Higher Ed, Pathways

A Research-Based Look at Stackable Credentials

Parchment Staff  •  Mar 12, 2024  •  Podcast
Parchment Podcast Credentials Unscripted Episode 9

The term “stackable credentials” can mean many things, from college efforts to embed short-term credentials into their degree programs to larger-scale efforts to rethink the way credentialing is done through alternative approaches, like skills and badges. We speak with Lindsay Daugherty, Senior Policy Researcher from RAND Corporation to dig into the research around stackable credential programs and whether they are delivering on their premise — to advance a learner’s opportunities and outcomes.


Matthew Sterenberg (00:01.452)

All right, I’m here with Lindsay Daugherty, senior policy researcher from the Rand Corporation. Lindsay, welcome to the podcast.


Lindsay Daugherty (00:09.356)

Thank you, great to be here.


Matthew Sterenberg (00:11.694)

So Lindsay, we’re talking about stackable credentials today. First, like what are stackable credentials? If someone’s never heard the term stackable credentials, give us the skinny, like what are they?


Lindsay Daugherty (00:26.668)

Yeah, so they can really be a lot of different things. The Department of Labor defines them really broadly as a series of credentials, education or training credentials that can be earned throughout a career to prepare you for different jobs. So that could be an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree is an example of a stackable credential because you first get that associate’s and then you build on that and get a bachelor’s degree.

Or if you have an industry certification that’s integrated into an educational degree program, that can be an example of a stackable credential. And earning graduate certificates after a bachelor’s degree, people refer to those as stackable credentials. And so it really can be any of these things. Our work has really focused primarily on

on programs that start with a shorter term credential. So a credential that takes less than two years of coursework to earn. So that could either be an industry credential, like a Cisco certification or a CompTIA certification that prepares you for IT or the American Welding Society certification that prepares you to be a welder. And so you kind of start with that short term credential.

And then you can move on to other short -term credentials that give you different skill sets in other different welding areas or IT areas. Or you can kind of move up to the degree level and get an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree to really kind of deepen your knowledge and expertise and get that general education as well.


Matthew Sterenberg (02:02.958)

So as you highlighted, we’ve always had stackable credentials, right? Like you highlighted associates to bachelor, but I see so much about stackable credentials. I follow a lot of the stuff that great organizations like credentials as you go does and corporation for a skilled workforce and all these other organizations that all of a sudden I started seeing all this stuff about stackable. So.

Clearly we already have some version of this. So like, what’s the big idea? Why does this feel like a new idea? And what is the new version of this that is getting people excited? Like, what is this new thing? Why is there such an emphasis on it with the work that you and others are doing?


Lindsay Daugherty (02:46.572)

Yeah, that’s where I do think the important focus is really on these pathways that start with the shorter term credential and lead to other opportunities. Because I think what they’re really aiming to do there are two different things. So first, we’ve had these two siloed systems where we have kind of occupational credentials, industry certifications and licenses that are over here on one side. And then we have post -secondary education, which we generally think of as a four year college bachelor’s degree.

And really these two things didn’t mingle, they don’t speak to each other, you end up in kind of one of these or the other. And if you wanna switch over to the other, then you’re starting from scratch. And so really some of the idea with Stackable Credentials is how can we be embedding these industry certifications and licenses and aligning them with some of our educational programs in some of these applied and technical fields so that we can make it one system so that both learners and employers aren’t trying to have to…

figure out how all of these different credentials fit together. So that’s one big thing. And then I think the other thing is really, again, providing more of these on ramps to educational programs that take fewer than two years to complete. I think that we’ve had some challenges in post -secondary education. One, that some students choose not to go when they could really benefit from going. And that may be because they don’t want to go into more math and English classes and they want something more applied.

Or maybe it means, maybe they don’t have the money or the time or the interest to sit in college for an additional four years. And so if they had another option that was more applied, took a little bit less time, it could be a way to really kind of get them hooked on college, or just getting those short -term credentials can really help them advance in their career. So I think providing these additional on -ramps into kind of more traditional post -secondary education is another.

really unique thing that’s happening in some of these stackable credential initiatives.


