. It is also important to ensure that individuals can receive support as they move across different programs and credentials. Studies have shown that many noncredit students lack access to basic student services, like tutoring and counseling—the same services that are commonly afforded to college enrollees.

Many states and colleges are already investing to build out stackable credential pathways, and there are many resources state and colleges can access—such as the Credential As You Go playbooks and the Stackability Guide—that offer more detailed guidance on scaling stackable credentials. It will be important to continue to build evidence on whether these programs are achieving their aims of improved economic circumstances for individuals and better addressing workforce needs.

Lindsay Daugherty is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, a researcher for RAND’s Lowy Family Middle Class Pathways Center and a faculty member at Pardee RAND Graduate School. She is leading studies on short-term and stackable credentials in Colorado, Indiana and Ohio. Jonah Kushner is an assistant policy researcher at RAND and a Ph.D. student at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He contributed several stackable credential studies at RAND and works on a range of topics related to labor economics, postsecondary education and the future of work. Peter Nguyen is a policy researcher at RAND. He has expertise on the implementation of postsecondary initiatives across diverse settings and led the qualitative research on actions states can take to stackable credential pathways in Colorado and Ohio. Peter Bahr is a nationally recognized scholar and expert on community colleges, student outcomes and economic mobility. His research focuses on the role of community colleges and other nonselective or minimally selective public postsecondary institutions in creating and advancing educational and economic opportunities for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, older/adult-age students and marginalized students.

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