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Stackable Credentials, Learners and Leaders: A Conversation

The EvoLLLution | Stackable Credentials, Learners and Leaders: A Conversation
Increasing numbers of non-traditional students are looking for postsecondary opportunities every day, and institutions need to develop unique and specialized programs designed specifically to suit their needs.

The topic of stackable credentials has been a central topic of conversations focused on the higher education space as of late and there are several questions that are often asked of postsecondary leaders.

First: “Why are so many higher education institutions scrambling to create and improve stackable offerings at their institutions?”

This is a fair question in light of the growing number of schools that are instituting them. You’ll have to understand that businesses are always seeking to hire the best educated and trained individuals they can find, which is why a college degree is so important for an individual to be hired or promoted. Recent research indicates that 85 percent of businesses want a new hire to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

With that in mind, learning institutions want to provide that education to people, but often the challenge is being able to draw in students who don’t have the desire or life ability to take on a structured learning program. Stackable credentials get people into the learning pipeline with credit for what they have learned and provides a pathway for them to attain their degree at their own pace.

Another question that is often asked is, “What are some of the most significant challenges postsecondary leaders face in managing stackable credential programs?”

In truth there are many challenges that educational leaders face in this area. Alignment is one—matching courses to student needs and finding the right instructors to guide learners towards their goals. Motivating students to stay on course is another issue. Non-traditional learners, especially adults, face many barriers that traditional students do not. We have to recognize those issues and find creative ways to encourage such learners to stay the course and not become discouraged, especially if they encounter a setback or they need to step out for a while.

Now, when you attempt to co-mingle traditional and non-traditional learning efforts, there are bound to be issues. So people often wonder what holes get left when one tries to manage a stackable program—and other non-traditional programs like certificate and non-credit offerings—using traditional program management strategies.

One of the big holes is failing to realize that these learners are often coming to the table with a wealth of knowledge that may go unrecognized. That knowledge needs to be appreciated and credited—so you need to develop a means to do so.

There are several ways that adults can obtain credit to validate the knowledge that they’ve already obtained. Organizations such as ACE (American Council on Education), CAEL and others work with entities such as colleges, the military, government, professional associations and industry to assess prior knowledge and skills learned outside of the traditional classroom. They help colleges, for example, identify and define their student population, define policies, and ensure they have planned how they will inform non-traditional learners of this potential avenue. Whether through examination, prior evaluation of training, portfolio assessment or other means, the avenues for use of prior learning offer a vast range of potential credit for adult learners and allow colleges and universities the means to assist them in gaining their college degree.

Once an institution has developed a path for adult learners, it is essential to ensure that they stay on track. This can be done with the help of technology that keeps track of learners’ progress, and alerts them to sign up for courses, but more importantly it is essential to develop close personal relationships between the learners and the institution that encourages and motivates them. This can be done with dedicated advisors, faculty or assigned mentors that understand adults and work closely with them in achieving their goals while maintaining the work-life-education balance.

More importantly, you must develop your faculty to learn to understand and appreciate the special needs that non-traditional learners have. Too often leaders neglect to take that into account and there is a mismatch between learners and instructors.

A few things things need to occur if instructor-adult learner mismatching is to be prevented. First, this can be overcome if learning institutions ensure that instructors partake in professional development programs that enlighten them to the special needs of adult learners. According to Malcolm Knowles, the father of adult education, there are five assumptions about adults that teachers need to understand:

1. Self-concept: As a person matures their self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being

2. Adult Learner Experience: As a person matures they accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

3. Readiness to Learn: As a person matures their readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of their social roles.

4. Orientation to Learning: As a person matures their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly their orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness.

5. Motivation to Learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn becomes internal.[1]

Additionally, institutions need to allow flexibility for their instructors in interacting with their adult students, as well as flexibility in course development that could allow students to make use of their prior knowledge or perhaps apply assignments to a real-life need or setting.

And that poses the follow-up question that is often asked: “How do you and your colleagues overcome these obstacles to deliver a strong student experience in non-traditional programs?”

Frankly, overcoming these obstacles can be troubling to learning institutions that are short on experience with non-traditional students. They will have to develop from the ground up a program that meets the needs of non-traditionals, especially adult learners. They will need to develop programs that meet those needs, assemble a staff of knowledgeable and qualified instructors, provide guidance to ensure that learners stay on the rails and establish credibility in the academic community. Excelsior College has for decades supported the non-traditional learner going back to when the school was first organized by New York State as Regents College. Then, as now, the school motto has been “It’s what you know, not where you learned it that matters.” The programs and staff at the college are geared towards the support of non-traditionals, which provides the college with a distinct advantage over new arrivals at the educational table. The stackable credentials program at the college provides a seamless path for learners to gain the knowledge they seek to meet their needs and arrive at their own pace with a terminal degree.

The business community is constantly seeking to increase the level of knowledge in their organizations through new hires or through existing members who are developing their skill base. With that as a driving force, educational institutions can expect a steady increase in the number of non-traditional students seeking to re-educate themselves. There are many alternatives to providing this knowledge and stackable credential programs are a viable alternative when assisting learners in advancing their careers and lives.

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[1] Christopher Pappas, “The Adult Learning Theory – Androgogy – of Malcolm Knowles,” eLearning Industry, May 9, 2013. Accessed at