Matthew Sterenberg (04:47.086)

I think that’s interesting because what is the, I’ll say the word narrative with college. It’s basically college or career readiness. A lot of times, right. Where it becomes which path are you going to be? Are you going to go to college? Are you going to pursue a career right out of, you know, high school or K -12? And it’s this either or, and this is really thinking about how can we marry the two. And I think it’s also.

you know, a focus on how do we credential people throughout their pathway and yeah, build them on top of each other. That’s the whole idea is stackable, right? Is that you can keep going and one thing leads to the other, right? But what, so the problem statement, if you were to synthesize it is really that we want, we don’t want it to just be workforce certifications, industry certifications. We want to still connect them to post -secondary for like a broader,

I guess if I have a workforce certification, let’s put it differently, why do I need to go back into post -secondary? You know, like what is the goal there?


Lindsay Daugherty (05:56.396)

Yeah, you might not, you know, so I don’t think that, you know, the idea with stackable credential pathways is that every single person who’s going to get some short term credential is going to go on to these other credentials. But the idea is that the opportunities are there if they would like to. And so I’ll give an example. We were working with colleges 10 years ago who are building community college baccalaureate programs. So these are, you know, bachelor’s degrees program at community colleges. And, you know,

there’s a community college in Brazosport that was building up a management program that they would take their petroleum technicians through and Top off their technical skills. These are people who had worked on the floor in these petroleum technology plants, you know processing petroleum, I guess I’m getting into an area where I don’t what I’m talking about and


Matthew Sterenberg (06:45.934)

I’m not an expert. Yeah. Yeah. You got to get that credential, Lindsay. You got to get your petroleum, whatever it was. Yeah. Yeah.


Lindsay Daugherty (06:53.068)

I know, I know, I need to go to process port. So, you know, and there’s the people working at the plant, you know, we’re saying we need to hire someone with a bachelor’s degree to manage our people. You know, the person that we hire to manage our people needs to have some sort of accounting skills and some sort of management skills. But I don’t want to hire a fresh graduate out of Texas A &M who has an engineering degree and knows nothing about our plant, nothing about how these systems work. I would way rather take someone,

who has these technical skills and top off those technical skills with some accounting, some business and general ed so that they really have that well -rounded skill set to lead the company. And so again, that’s a pathway where someone really needed some technical skills first to go out there and get that job experience and then move on to a business degree. But if you told that person in the plant, hey, you’re gonna have to go start from scratch, and you don’t have a single…

and you’re gonna have to sit in college for four years to get a business degree, there’s no way that person sitting in that plant is gonna do that. But if you can tell them, you can take all these things that you’ve earned along the way, and you’re halfway there to your bachelor’s degree, and now all you need to do is top it off with these additional things, then you really provide this kind of a much better pathway for that type of job training.


Matthew Sterenberg (08:11.15)

I think it’s interesting because there’s like a, not a crisis in higher ed, that might be too strong of a word, but you have rising costs of higher ed, you have declining enrollment, and higher ed is in a fight to justify its existence in some ways, right? Where you have, why would I go into debt? Why would I spend all that money to go to college? And the other path is I can get this certification, whether it’s a Google certificate or a welding certificate, whatever it may be.

that leads me directly into a job. But what I would say to that is that’s going to maybe lead you to an immediate job, but you’re not necessarily going to be happy with that job 10 years from now. That job might not exist 10 years from now. And so the associates or the bachelors is sort of like, it’s your cover. It’s your flexibility for whatever it is in the future, because there’s also a lot of people that don’t know what they want to do or they change their mind, right? Like,

I might be welding for 10 years, then I might say like, I want to manage a team of welders, right? And they may say you need an associates to do that. Right. So I think there’s this. So often we want the linear, like, tell me what skills I need and what job it connects to, because that’s the value of like what I’m spending my money on. Whereas college, it’s harder to say you’re going to spend $200 ,000 and we might be able to get you the job that you want. And a lot of people have a difficulty with that, but.

