Our BlogThe latest news and information about digital credentials

Why Students, Employers and Schools Need to Move Faster To Make Stackable Credentials Available to All

While there’s no disputing the value of a college degree when it comes to earning potential, nearly three-quarters of grads end up working in a field that’s unrelated to what they studied in school.

Liberty Street Economics made that forecast after studying Census Data from 2010.1 Academics have spent the years since discussing ways to connect the dots between learning and professional achievement, leading many — including us here at Parchment — to advocate for what are known as stackable credentials.

Forming a Career Path, One Credential at a Time

Simply defined, stackable credentials are a series of earned milestones. Complete the “stack” and collect the associated credentials and you’ll have verifiable expertise that has a value. The more credentials you have, the more valuable you should be to an employer.

And you don’t need to have a college degree to benefit from this concept. High school grads and professionals with some community college can also benefit from the pathways formed by stackable credentials.

Say you’re a nurse with an associate’s degree who works at a local doctor’s office. Adding a patient care technician certificate could lead to switching to long-term care, and earning more for your services. Stackable credentials codify and certify achievement, and, as such, it behooves the major players in each industry to design the “stacks” that teach the skills they’re seeking.

The combinations are virtually endless, and they’re not always vertical. Think of IT managers. Competency can be measured by certifications in different types and brands of systems — from Microsoft to Cisco to Oracle and more. That horizontal progression isn’t available to financial analysts, who advance vertically by passing different levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam.

Credentials can be stacked for the purpose of broadening a portfolio or for leveling up in a particular skill. Or, sometimes, for both. For example, a nurse looking to get hands-on experience in a hospital emergency room could need at least a bachelor’s degree, as well as a certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) to administer an IV or emergency pharmacology to revive patients suffering heart trauma.2

nurseWorking Together to Make Stacking Real

Today, students stack credentials on their own because there’s been no other alternative. Schools and employers can work together to change that, though the nonprofit Lumina Foundation has already put in place one of the key pieces. Through an initiative called Connecting Credentials, Lumina is bringing together some 80 distinct institutions to help set common standards for certifications so that learning and achievement becomes easier to quantify, helping employers find candidates who’ve proven they have the skills that hiring managers need most.

Bringing consistency to credentials is important, but it’s also just a first step. Four-year, two-year and vocational education institutions also need to pitch in by helping to better define pathways for students. Think of the undergrad student who wants to make films. What credentials should they stack, and in what order? Helping define not just a curriculum for that student but also a relevant stack is crucial if they’re to graduate with meaningful job prospects to go with a big tuition bill. In that area, in particular, learners have never needed our help more. Each second, U.S. student loan debt rises an estimated $2,276.

Watch the clock here. Then wipe your brow, take a drink of water and remember: with stackable credentials we can do more to make education valuable. But we need to act now.


  1.    http://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2013/05/do-big-cities-help-college-graduates-find-better-jobs.html#.V3LyxZMrJE5
  2.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_cardiac_life_support