Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 0.8 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.


Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback80 pages $28.50

Research Questions

  1. To what degree are low-income individuals who earn certificates in Colorado and Ohio going on to earn additional credentials (i.e., stack credentials), and does stacking credentials lead to improved earnings outcomes?
  2. Do the patterns in credential-stacking and earnings suggest that low-income individuals face systemic barriers to stacking credentials?
  3. How do institutional stakeholders perceive barriers to equity in stackable credential pipelines and how do they envision mitigating those barriers?

Federal, state, and local initiatives have encouraged education and training providers to build stackable credentials, a series of postsecondary credentials that can be earned over time and that build on each other to prepare individuals for different needs for knowledge and skills throughout a career. By offering flexible pathways that allow individuals to earn credentials incrementally and work as they earn credentials, stackable credentials can advance economic and educational opportunity for low-income individuals and other groups that have not been well served in traditional degree programs. However, there is limited evidence on whether low-income individuals are benefiting from stacking credentials and whether low-income individuals face systemic barriers to equity within stackable credential pipelines.

In this report, the authors take a mixed methods approach to examining stackable credential equity in Colorado and Ohio, two states pursuing stackable credential initiatives. The authors analyzed administrative data to describe patterns in credential-stacking and in earnings for low-income individuals relative to middle- and high-income individuals. They identify four potential systemic barriers to equity within stackable credential pipelines and interview key stakeholders to learn more about factors contributing to these barriers and discuss options to ensure equitable opportunities to stack credentials across fields of study and institutions.

Key Findings

  • Low-income certificate-earners earned multiple credentials (i.e., stacked credentials) and went on to earn longer-term credentials (i.e., stacked vertically) at higher rates than middle- and high-income certificate-earners.
  • Low-income vertical stackers experienced positive economic returns from stacking and narrowed the earnings gap between low-income individuals and middle- and high-income individuals, suggesting that stackable credentials can potentially help to advance equity.
  • Low-income certificate-earners are overrepresented in some fields of study that offer limited stacking opportunities and low economic returns (e.g., culinary arts), and they are underrepresented in some fields where individuals frequently stack credentials and see high economic returns (e.g., information technology, manufacturing and engineering technology).
  • Stakeholders described many factors that might limit opportunities to stack credentials across institutions and fields, including limited workforce needs and industry engagement, substantial program startup costs, the administrative burden associated with designing new credential programs, challenges with faculty recruitment, insufficient access to equipment and instructional resources, and competition between institutions.
  • Individuals have limited information on stackable credential programs and credential value, and interviewees attributed this lack of information to common perceptions about the value of college and particular fields, constraints on faculty and advisors, and limited messaging from industry.
  • Low-income individuals account for a larger percentage of students who earn noncredit certificates, and students who earn noncredit certificates rarely go on to earn credit-bearing credentials. Alignment issues, perceptions of quality, limited awareness of noncredit-to-credit articulation agreements, and the administrative burden involved in articulating credit are all factors that limit noncredit-to-credit stacking.


  • States and institutions should continue to scale initiatives that help individuals stack credentials.
  • States and institutions should identify and scale credentials of value and discourage the development of low-value programs.
  • States and institutions should allocate resources strategically to cover the substantial costs involved in developing stackable credentials.
  • States and institutions should identify opportunities for coordination and alignment.
  • States and institutions should ensure that low-income individuals and other historically underserved populations are aware of stackable programs and credential value. Enhancing state and local informational resources, better leveraging career services, providing additional resources to enhance advising, and encouraging greater partnership with industry were several suggestions from stakeholders for how to improve awareness of stackable credential programs.
  • States and institutions should continue to break down barriers between noncredit training and college credit-bearing programs, while collecting better noncredit data.

Research conducted by

This study was sponsored by Ascendium Education Group and conducted by RAND Education and Labor in collaboration with the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.