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Stackable, Trackable & Packable: Students Need Moveable Credentials That Mean Something Now

The demand for stackable credentials will continue to grow in coming years, and higher education institutions that can adapt quickly will be positioned to meet this shared need from both employers and learners.
The demand for stackable credentials will continue to grow in coming years, and higher education institutions that can adapt quickly will be positioned to meet this shared need from both employers and learners.

Some 34 million Americans have earned college credits that they have not been able to convert into sheepskins. As these former students enter their prime working years, which coincide with the period when they start their families, the prospect of converting those credits into completed degrees becomes even more remote. Life gets in the way of finishing a college degree, yet the importance of crossing that threshold has never been greater: The lifetime earnings of individuals with a Bachelor’s degree are 84% higher than those with only a high school diploma. That degree is worth $2.8 million on average.   

Of course, “life” is here to stay, and we need to provide educational options that can meld into the rhythm of the working parent’s world accordingly.  That probably doesn’t look like the traditional brick and mortar college and may not even resemble a full-time online program.  More likely, stackable credentials fit the bill.  

What are Stackable Credentials?

Smaller, chunkier credentials—positive markers students can take with them anywhere—prove what they know and show employers that they are ready to apply their knowledge in a workplace setting. Those qualifications may be individual course credits, a certificate or a micro-degree obtained either as a standalone pursuit or undertaken while working for a living.

Some credentials are just building blocks and others are self-contained, but all are transferable and facilitate upward career mobility by sharpening a resume.   

Microcredentials Offer a Faster Path from Education to Workforce

A microcredential program can be extremely short—lasting as short as two months—and is designed to immediately upskill employees or jobseekers, imparting a concentrated burst of knowledge on a useful topic without requiring them to put their entire life on hold for the experience. 

The stackable one- and two-year online degree program offered by Vincennes University in partnership with Purdue University’s Cyber Apprenticeship Program, is a good example. It takes students for deep dives into topics like coding and algorithm development, with practical application of knowledge starting right away alongside learning. Upon completion, students in Vincennes’ programs have the option to transfer that credential to Purdue University and work towards a Bachelor’s or Master’s.  But they can also walk straight into a high-demand job market because they have already unlocked much of the skill and knowledge needed to qualify for employment.   

A shorter example with immediate payoff to practitioners of project management is agile certification.  UMass Global provides a 19-hour program that demonstrates mastery of this industry recognized software skill that improves efficiency in the delivery of services by emphasizing continuous processing.  Managers who are already working around the clock can fit this short course in, even if it takes them several months to find those hours. The result is high-quality training with an immediate payoff in the workplace, including opportunities for promotion that depend on honing these skills.  

Fast, immediately transferable, practical—these are the hallmarks of a strong stackable program. And with the current employment landscape, this kind of credential couldn’t be more valuable. The traditional higher education model, as many have previously opined, makes the most sense for professions that persist for a lifetime. Yet we all know that model is becoming less and less ubiquitous. The average person will hold around twelve jobs in their lifetime. Short-term, focused learning can be the ticket in a fast-moving landscape like this, enabling workers to move up internally in firms that need those skills or switch into a fast-growing sector.    

The urgent realities of today—fewer available jobs, less financial wiggle room and more overall economic risk—means the demand for stackable programs will continue to grow. In fact, the demand for this modality—even since the beginning of the pandemic—has been booming. Microcredential provider edX, for example, saw a fourteen-fold increase in people taking its programs between March and April of 2020. Although it’s inappropriate to look at the pandemic as a time of opportunity, it’s fair to say that the institutions that get this paradigm shift right will be among the winners of the era—winners because they will be offering a solution to a very real need facing millions of students: faster pathways from education to the workforce. 

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