Published on 2016/05/10

Understanding and Responding to the Need for Stackable Programming

Co-written with Kim Chiu | Interim Director of Career and Technical Education, Utah Valley University

The EvoLLLution | Understanding and Responding to the Need for Stackable Programming
Stackable credentials provide numerous benefits to students, employers and institutions but successfully delivering these types of programs relies on a strong advising and support culture from the institution.

Today’s students are diverse and have grown up with the ability to choose from a variety of options at their fingertips. If you just go to any app store, you will find thousands of choices available to anyone. Yet, people like sequences and how things move from one level to another. Processing and programming are sequential, and today’s students understand that. With so many choices available to the youth today, sequencing can help them organize the information so they can make a good decision. Perhaps, their question “what’s next?” should help all of us in higher education.

Consequently, stackable programs are just another “sequence” that students can tangibly get their hands on. Being able to see an actual college and career pathway allows students to capture a road map to their future. Stackable college and career programs literally connect student to college and a career as pathways. Many pathways specifically show students how they can obtain a specific career if they follow a particular pathway. Many pathways, particularly career-technical pathways, focus on how students can move from one level of education to another toward a job. Career and technical pathways gets students quickly into an engaged atmosphere that is relevant to their future career. These stackable pathways create opportunities for students to obtain a job if they decide to stop out at the two-year degree.

Granted, stackable pathways focus more on helping students finish a certificate or a degree, but most institutions are also cognizant that some students may stop out for a variety of reasons—family, job, personal, illness, etc. If a student must stop out for whatever the reason might be, it is important that they leave with the credential they have earned up to that point, whether it be a one-year certificate or a two-year degree. Stackable pathways also allow students to drop back into the pathway once they have been away and continue along the pathway without having to start over.

College and career pathways can also help with retention and persistence with first-generation students. These students do not have anyone at home that can show them how to maneuver the ins and outs of the college experience. They may lack confidence in feeling that they can actually achieve a college degree. A pathway can show them exactly what they need to do and help them take that first step. When they achieve success at the first level, it can give them the confidence to continue on to the next level. Ultimately, they may even finish at a higher degree level than they ever expected.

Another incredible benefit of stackable pathways is that students can begin their pathway in high school through concurrent enrollment. With appropriate advising, students initiate their college careers even before they officially graduate from high school. The sooner students realize what career direction they want to move towards the sooner they can select concurrent enrollment classes to better prepare them for that college program and career.

One example stems from the Academic Learning Center (ALC) in the Nebo School District in Utah, where high school students have the option to enroll in career and college pathways. Three such stackable pathways are available to them: one in computer science (CS), one in information technology (IT), and one in digital media (DGM). The pathways are actual UVU certificates of proficiency they can take while in high school for Concurrent Enrollment credit. These three certificates are perfectly stackable with an associate degree in each of the other areas: CS, IT, DGM. Once they finish the certificates and graduate from high school, they can transition into their respective programs at UVU.

Challenges for Stackable Students

One of the main challenges facing career-technical students (CTE) migrating into more advanced programs is gaining the proficiency to be successful. In many CTE programs, faculty use competency-based programs to ensure students are proficient at a certain level before moving them on. Often, students are focused solely on obtaining that particular level and ultimately understanding that they can continue to the next level.

Perhaps another challenge may hinge on advising. Students arrive on a campus with a certain expectation and often it is not as high as we would like them to achieve. To help promote this, the challenge will be training advisors, counselors, and others to help students see their strengths and help motivate students to transition to the higher level. Advising is a challenging task, particularly when an advisor often has to play the role of counselor and chief motivator. Once advisors understand stackability of degree programs, they can help guide students on how they can achieve their expectations and beyond, one level at a time.

Value of Stackable Programming for the University

Utah Valley University (UVU) benefits from developing and implementing college and career pathways in a variety of ways. First of all, it allows all divisions to relook at how their courses flow from one semester to another and ultimately how they flow through a pathway. At times, students complain that they cannot enroll in a particular course because it was not offered during the semester it was ostensibly published in the catalog. Much of the noise regarding this issue comes from seniors who somehow missed a course or a series of courses. Additionally, some students just see a series of courses in a catalog and wonder how they all fit. Many institutions utilize a scope and sequence to show students how all these courses fit into a four-year program. Creating stackable pathways shows how each and every course stacks with a particular certificate, how the certificate stacks with an associate degree and how an associate degree stacks with a baccalaureate degree. Students see the course, see the pathway, and ultimately understand how everything fits together. Students then become in control of their own path and therefore their own destiny.

Second, for UVU—or any university that implements true college and career pathways—one of the key benefit hinges on knowing which courses we must offer. Once we understand which courses needed to be offered in each pathway, we can then more efficiently monitor our entire sequence of courses. Ultimately, we know which courses are part of the pathway. We then need to utilize our analytics to make sure that we are offering the appropriate courses in subsequent semesters.

Perhaps, one of the most important benefits focuses on students actually completing their certificates and degrees in the appropriate time frames with the appropriate number of credits. Many students currently graduate with way too many credits, and they consequently extend their student loans and time in school. Following a pathway and finishing a degree on time ultimately saves money for the students. Thus, the time and energy higher education institutions expend on completion and persistence programs truly pay off in the end and demonstrate the institutions are doing the right things when it comes to student success. Many parents look for institutions that will help their students graduate.

The Future of Stackable Programming

Stackable programming will continue to grow because it provides incredible benefits for a multitude of people, particularly students, employees and employers. For students, they will be able to finish degrees and certificates within the appropriate time frame. Once students understand and see the overall benefits of following a stackable degree program, they will be able to focus more on what they are studying than what they think they should be studying because they already know exactly what classes they need to take in order to graduate. Their entire degree program, from certificate(s) to associate to baccalaureate programs, will be mapped out and sequenced. Also, if students decide to step out, and they have followed the stackable pathway, then they will be able to step back in when they are ready with little or no repetition of courses if they stay in the same pathway.

For employees, having stackable credentials post-high school and post-baccalaureate degree demonstrates their willingness to enhance their personal and professional skills sets and thus become more valuable to the employer and future employers. Having additional training only make employees stand out from the rest of the applicants.

From the employers’ perspective, they may see similar benefits. Their employees seek additional training that is stackable with their current training, thus enhancing their employees’ skills and propelling them into jobs that may be hard to fill and/or jobs that require that specific skill set. Plus, when employers participate in helping their employees gain these important stackable credentials and even degrees, employees tend to be more loyal, especially if they see enhancements to their jobs and to their pay.

Because the workplace constantly changes, having stackable programming available will create opportunities for employers to meet the ever-increasing changes in the workplace by having the next level in the stackable credential ready for their current and new employees. Plus, when employees are accustomed to moving forward, knowing they will receive the additional job enhancement, they will more readily take the courses leading to the next level.

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