Stackable Credentials: Making College Work for More Students

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Josh Eschke works in a lab at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, photo courtesy of Lorain County Community College

Josh Eschke works in a lab at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio.

Photo courtesy of Lorain County Community College

January 11, 2024

Lindsay Daugherty had seen too many college programs overpromise and underdeliver for low-income students. She had no reason to think a strategy known as stacking would be any different. Then she saw the data.

Colleges across the United States have invested tens of millions of dollars to develop credential-stacking programs. Their target students are often working adults who don't have the time or the money to get a college degree. Instead, these programs allow them to earn a series of credentials over time that can get them to the same place. It's higher education by building block.

Stackable credentials don't work for all students, Daugherty found in a recent RAND study, and some fields provide much more value than others. But used effectively, stackable programs can provide low-income students with a path to the middle class. More than 70 percent of the students in RAND's study who built up their credentials this way were making middle-income wages within six years.

“For some reason, we decided in the United States that everyone has to get a four-year college degree, and if you don't, then your education and training is not really worth it,” said Daugherty, a senior policy researcher at RAND. “These programs can really open up access to college and professional training for a much wider pool of people, and hopefully give them pathways to economic opportunity.”

An Alternative to Four-Year Degrees

Josh Eschke tried to make four years of college work. But sitting through lectures, reading about work he wanted to do without actually doing it—he just couldn't get excited about it. “It was hard to see what I would be doing, exactly,” he said.

He dropped out and enrolled in Lorain County Community College, a national leader in stackable credentials, near his home outside of Cleveland. He earned a one-term certificate in microelectromechanical systems, building and testing circuit boards. He used that to pursue a one-year certificate—and with it, an internship at a local plant that pays $23 an hour. He's now working toward his associate degree.

“This is much more hands-on than any engineering degree at a big university,” he said. One other important benefit: “This has a very high placement rate. Almost everybody who goes through this program has gotten a position after they've left.”

That's how stackable credentials are supposed to work. Schools often pitch them as a way for students to build their education and their careers in steps in high-demand occupations like nursing or information technology. Several states have guaranteed funding for them in an effort to help more disadvantaged students move beyond a high school diploma.

But the evidence for stackable credentials has been much more limited than the glossy school brochures would suggest. Daugherty, a specialist in education and workforce policy at RAND, wanted to know not just whether these programs deliver, but under what circumstances, and for whom.

What the Data Show

She and other RAND researchers partnered with researchers from the University of Michigan to find out. They pulled data on student enrollment, credential awards, and employment outcomes from two states that have pushed hard for stackable credential programs: Colorado and Ohio. Their final sample included more than 80,000 students who earned their first credentials between mid-2006 and mid-2015. Ascendium Education Group, a foundation that works to give lower-income students more opportunities to succeed, funded the study.

The data showed that low-income students in both states were more likely to stack credentials than middle- and high-income students. They were more likely to identify as Asian, Black, or Hispanic; and in Colorado, they were more likely to be women. And in both states, they were more likely than other students to build toward higher and higher credentials in their field—what the researchers called vertical stacking.

Low-income students who built up their credentials over time sharply reduced the earnings gap with their more-advantaged peers.

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That was key. Students who collected a series of shorter-term certificates without ever building up saw no meaningful increase in their earnings. But low-income students in Ohio who stacked vertically saw their average annual incomes go from less than $20,000 to more than $40,000 within six years. In Colorado, it was closer to $50,000. In both states, low-income students who built up their credentials over time sharply reduced the earnings gap with their more-advantaged peers.

“Honestly, we expected to see gaps; we expected to see concerning data and issues with equity,” Daugherty said. “And instead, what we saw seems relatively promising. But the story here is not, hey, you can just go get all of these short-term credentials and close the income gap. It's only vertical stacking, and it's really only certain fields, that are driving this.”

Nursing, for example, provided high rates of good-paying jobs. So did mechanics. In fact, more than 70 percent of the credential-stacking mechanics in both Colorado and Ohio went on to find middle-income jobs. Other stackable fields with high numbers of middle-income earners included manufacturing and information technology.

Percentage of Students Who Earn at Least a Middle-Income Wage, by State, Income, and Type of Credential Stacking

Line chart for Colorado certificate-earners that compares six different combinations of income and stacking.
Line chart for Ohio certificate-earners that compares six different combinations of income and stacking.

Calculations based on data from the Colorado Community College System and the Ohio Longitudinal Data Archive. “Middle-income wage” means quarterly earnings higher than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Vertical stackers earned an initial certificate and then a higher credential within three years. Horizontal stackers earned an initial certificate and then an additional credential on the same level within three years. Non-stackers did not earn any additional credentials.

Looking Forward: Lessons from More High-Value Programs

But that's not always where low-income students went looking for credentials. The researchers found high concentrations of them in culinary and applied arts programs, for example. Those fields have limited vertical-stacking options and lower rates of good-paying jobs. Low-income students also tended to enroll in family and consumer science programs. Those can include anything from nutrition and child care to fashion consulting and retail management—jobs that also don't usually pay as well as tech and health jobs.

That suggests colleges could provide more up-front information about the value of different credentials, the researchers wrote. They should consider offering more career-counseling services, especially for low-income and underserved students. States and colleges should also identify high-value programs and scale them up—while carefully considering whether they need any more culinary schools or applied arts programs.

RAND researchers are now taking a closer look at how students build their credentials in some of those high-value fields, such as manufacturing and computer science. Daugherty is just starting a study in Indiana to identify lessons from its experience with stackable credentials. She's also hoping to do more on-the-ground research, hearing what works and what doesn't from students who have gone through stackable programs—students like Josh Eschke.

He's a few credits away from getting his associate degree. After that, he might go look for a job at a chip factory. He might stay and get his bachelor's degree. Either way, he says, “I'm very optimistic. This field will be growing for as long as …,” he pauses. “I can't imagine it ever having a downtrend unless some insane new technology comes out.”

Intel is building a $20 billion plant not far from his home that it touts as the largest silicon manufacturing location on the planet. It hopes to anchor a new “Silicon Heartland” in central Ohio. Eschke might not have known what he wanted to do when he started college, but he knows now. He's working toward one day being a supervisor there.

Doug Irving