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The Importance of Stackable Certificates

Stackable credentials provide substantial benefits for both non-traditional students and higher education institutions, but must overcome questions about quality before more institutions add stackable programs. Photo by Silver John.

The following interview is with Amy Hyams, the Commissioner of the International Association of Continuing Education and Training. Hyams recently presented on the disruptive power of non-credit stackable skills at the Association of Continuing Higher Education’s 2012 Annual Conference and Meeting. In the interview, Hyams expands on how higher education institutions can take advantage of this new type of career and workforce development, how adult students benefit from the existence of stackable professional certificates and what the challenges to adopting this disruptive certification are.

1. What is a stackable credential?

The stackable credential concept really came from more of a demand in higher education that students were able to develop some career-related skills and there was a push that degrees weren’t necessarily giving students the workforce skills that they needed. So there was a trend toward getting professional certificates and credentials that would lead directly to employment.

What happened over time is that students would walk away with the singular credential, and then when the economy changed or job opportunities changed they would be back where they started from with a skill or credential that was no longer relevant.

Then there was a push toward stackable credentials where individual credentials from different industries or content areas would connect to each other, so a student would have a more well-rounded education, transferable workforce skills and they could become more resilient if there was a downturn in the economy or their jobs were outdated or eliminated.

2. How do non-credit stackable professional certificates make higher education more accessible for working adults?

The non-credit and certificates are really key and I’m really excited for the industry to see the increase in popularity. What we recognize is that generations ago, people would get an education and job training and they would stay in their jobs until they retired. But we don’t see that happening anymore; people change jobs regularly so they need to continue to further their education and maintain their skill-sets and their employability. Typically, in a higher education institution, to get into a degree program and to get a degree, a certificate or diploma, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of barriers to access. But on the non-credit side of the house—continuing education, outreach or lifelong learning department—they are more welcoming to these students, and students that haven’t been in the classroom for a long time and returning adult students would feel more comfortable coming back into a non-credit environment and it would help not only expand access, but it would help those students feel more confident in their ability to learn and more comfort in the classroom.

From my perspective, I believe that the non-credit arm of the institution and these non-credit professional certificates really meet the needs of the adult learner; the scheduling is more flexible and open to working adults with lives and families.

Back to your question, the stackable certificates apply those same principles as a stackable credential to allow students to get multiple certificates, multiple learning opportunities and experiences to continue their education, but without having to go through all the bureaucracies and overcome the barriers that the credit side of the institution might have posed for them.

3. What are the advantages for institutions who develop stackable skill programs?

They’re really contributing positively to the development of the workforce in their community, and I think that’s really important for community and economic development. Another benefit that I see and which I realized working at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is students that come back to a university or community college through a non-credit certificate program quite often are the motivated and inspired and have the confidence to then come back and get another degree and further their education. So we see it almost as a feeder into the main institution where students come through a non-credit environment, and then the barriers are down and then they feel more confident and think “I want to go back and get a Master’s degree or a doctoral degree”.

What we’ve also discovered is that it really helps with communities apart from the institution. For people in my community in Las Vegas, the primary industry is gaming and hospitality and the support for a university wasn’t strong in the community. Through the non-credit programs and these professional certificates, the relationship between the institution and the business and residents in the community gets stronger, and support for the institution gets stronger as well. So I really see that the students, and the institution and the community benefits from these kinds of programs and relationships.

4. Why do you think colleges and universities have been slow in adopting and offering this disruptive style of certification?

With all due respect to… universities, I think larger bureaucracies like that are typically slow to change, just from principle. But I think the other side of it is some of the professionals and representatives from institutions that don’t necessarily have that experience with adult students and programs would see non-credit certificate programs as a competitor or something that might take away from revenues for the traditional part of the campus.

I think that the research and data will show that that’s not the case; a student doesn’t necessarily make a decision between going to a non-credit program and enrolling as a Master’s degree student. They’re not making those kinds of decisions, but I think the perception is it’s going to take away students from the credit programs.

Another issue that has affected the adoption of these programs is, to be honest, in non-credit programs there aren’t national standards or international standards or accreditation—typically—that oversee the quality of these programs. So there’s a bit of skepticism as to whether they are quality learning experiences and I think there is some validity to that.

I think that the push for employment and job standards is shifting and imposing some quality standards on those programs, but traditionally there was none and I think that was problematic. So the faculty and administration that were running the credit department were a bit wary of these non-credit programs. So that puts the onus on us to make sure those non-credit programs still meet standards of quality. …

5. What do you think it’s going to take for stackable certificates to gain popularity in the future?

I think if it’s going to happen, there’s going to have to be push from a few different directions.  One, I think that the employers that are in communities with universities and community colleges are going to demand it. I think they need to demand it, they need to say “you’re not producing students with the skills we need to support our workforce”, and when that happens they’re going to go look elsewhere for people to employ and that has a negative effect on a community.

I think that the other push is going to come from students who are going to go seeking alternative education sources which there are an abundance of now, through online access and the internet. I think students are not getting what they need at their local community college or university and there are now other competitors out there. There are for-profit and private institutions that will then get control of that market, so to speak, so that might make the institutions open their eyes and I see that happening already. They’re recognizing that they’re losing students to this other type of educational provider. I think that additional pressure comes from our government… that’s going to say “we’re not going to provide financial aid” or “we’re not going to fund programs that aren’t leading to these credentials or stackable skills that make sure students and residents and community members can acquire…and support themselves and their families”. I think that the people who are offering these programs and certificates will have to be willing to really look at their programs and make sure they’re meeting quality standards and can face the scrutiny of regulatory bodies or accreditation agencies to make sure that they are quality educational experiences that are serving the students and business and industry properly.

It’s an interesting problem and challenge, but it’s certainly complex and requires participation from all levels. I think that the biggest push will probably come from the students, who will take their tuition dollars elsewhere if the university or community college doesn’t provide the programs that meet their needs.

6. Anything you have to add about stackable credentials and their impact on adult higher education?

The stackable credentials and certificates, if an institution or training provider is looking at developing those, I would look at identifying some skill sets that are transferable across different employment. … It’s not just specific job-related skills and abilities; it’s character and it’s traits and it’s learning that can be transferred so that the student can take those skills with then, regardless of what industry you’re working in.

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