I still think there, it is also a little crazy to think we can always match like the thing that you, the program you want to go through now and the job that you’ll want today, tomorrow and 15 years from now.


Lindsay Daugherty (09:54.028)

Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. So you need to create more flexible systems that allow for these different pathways that learners take and make sure that if they decide to take a different direction that they aren’t, again, having to go back to the start again, because I think that really sets people back and it prevents them from making moves in their life and building up education and training. And then circling back to your point about rebranding education.

All of this stuff is going on in colleges. All of these certifications and licenses, many of these programs that are training people for certifications and licenses are happening in community colleges. Community colleges are providing some of the, you know, technical training and welding courses and IT courses. And so it is all one in the same. And so it really is helping the public to catch up and understand that these are all happening.

within kind of the same system and we need to just make them work better together more so than actually having to shift what’s happening out.


Matthew Sterenberg (10:56.27)

So there’s basically, we need to market this a little bit better to a degree. There’s codifying it in terms of policy. And then there’s also just like, no, this is a way to brand it so that people understand it’s happening, engage with it better, that type of thing.


Lindsay Daugherty (11:11.66)

I mean, I just think the support would be a lot higher for colleges if people understood that 40 % of students are going to these community colleges, a big portion of them are in these workforce development programs. And so I think that’s why some states that we’ve been working with where, you know, the support for college has particularly declined are especially motivated to explore what the possibilities are for building out these technical pathways because they understand that, you know, those are the pathways that they’re.

population is more interested in right now.


Matthew Sterenberg (11:45.23)

So Lindsay, you are a senior policy researcher. So what can you tell us about the efficacy of stackable credentials? Like what does the data suggest to us about how these programs work? When do they work the best? And if you were advising someone on like how to build a program, like what are the best practices, what works and what doesn’t?


Lindsay Daugherty (12:09.612)

Yeah, so there’s a couple of different buckets of research out there that try to look at these programs. So it’s very difficult to look at what is the efficacy or what are the outcomes of being in a stackable program. So that’s kind of what we really want to understand. There’s a lot of initiatives out there and a lot of federal and state investments in building these stackable programs. And what you really want to understand is,

have these investments made a difference? Have all these kind of new things that are out there really kind of changed the earnings trajectories and employment trajectories of individuals and are they going on to earn degrees and things like that? What’s so hard about measuring that is that we don’t collect good information on stackable programs. We collect information on what credentials people earn. So we can look at what is the…

value of earning these two credentials together, but you don’t know if that person switched careers entirely and did start from scratch or went through one of these programs that was designed to be a stackable program. So I think that’s an important caveat. There are a few studies that have tried to look at kind of the more stackable programs and so their career pathways studies and studies of the federal investments in tax grants and things like that and they tend to show.

small benefits from career pathways, programs, and stackable credentials pathways. There was also a study in California that looked at healthcare. They took course books or whatever, basically the things that lay out all the different courses and looked at which ones mapped on and which ones were stackable and created a data set and found that students who enrolled in stackable programs were much more likely to go on and complete another credential. So I think that’s the main,

evidence on stackable programs. Our research tends to look more at the individuals who are just happen to stack credentials and looking at their earnings outcomes using statewide administrative data and unemployment insurance records to look at earnings. And what we find is that when individuals do go on to earn a second credential after certificate, they do see significant earnings gains on average.


Lindsay Daugherty (14:26.348)

So we looked at three fields in Ohio. We looked at manufacturing, healthcare, and IT. And on average, we found that individuals who earned a certificate and then went on to stack additional credentials saw a $9 ,000 a year increase in earnings. And that was pretty significant for people who had, I think we’re starting with some around 30 ,000 in earnings. So pretty significant earnings gain there. And then.


