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Exploring Stackable Credentials

The efforts of postsecondary institutions to embed “stackable” credentials aligned with industry requirements into certificate and degree programs are helping students progress along the education continuum while earning credentials with labor market value. By organizing programs around credentials that build upon each other, colleges can offer incremental milestones on the path to degree completion. Consider stackable credentials as building blocks for industry-informed career pathways that maximize learners’ skill acquisition, investment of time and financial resources, and employability. As learners complete credentials aligned to in-demand skills and employment opportunities, they can also secure entry-level employment in their chosen career fields while continuing their education.

Ultimately, stackable credentials are intended to:

  • Provide flexibility for students who must balance work and family demands while furthering their education, or who may be uncertain about committing to a full degree program.
  • Meet the evolving skill needs of employers, among both new hires and current workers.
  • Improve the ability of colleges and communities to increase postsecondary credential attainment, especially among underserved populations.
  • Give colleges tools for addressing technology advancements that are requiring more education and training at all levels of employment.

If you're ready to learn more, explore Introduction to Stackable Credentials, prepared by the Center for Occupational Research and Development in partnership with Social Policy Research Associates for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Introduction to Stackable Credentials Contents

This section serves as a helpful introduction to the interwoven terms and components that comprise a stackable credentials system. Pay particular attention to the diagram, "Pathways to Career Readiness and Advancement" on page five.

Employer Engagement
Employer engagement in the design of programs embedded with stackable
credentials is critical. A wide range of approaches exist for effectively engaging employers. Although recognizing that each community is unique, this section describes cross-cutting strategies that can provide a foundation for success.

Designing a Program with Stackable Credentials
A program with stackable credentials consists of a series of education milestones that students can attain as they move through the program. The model is flexible enough to meet the needs of a wide range of students, presenting attainable intermediate goals and providing exit points in the form of credentials with labor market value. There is no standard template for creating a program with stackable credentials. Because of its flexibility, the model can be customized for different settings. In some cases, it may take the form of a ladder—in which students progress in a linear fashion—but it also may resemble a lattice or web, allowing for lateral movement as students earn credentials in multiple specialty areas. This flexibility also supports work-based learning experiences, such as internships and apprenticeships, allowing for tailoring of the program to meet the specific needs of employers. This section provides example models from several colleges along with templates for you to use as you design your stackable credentials program.

Supporting Completion
This section looks in depth at five strategies used by colleges to promote student retention:

1. Scheduling courses to accommodate working students
2. Leveraging online instruction
3. Awarding credit for prior learning
4. Making college more affordable
5. Supporting pathways aligned to local needs

Sustaining Stackable Credentials
Data management is essential to the success of stackable credentials programs. Data can help you understand how implementation is working (or not) and why, so you can adjust accordingly and improve along the way. You will also need data as you seek to broaden support for your approach or to replicate it across program areas.

Sixteen critical terms for understanding the stackable credentials ecosystem.

Quick Reference
Links to documents and resources on a full range of topics related to stackable credentials, along with an introduction to the people, agencies, and organizations working in this field.