Published on 2020/01/21

The EvoLLLution | Start Stacking: A Conscious Approach to Addressing Skills Gaps
With stackable credentials, colleges are able to better serve the needs of their students, communities and the local workforce.

Stackable credentials are becoming increasingly popular as workforce demands evolve faster than traditional education. Community colleges have always been intent on finding ways to best serve their communities. Stackable credentialing provides an opportunity for colleges to take the lead in addressing local skills gaps. In this interview, Todd Oldham discusses stackable programming and the impact community colleges can have on their workforce communities by adapting this approach.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is a stackable program?

Todd Oldham (TO): Put simply, a stackable program is a curriculum that has been designed to provide a progression of credentials, typically beginning from short-term certificates ascending up to college degrees in a specific field of study.

As a conceptual framework, stackable programs offer several benefits to the learner, including providing a more accessible entry point into college which by our definition directly prepares the student for employment upon completion of the given stackable module. Because of this, stackability—as a curriculum design—works well for adult learners who are working full time and seeking to upskill their skillset but can’t sustain the longer track of study that tends to characterize the traditional academic offering. Time tends to be the enemy of completion. Life circumstances may prevent a student from being able to successfully persist through a longer more traditionally designed program of study. Modularizing a longer educational path into a series of shorter sequences can help “stack the deck” in favor of the student achieving a point of completion.

Evo: How do stackable programs benefit employers?

TO: If a stackable set of curricula is designed with strong input from industry, the end point of a stackable sequence should align to available jobs with local employers. When active labor linking is incorporated within the design of a stackable program, stackability can be a powerful tool in addressing a region’s workforce development goal of creating more skilled workers for select sectors in support of their economy.

Evo: How do community colleges benefit from offering stackable programming?

TO: The mission of the community college is to serve the educational needs of residents and businesses that make up their community. Incorporating stackable programming into the overall catalog of academic and non-credit programming provides the learner with more on- and off-ramps along an associate’s degree pathway. Ultimately the stackable framework of programming broadens the value that a community college can provide its community and serves as another tool that supports the workforce development mission of the institution.

Evo: What are the characteristics of a highly effectively stackable program?

TO: Effective stackable programs ideally should fit into a framework where each sequence has the ability to ladder or stack into another level of curriculum, with each level having some potential to increase the wage and employment opportunity for the student as they accumulate more competencies relevant to a given career pathway.

Evo: Why should college leaders ensure employers are involved in the design process for a stackable credential program?

TO: A critical element of the stackable credential as a concept is that the amount of competency and skills contained within the curriculum is adequately aligned to the needs of employers and the job roles the employers are seeking workers to hire. Stackability as a conceptual framework works because the end point of a sequence of courses is substantial enough to the market that it allows the learner to pause their education and enter the workplace with relevant skillsets, at a higher wage with the certificate or credential than without having earned it. The only way this alignment between the modularization of a given educational pathway and a threshold of wage gain can be designed is with strong input from local business and industry regarding the progression that makes up a given career pathway. That strong partnership and relationship with industry allows the institution to understand how to modularize a given curriculum into the finite number of breakpoints of accumulated competency and skillsets representing meaningful thresholds of wage gain. These wage gains are based on increased levels of knowledge, skills and abilities for the worker. In simplistic terms, stackability for the workforce practitioner is really about designed upskilling of the student/worker along a career pathway through partnership with industry.

Evo: What tips and best practices would you share with other community college leaders looking to launch their own stackable credentials?

TO: Know your audience and study the labor market needs of your local economy with an eye to how they can be addressed through your credit and non-credit programming. This insight will help determine opportunities for designing stackability within new curriculum and revising existing curriculum into stackable segments. An important way this can be done is by getting clear on what occupations in the local market are aligned to your workforce-focused education and training programs. Understanding the demand and reason for that demand, with strong employer input, is the first step in being able to launch a data-informed stackable framework. A second important point is steering the ongoing conversations academic and outreach staff are having with employers to understand more deeply how employers practice compensating their workers at different levels of competency and educational attainment.

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