Matthew Sterenberg (14:53.134)

Yeah. And, and some of your research too, highlights being very transparent about what the earnings potential is for a certain program. You know, like making sure that if I’m someone that’s about to pursue a program, making sure I know what the end looks like so that it meets my expectations. And like, cause there’s a lot of credentials, like it’s stack, stack, stack, but the end product is me working in a job that may not pay very well.

Right. It’s just the way it is. And being really transparent about what the end could be and what the cap is, I think is also a good highlight.


Lindsay Daugherty (15:31.884)

Yeah, that’s really critical. States and colleges are really focused right now on, they call it defining credentials of value. And that’s really figuring out which of these credentials do employers actually want, which credentials are leading to high demand jobs, which credentials are leading to earnings gains, which credentials are further stackable. So maybe you aren’t going to get those earnings gains immediately, but they provide a good opportunity to go on to a bachelor’s degree later.

So a couple different definitions of what a high value credential looks like. But yeah, I think it’s important to focus on that because we do see really wide variation in the earnings gains across different types of credentials. So for example, we don’t see large earnings gains from getting kind of one short -term credential and then another short -term credential after that. We see that most of the earnings gains in our data are driven by individuals who start with that short -term credential and go on to a degree.

which accounts for a large portion of individuals who do actually stack credentials. We see that about 80 % of the individuals who we see stack credentials in community colleges do go on to earn at least an associate’s degree. But yeah, it’s important that we’re kind of looking at those certificate pathways and really understanding where they lead.


Matthew Sterenberg (16:48.686)

Yeah, I’m trying to think of an analogy, but like, stacking is great. But what are you stacking to? You know, like, yeah, you can keep stacking things, but eventually, we’ve got to like, where’s the summit? Like, where are we going with this? And to hear you say, stacking towards a degree? Because if we just said stackable credentials, it’s like one thing after the other. But focusing on that degree piece, and really highlighting that as like being

the North Star for students, like that to me is a great synthesis of like the stackable credentials conversation, right? How do we actually like the data suggests that the degree stacking to a degree is what the goal is. And without it, it’s just gonna be kind of incremental gains, right?


Lindsay Daugherty (17:39.5)

Yep. And I don’t know what we do in some fields where, you know, there’s been some efforts to build out stackable programs in some areas where it seems like either employers aren’t asking for it or it’s not leading to the returns that individuals need to actually pay for the degrees that they’ve earned. And so a couple of examples here, we see, you really low earnings gains for culinary arts and for child care. And so let’s say culinary arts might be an area where, hey,

A lot of the colleges ended up and programs ended up building out these culinary arts programs because there were a lot of cool cooking shows on TV and kids were asking for these classes, but they really don’t need, they aren’t necessary to work in most culinary jobs and asking students to pay for them when they are never gonna make the money back to actually recoup those costs is not fair.

Child care is a tougher one because we might want to set certain regulations and have kind of a set of training requirements. But if we can’t pay on the back end, you know, there needs to be some sort of subsidy that’s going to help cover the cost of those. And then there’s other ones that are, you know, manufacturing in Ohio where we’ve talked with some manufacturers and they’re not sure.

what these associates degrees are leading to. And so you need to be in dialogue with your employers too to make sure that they’re asking for someone to go on to the degree because you can say, yes, a pathway to the degree is best and maybe it still is best if it sends them out of manufacturing into some other field, you know, that’s gonna be looking for a degree. But, you know, in that…

if you’re telling an individual you’re going to go and advance in manufacturing by going and earning this associate’s degree or this bachelor’s degree, it’s not clear that that’s what we’re hearing from manufacturing employers.


Matthew Sterenberg (19:27.246)

And the age old question, which is like going to workforce and being like, what, what skills do you need? What credentials do you need? They’re like, well, depends. It’s like, please, we need better communication between these two different parties. It’s like this every time we talk about any kind of unique credential. I mean, even the degree, I feel like we come back to this where it’s like workforce says we need better skilled people. We need.

a better way to understand what people know. And then it’s like, okay, what do you want? And they’re like, well, not really quite sure, or it’s going to evolve over time. The thing that you mentioned with culinary arts is interesting. Like in my head, there’s like vertical stacking, right? Like we’re going somewhere. And then there’s like horizontal stacking, which is kind of to me, like the culinary arts example you gave, like I could get a credential for different things, but it’s just different. They’re not necessarily.

