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Bringing Stackable Credentials into Graduate Degree Programs

The EvoLLLution | Bringing Stackable Credentials into Graduate Degree Programs
Stackable credentials are gaining popularity and growing in use, but program leaders must keep an eye on quality and relevance to maintain their value.

Understanding Stackable Credentials

If you work with adults in higher education, you have likely heard the buzz about stackable credentials. It is a popular topic at conferences and in industry literature, and the internet has a plethora of posts about how these programs might be the new panacea to right-size education to match industry needs. And we in higher education are not the only ones interested in this topic. The U.S. Department of Education (2018) released their latest Stackable Credentials Tool Kit to assist community and technical colleges in creating additional pathways for these layered programs. [i]

The U.S. Department of Labor has even defined the term “stackable credential” as “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.”[ii]

The idea behind these types of credentials is to provide adult, working students with the opportunity to move quickly through the educational process by learning skills that are applicable to the workforce. The credentials can then be stacked together in a series to eventually meet the standards of a traditional degree program. In many ways, this fits perfectly into the idea of adult learning theory whereby adult students learn best by being able to apply their experiences to learn relevant skills.

How Are Stacks Organized?

The most common form of stacking is described as vertical stacking. This is not a new concept as most educational systems across the world have some sort of vertical hierarchy of stacking. In the United States, a high school diploma or GED is often the first step towards a trade school, a two-year, or four-year degree program. After completing a four-year degree, a student might then pursue advanced graduate work. Horizontal stacking is a newer, more job-focused type of stacking. In horizontal stacking, a student earns credentials across a field or industry and not necessarily in a specific order. This type of stacking is common in the IT field. A third type of stacking, called value-added stacking, is where students combine vertical and horizontal stacking that puts specific skill sets together to lead toward a job. This type of stacking is more common in health professions.[iii]

Best Practices In Forming Stacks 

Regardless of the type of stacking, it is vital that the concept of value is at the forefront of the curriculum forming process. Palmer (2010) advises us to design stackable credentials with the employer in mind and the specific skills and competencies most desired in the workplace.[iv]

In a 2018 EvoLLLution piece, Joann Kozyrev asks us to consider how stackable credentials offer value to students, employers, society, and educational institutions.[v] If these types of programs are going to be worthwhile, they must provide “pathways” for the student to add value to the workforce.

While most of the literature in this area has focused on technical education, it should not be overlooked that stackable credentials could also be applied to traditional bachelor’s programs and master’s programs. After all, if students are able to achieve success in a two-year program, why couldn’t they be able to continue to use this ladder-step process to earn a four-year degree or a master’s degree?

Stacking Credentials for Graduate Education

At the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, the College of Business and Health Administration has successfully re-designed four graduate programs that each provide vertical stackable certificates for students. Each program allows students to begin in a certificate “mini” program that leads to a master’s program. The certificate offers a credential, recognized by the Department of Education, and offers the students a specific skill set that can lead to employment. For example, the Data Analyst Certificate program provides a specific course of study that is heavily focused in data mining, business intelligence, enterprise resource computing, and forecasting and econometrics. These skill sets are directly applicable to data analyst job descriptions. Likewise, the Performance Improvement Certificate program offers in depth study in the areas of change management, strategic planning, talent management, needs analysis, instructional design and project management. These skills are applicable to a management analyst position across many fields. Other certificate programs include: Accounting, Finance, Human Resource Management, Instructional Design, Logistics, and Training and Development. In healthcare, certificates are available in: Data Science in Health Care, Population Health, Quality Improvement in Health Care and Management of Long-Term Care.

Each certificate program leads toward the completion of a master’s degree. Depending on the pathway chosen, a student can continue on for a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), a Master’s of Science in Management (MSM), a Master’s of Science in Healthcare Administration (MSHA), or a Master’s of Science in Training and Development. If a student earns a certificate (12 credit hours), they can apply this directly to the master’s program. Typically, the certificate coursework is the concentration area of the master’s degree program.


Stackable credentials are valuable for students and employers as they provide the opportunity to learn skills directly applicable to current or future work. This is relevant at all levels of education, including at the graduate level. A traditional master’s degree might take two or three (or more) years to complete. A graduate certificate can be earned in about two semesters, or quicker depending on course scheduling. For students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree and are seeking a new, faster career pathway, a stackable graduate certificate might be the perfect direction to continue their educational journey.



[i] U.S. Department of Education (US DOE). (2018). Stackable credentials tool kit. Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from:

[ii] U.S. Department of Labor (US DOL). (2010, December 15). Training and employment guidance letter 15-10. Washington, D.C.: Employment and Training Administration. Retrieved from:

[iii] Williamson, J. & Pittinsky, M. (2016, May 23). Making credentials matter. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

[iv] Palmer, I. (2015, July 2). Five things to remember when building stackable credentials. The EvoLLLution. Retrieved from:

[v] Kozyrev, J. (2018, October 30). Stackable credentials: Defining their value. The EvoLLLution. Retrieved from:

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