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Research Brief

The U.S. Department of Labor defines stackable credentials as a "sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual's qualifications and help that individual move along a career pathway to further education and different responsibilities, and potentially higher-paying jobs." These structured education and training pathways — in fields such as health care, information technology, and manufacturing — provide individuals with opportunities to earn certificates, shorter-term credentials that require between several weeks and more than a year of coursework and training to complete. These initial certificates provide individuals with immediate job possibilities. As individuals wish to advance their careers, they can build on those initial credentials to earn related certificates and degrees. Research indicates that many individuals earn certificates and then reenroll and stack credentials. When individuals earn multiple credentials, research shows that they see increased earnings on average.

Stackable credentials and shorter-term certificate programs aim to create more-flexible education and training pathways, allowing individuals to attain postsecondary credentials more quickly and gradually work toward degrees (or other credentials needed for career growth). Stackable credentials might therefore be particularly attractive to students with work and life responsibilities and offer on-ramps to postsecondary education to communities who have not historically been well served by degree programs, including low-income individuals, individuals of color, and older learners. However, there is limited evidence on who is benefiting from stacking credentials, and little is known about whether stackable credential programs are set up in ways that advance equity for these communities.

To ensure that stackable credentials are advancing equity, states and institutions can take actions to scale programs in ways that ensure that low-income individuals and other historically underserved communities have access to and can succeed in these programs. The study set out to explore four potential barriers within stackable credential pipelines that might limit opportunities to stack credentials for low-income individuals (Box 1). The study aimed to provide evidence on the factors limiting stackable credential opportunities and the actions states and institutions can take to address barriers to equity within stackable credential pipelines.

How the Study Was Conducted

The study focused on Colorado and Ohio, two states that are deeply engaged in efforts to build out stackable credential pipelines at the state, system, and institutional levels. Researchers carried out two types of research on stackable credentials and equity. First, researchers leveraged statewide administrative data to identify low-income students and compare them with middle- and high-income students to examine patterns in the credentials that individuals stack and the earnings gains experienced over time as a result of stacking. Second, researchers conducted interviews with key stakeholders who oversee stackable credential programs to learn about the factors that might contribute to the four potential barriers to equity, as well as state and institutional actions that can help to overcome these barriers. This research brief focuses on findings from these interviews.

Researchers conducted interviews with two types of stakeholders: institutional administrators and stakeholders who could offer a systems-level or state-level perspective. Across the two groups, researchers conducted interviews with 20 organizations, including community colleges, technical centers, four-year universities, college systems, and state-level agencies. Researchers selected a sample of institutions that represented a variety of institution types (technical college, community college, university), settings (urban, rural, suburban), and sizes, as well as varying rates of stacking (high rates in all fields, mixed, low rates in all fields). Because the study was focused on equity for low-income individuals, researchers focused primarily on institutions that served large populations of Pell Grant–eligible students. Researchers asked to interview individuals who had the deepest familiarity with stackable credential efforts in health care, information technology, and manufacturing, but they allowed the institutions to select which individuals participated in the interviews. To identify interviewees who could offer systems- and state-level perspectives, researchers relied on recommendations from the study's advisory groups.

Key Findings

Colorado and Ohio stakeholders provided critical insights on the four potential barriers to equity examined in the study. The interviews highlighted which factors were contributing to these barriers in the two state contexts, and stakeholders identified many ways that states and institutions can build equitable stackable credential programs. Following is a description of the suggestions that interviewees made to address potential barriers to equity.