Yeah, they’re not necessarily paying me more. It just might be different jobs in the kitchen or different roles at a restaurant. It’s not, you know, it’s just a different role. It’s not any, any better or worse than, than the previous one. Maybe I prefer it, but it doesn’t pay me anymore or something like that. So horizontal stacking. I don’t know if anyone’s talking about that. I want to take credit for it, Lindsay. Um, we should, we should trademark that. Um, so let’s take the other side. Like.


Lindsay Daugherty (20:49.292)



Matthew Sterenberg (20:55.438)

There are critics of everything. I’m sure there are critics of stackable credentials. What would the critics say about stackable credentials?


Lindsay Daugherty (21:03.148)

Yeah, so we’ve been talking about one of them, wide variation in earnings, you know, and so what credentials, what pathways and really thinking critically about we’re not just taking a bunch of degree programs and dividing them into three equal parts and saying here you got a third of a degree, that’s your first credential, here’s your second credential, here’s your third credential. Each of those credentials has to have independent value in the labor market and help an individual get some sort of job or some sort of advancement in their career.

So I think that’s kind of the first one is we need to do a lot more thinking there and filtering out of what are the valuable and non -valuable credentials. I think there’s a lot of concern about sorting of students between stackable credential programs and traditional degree programs. And are we creating a parallel post -secondary education system where we’re going to start sending our lower income students and students of color?

into stackable programs telling them that they’re the same and that you can get to a degree when really the reality is it’s a much longer pathway and when you compare the earnings of going straight to a degree you don’t see the same earnings as kind of stacking your way up there. And so being clear about, you know, providing the opportunities and the information to students but not deciding who we think belongs where is an important thing. And then I…

it’s still really confusing. This is something you brought up in the beginning is a lot of higher education has been moving toward trying to make it simpler for students, decreasing the number of items on the menu and making it clear pathways for students. And I still think that there’s a way that you can maintain that focus and create those clear pathways and have stackable credentials embedded into those.

But the more credentials you add, it gets noisier for individuals who are already confused about all the education and training options out there. So I do worry a little bit about the more you add, the more people have to sort through.


Matthew Sterenberg (23:15.598)

Yeah, that’s the tension with pathways in general, where it’s like, we, we have 80 % of community college students when they start community college, want to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. And six years later, like 13 % have actually transferred and gotten a bachelor’s degree. So we have this kind of this clear problem statement of there’s a lot of people that go to community college. They don’t end up with the degree that they want. A lot of them end up dropping out.

And we also have 40 million Americans with some college, no degree, right? So we have this need, like we need to credential people. And part of the solution is, well, let’s get people on a pathway so that they can clearly see where they want to go. But at the same point, we have, they have to make choices. Then we’ve got to clearly communicate it and they have to know the pathway that they want to go on. There’s no easy answers. Unfortunately, I thought we were going to get

We were going to solve it on today’s podcast, but apparently we’re not going to. So yeah, not today. Yeah. So anything you can highlight or other advice or maybe programs that you think are states that are doing a really good job with stackable credentials, someone’s listening to this, they want to learn more, or they really want to dig in and invest in a program. What would you recommend to them? How can you guide people to some additional resources or advice?


Lindsay Daugherty (24:20.14)

Not today. We’ll need a couple more of them.


Lindsay Daugherty (24:44.876)

Yeah, there are some great resources out there for people. You mentioned Credential as You Go. They have a website and they have some really great playbooks up there that are intended for colleges who are thinking about building out stackable credentials. There’s an organization called Education Strategy Group that offers something called the Stackability Guide. So if you Google Stackability Guide, you should be able to find that. And those are really directed toward colleges and helping take them step by step.

through the process. I think really, you know, kind of the big key things for colleges to focus on are again, identifying those credentials of value, you know, really figuring out where credentials fit well together in pathways, where there is overlapping coursework and overlapping competencies and not trying to make pathways of credentials that don’t actually fit together, really communicating clearly what those pathways are.

