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The Power of Industry-Recognized Stackable Credentials

Stackable credentials have existed in the higher education space for a while but have gained increasing attention as the pandemic has forced leaders to seek ways of making higher education accessible and flexible. Stackable credentials are critical to helping the economy rebound and getting students rehired. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a growing demand for education and training beyond the confines and commitments of traditional multi-year programs. Millions of Americans remain unemployed, and they are desperate to quickly obtain the training, education and credentials they need to find a new foothold in a transformed economy. At the same time, over 60% of Americans say they would now prefer to pursue non-degree options, according to new research from the Strada Education Network. Displaced workers need ways to gain skills that lead to good-paying jobs and find new work quickly. 

One answer to these challenges lies in an educational pathway that is already growing in popularity in the healthcare sector: stackable credentials. These allow learners to progressively simultaneously build economic stability and earn their education by earning a credential that advances their career and adding on more learning as life permits. While stackable credentials are not a wholly new concept, many of the innovations within these pathways are new. Chief among those innovations is embedding certifications and other industry-vetted assessments and awards within short-term credentials.

After all, the goal of stackable credentials isn’t just to create new pathways through education but also to ensure that the knowledge and skills students are developing along the way are aligned with actual career knowledge, skills, pathways and labor-market demand. Indeed, the stackable pathways that have been most successful thus far are tightly aligned with employer needs.

Embedding stackable credentials with certifications and other industry-recognized assessments and awards ensures relevance. It also gives students a headstart in meeting licensing and other regulatory requirements they may face in their professions. 

We’ve seen first-hand the power of creating a bachelor’s degree designed around a sequence of stackable credentials with a variety of industry-recognized certifications baked in. Students with complicated lives, who are often balancing competing situations, can significantly benefit from bite-sized, industry-validated credentials that immediately lead to employability and stability, while also allowing them to move up the education and career ladder toward larger salaries. Through this approach, students can gain in-demand, employable skills in significantly less time than it takes to complete a traditional bachelor’s degree. This lifelong learning model is a reality for the future because of the continual need to up-skill throughout one’s lifetime. Our training systems must adapt to this new environment.

Take, for example, the pathway that leads students to a limited medical radiologic technologist certificate (LMRT), a radiologic technology associate degree (RT) and a radiologic science management bachelor’s degree, as well as a number of industry-validated certifications along the way, such as CT, mammography and MRI. This provides students with more flexibility, allowing them to earn multiple credentials in approximately four years or take time off between each step to find employment and then continue their education as they choose. The key here is students’ ability to count credits from the certificate towards an associate, and the same with the associate and bachelor’s. Students would not lose credits or time, which often causes them to stop learning. These milestones can provide extrinsic motivation for students to continue their educational journey.

Peter Silva has seen this in practice. After serving in the army, Peter wanted to enter the medical imaging field. He earned an LMRT certification in thirteen months, which allowed him to work in an urgent care center operating X-rays. He continued his education while working full time and earned an associate degree and RT certification that allowed him to enter a job at Southwest General Hospital in radiology. His goal is to become the director of a radiology center, so he earned his bachelor’s degree and became a manager. At each step along the pathway, he received a new certification and increased earnings.

There is little reason that embedding multiple industry-recognized certifications should remain limited to healthcare professions or even to short-term programs. For many adults, especially those who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, traditional four-year college programs may seem too costly or lengthy. Meanwhile, employers have long complained about struggling to find college graduates with in-demand, hirable skill sets. Embedding industry-recognized certifications within their path to a degree can help address these concerns, providing a model of lifelong learning that can enrich the higher education experience and bring new relevancy to what students are learning. 

Some four-year institutions have started to experiment with the model. At the University of Cincinnati, the Cisco Certified Network Associate certification is embedded in the university’s information technology bachelor’s degree. Middle Tennessee State University partners with the manufacturing giant Siemens to help students graduate with both a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics and a Siemens Level 3 certification. Ohio University requires students in its engineering technology and management degree program to complete the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering’s (ATMAE) certified manufacturing specialist certification.  

While promising, these programs barely scratch the surface of what colleges could do with embedded certifications. Certifications in areas such as laboratory science, information technology, financial planning and human resources have the potential to be included in a variety of liberal arts degree programs. Not only can they help students gain in-demand skills but they can serve as a clear signal to employers. A recent report identified nearly one million unique credentials, including over 500,000 from non-academic providers, which demonstrates the need to establish standards among institutions, programs and certification bodies for how certifications create value, so the credentials can be embedded directly into credit-bearing programs and transferred across institutions. It’s imperative that these certifications are well integrated with other types of credentials, and there must be a structure that ensures that they not only add immediate value but also provide a clear and stackable pathway to career growth.

This is a problem worth solving. Stackable credentials and embedded certifications have the power to help students quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively gain in-demand skills that lead to employment. Their growing use in healthcare education presents an opportunity to immediately prepare in-demand frontline workers during the pandemic, but healthcare is not the only sector impacted by COVID-19 and in need of nimble, lifelong learners. Fortunately, healthcare has provided a blueprint for how training providers across industries can best prepare students for an evolving workforce.   

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