Table 1. Colorado and Ohio Stakeholder Perspectives on Potential Barriers to Stackable Credential Equity

Potential Systemic Barrier Factors Contributing to the Barrier Actions States Can Take to Overcome the Barrier
Limited opportunities to stack in some fields
  • Limited workforce needs and industry engagement
  • Substantial program startup costs
  • Administrative burden
  • Challenges with faculty recruitment
  • Competition among institutions
  • Insufficient access to equipment and instructional resources
  • Improve coordination with industry
  • Provide financial assistance to support startup costs
  • Improve administrative processes for program improvement
  • Strengthen institutional capacity to recruit faculty
  • Improve coordination across campuses
  • Provide additional funding for instructional resources
Limited opportunities to stack in some institutions
  • Same as above
  • Same as above
Insufficient information to identify and stack credentials of value
  • Limiting narratives on college credentials and certain fields
  • Limited messaging from employers about credential value
  • Constraints on faculty and advisors
  • Enhance informational resources on stackable credentials and credential value
  • Provide resources to enhance advising support
  • Draw on career navigation services
  • Encourage greater partnership with industry
Challenges moving from noncredit to credit programs
  • Administrative burden
  • Lack of alignment between noncredit learning and credit coursework
  • Variation in standards and perceptions of quality
  • Limited awareness of articulation opportunities
  • Streamline administrative processes
  • Align noncredit learning experiences and credit courses
  • Strengthen coordination between noncredit and credit departments and institutions
  • Invest in outreach to improve awareness

What States and Institutions Can Do to Support Stackable Credential Development Across Fields and Institutions

Policymakers and practitioners in Colorado and Ohio described many factors contributing to the uneven scaling of stackable credentials across fields and across regions and institutions, including the high cost of program development, administrative barriers, and limited faculty pools (Table 1). The interviewees also identified six ways that states can support stackable credential development in fields and institutions where gaps emerge.

Improve coordination with industry. Interviewees highlighted workforce needs as a key factor driving which programs colleges and technical schools offer. Staff at educational institutions need to engage closely with industry and use workforce data to understand what programs and credentials are needed, yet interviewees noted that institutions and departments varied in the level and quality of their efforts to engage with industry. Interviewees suggested three things that states could do to support institutions in aligning programs with workforce needs: (1) Provide institutions with access to detailed workforce data, (2) Establish opportunities to convene educators and industry stakeholders (for example, convenings, advisory groups), and (3) Offer resources to educational institutions to cover the costs of the time it takes to develop this deeper engagement with industry.

Provide financial assistance to support program startup costs. Interviewees noted that there were substantial costs involved in the development of new programs. To help cover some of these costs, interviewees suggested that state leaders could offer grants in key fields and to certain institutions to encourage stackable program development.

Improve administrative processes to minimize burden. Colorado and Ohio stakeholders described layers of different approvals and administrative processes that must be undertaken to develop new programs. Stakeholders worried that these time-intensive processes might discourage stackable program development and prevent institutions from being responsive to workforce needs. To improve the agility of institutions in developing such programs, interviewees suggested that both states and institutions should review their program approval processes and identify opportunities to streamline requirements and reduce the time and effort needed to develop new programs.

Strengthen institutional capacity to recruit faculty. Faculty in fields such as health care and information technology can be tough to find given other attractive job prospects for qualified instructors and the limited pool of faculty with sufficient training. Interviewees suggested two ways that states could help to support institutions in competing for faculty: (1) states could provide funding to help institutions offer higher salaries for faculty in certain fields and regions, and (2) states could establish training opportunities in partnership with industry that help expand the faculty pool.

Improve coordination across campuses. Some interviewees worried that institutions often worked independently on stackable credential programs and do not closely coordinate with other institutions in the region to avoid duplication of programs and identify opportunities for building pathways across institutions. To improve coordination, states can establish consortia to encourage greater collaboration across institutions and opportunities to work jointly on program development; interviewees cited Guided Pathways program efforts and several other Colorado consortia as examples of this collaboration. In addition, both states are pursuing efforts to establish statewide standards around credit articulation that might encourage more cross-institution stacking.

Provide additional funding for equipment and instructional resources. In certain fields, stackable credential programs might require expensive equipment. Covering the costs for these resources might be particularly challenging for rural institutions that serve small populations of students. To support institutions in covering these costs, interviewees in Colorado and Ohio noted the importance of establishing grant funding at the state level. An example of this is Ohio's Regionally Aligned Priorities in Delivering Skills program, which has awarded $47 million for equipment and facilities so far.