All of these things that we’ve kind of talked about, you know, and then helping them to stay on track with those pathways and provide the ongoing support because again, a lot of these are still adult learners, low income individuals. And so it’s not just about the instructional programs. It’s about making sure they have funding to help cover tuition costs, access to basic needs support and other tutoring, other types of things that will help them succeed in those programs.


Matthew Sterenberg (26:10.062)

As you were talking, I was thinking about you have in every state different governance structures, you know, systems. You might have a community college system that’s got a lot of authority. You might have a state that each community college has a lot of autonomy. And then the policy side, like I’m just thinking of if I’m a community college that doesn’t have a strong system wide cooperation, let’s say for me to do this on my own.

And we already talked about you highlighted how difficult it can be to communicate what these programs are and what they lead to. I’m just thinking like, how critical is it for, for the state to lead for the system to lead? Because there’s gotta be like an ecosystem where it’s, it’s ready to thrive. And there’s gotta be an ecosystem candidly where it’s like, it’s going to be hard for you to implement all this because if every community college has to run their own playbook.

That’s gonna be pretty difficult, right? So there’s gotta be like a perfect storm and also like undesirable circumstances where implementation of programs like this are either gonna be difficult to get off the ground.


Lindsay Daugherty (27:22.444)

Yeah, it’s a really good question. And I’m like trying to think about the examples and how I would answer this. I mean, I’ve really seen success in states where there isn’t a strong system. So I think there are states like Ohio and Texas where there really is a lot of independent colleges.

The state did provide, I think, a lot of leadership in signaling that these are things that we care about. We support community college building bachelor’s degree programs. You know, we support short -term credentials. We’re going to provide formula funding for certificates and things beyond degrees. And so I do think that that stuff was really valuable in those states and maybe it didn’t need to be the organization. In some ways, I wonder if the competition between colleges…

helps them be more innovative about building out programs and thinking about what programs might serve their specific community so that they can distinguish themselves.


Matthew Sterenberg (28:19.63)

And the more you have to, like if you have a strong system and you, you know, you’re trying to get consensus when that’s just not realistic, right? Like everyone’s got a voice. Sometimes that can be counterproductive, right? If you just like, no, our community college knows what our community needs. We’re going to plow forward and just do it. Whereas if you have, you know, every community college with a seat at the table, it would probably be hard to get things done in that scenario too.


Lindsay Daugherty (28:44.812)

Yeah, yeah, and I mean, I think California is an example of where maybe there’s a stronger system or at least there’s this stronger vision of how the different pieces of higher education could fit together. But I think that there is a really strong belief, or there has traditionally been a belief in California that community colleges were really focused on preparing you for that next, for the Cal States and for the UCs. And so they were really primarily seen as transfer programs.

and invested much less in building out their applied areas. And so there, there was a lot of coordination, but the coordination was around a vision that we want to mainly be academically focused, you know? And so I think that it really is kind of both, you know, some state or system, there definitely needs to be funding. That’s because you raise the cost of these. And so it is costly for colleges and they aren’t going to build these if they don’t have some sort of incentives to build them. And so I think that’s where states are.

systems can really play a role and then also setting some standards around maybe what a high value credential is and helping provide those lists of high value credentials is another place where states usually play a role. But then when it comes down to like who should be designing what programs, I think that most states have continued to leave that largely to the community colleges who have that real connection with their local employers and the faculty who can help think about the best way to make the programs fit.


Matthew Sterenberg (30:14.062)

Lindsay, this has been a great conversation. I learned a lot. I hope it was fun for you and yeah, I appreciate you joining me to talk about stackable credentials.


Lindsay Daugherty (30:23.904)

It was great talking with you. Thank you so much for having me.


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