States and institutions could do more to support individuals in understanding which credentials are available and how they can be stacked.

What States and Institutions Can Do to Improve the Information Students Have on Stackable Credential Programs

Drawing on the interviews with Colorado and Ohio stakeholders and a scan of college websites, researchers found that informational resources on stackable credential opportunities were limited and inconsistent. States and institutions could do more to support individuals in understanding which credentials are available and how they can be stacked. Interviewees highlighted four ways to enhance the information and resources available.

Enhance informational resources on stackable credentials and credential value. To expose individuals to the broader set of education and training opportunities available to them and to provide clear information on how credentials stack, interviewees suggested that states might establish a basic set of informational materials that communicate these opportunities. For example, pathways maps were described as useful resources for demonstrating in a simple, visual way how credentials stack together and prepare individuals for particular job opportunities. Infographics were described as another potentially accessible way to communicate with individuals about stackable credentials.

Provide resources to enhance advising support. Colorado and Ohio stakeholders reported both that faculty are often stretched thin and unable to provide students with frequent one-on-one support around program and career planning and that advising departments at the high school and college levels are often not well suited to provide this field-specific guidance. Interviewees suggested that states might dedicate more resources to advising departments, including funding and training to expand adviser capacity to provide more-robust field-specific guidance, as well as student-facing informational resources on stackable credentials described previously.

Draw on career navigation services. In addition to calling for additional advising resources, interviewees discussed the importance of formal career navigation opportunities and the role of career centers in helping students identify opportunities aligned with their training.

Encourage greater partnership with industry. According to stakeholders in Colorado and Ohio, partnerships with employers support individual decisionmaking about education in three ways: Industry partnerships can offer work-based learning opportunities, ensure broader information-sharing about educational programs to the workforce that might benefit from upskilling, and lead employers to provide support for individuals pursuing education (for example, tuition assistance, flexibility in schedule).

What States and Institutions Can Do to Improve Noncredit-to-Credit Stacking

Many prior studies have documented the barriers that individuals face moving from noncredit programs to credit programs. Colorado and Ohio interviewees described similar challenges, including the administrative burden that individuals face when transitioning between programs, alignment issues, perceptions of differing quality, and limited awareness of credit for prior learning and of noncredit-to-credit articulation opportunities. To overcome these challenges, stakeholders suggested that states and institutions could be doing more in four areas.

Streamline administrative processes. Interviewees reported that it is essential to reduce administrative burden for students moving from noncredit training to credit-bearing programs. Both Colorado and Ohio are pursuing statewide efforts to standardize credit for prior learning, and stakeholders reported that these initiatives were central to this effort to streamline processes for individuals and can also reduce the burden on institutions to determine these standards at the local level.

Align noncredit learning experiences and credit courses. Stakeholders in Colorado and Ohio described how noncredit learning experiences and credit coursework do not always align perfectly and how it can be challenging to award credit for partial learning in a course. To address this difficulty, interviewees suggested that institutions and states could focus on mapping courses to these learning experiences, identifying overlap and gaps, and breaking out coursework and credentials to increase alignment wherever possible.

Strengthen coordination between noncredit and credit departments and institutions. While interviewees described some promising examples of relationships between noncredit and credit departments and institutions, they noted continued siloes between noncredit and credit training programs. In addition to bringing institutions together to collaboratively determine program development, Colorado and Ohio stakeholders recommended that states adopt standardized transcripts and implement a common course numbering system.

Invest in outreach to improve awareness. According to Colorado and Ohio stakeholders, many individuals are unaware of the potential value of credit-bearing programs and their opportunities to receive college credit for prior noncredit learning. To address this, colleges and their state agency partners could conduct marketing activities to improve awareness and build databases to identify individuals who might benefit from articulation opportunities and targeted outreach. Institutions could also educate advising and enrollment staff on articulation opportunities so that such staff are better equipped to share these opportunities with students and to identify students who might be eligible for these opportunities.

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