Stackable credentials in higher education: Linking learning and work

During his junior year in high school, my son earned a Level 2 Certification by passing a digital literacy exam. As his high school counselor explained, this certification is a stackable credential – a part of a broader set of credentials that help students become workforce-ready upon graduation.

As someone who did not exit high school as ‘workforce-ready’, it sparked my curiosity about what ‘stacked credentials’ could mean to higher education.


Micro-credentials as a driving force behind macro-credentials

Giani and Fox’s study, ‘Do stackable credentials reinforce stratification or promote upward mobility?, explores challenges related to sub-baccalaureate credentialing faced in the healthcare education sector. 

The study found that stackable credentials encouraged the continuation of study – explicitly, enrollment or retainment in macro-credentials. However, Giani and Fox also highlighted the disparities that arose between certain demographic groups.

Concluding the study, Giani and Fox stated the importance of credential and career pathway alignment. Clear learning pathways promote smoother transitions between an individual’s life as a student and a worker. 

“Career pathways help these students to envision the possibility of college enrollment and completion to secure a good job, even when college-going is challenging for them.” – Giani and Fox, 2020

Bozick, Anderson, and Daugherty (2021) looked at 15 years of enrollment and matriculation data from Ohio – one of only eight states in the US requiring schools to offer stack credentials. 

Their study suggests completion of stacked credentials can depend on the proximity of the initial credential. The momentum generated by completion, combined with a shorter re-enrollment time, greatly increases the chances of a learner completing a macro-credential. 

The study reiterated the importance of designing clear pathways to support the flexible learning – enabling learners to weave in and out of higher education as required by their career and workforce changes. 

The increased flexibility afforded to learners has driven the popularity of stacking credentials. 

Three Penn State researchers, Cameron, Waldhier, and Avery (2020) cited the appeal of how these programs benefit their graduate students because the school utilizes credential stacking and dual degrees. For graduate education, this flexibility allows students to spend less time – and money – working on advanced degrees. 

Despite this, it is department collaboration that drives these programs' success.

“But as we have built out these student options, we have only increased our ability to work together to support an exceptional student experience.” – Cameron, Waldhier, and Avery, 2020.

Depending on the institution's organization, it isn’t just the academic areas that must collaborate to drive the creation of stackable programs. 

Cameron, Waldhier, and Avery stated that the development of a stacked curriculum is impossible without the institutional areas working in sync. To create a cohesive, stacked credentialing initiative, institutions must foster an environment of collaboration across  Admissions, Lifelong Learning, Financial Aid, Graduate School Administration, and more.

CourseLoop’s micro-credential solution provides a structure to support the collaboration necessary to create, manage, and promote micro-credential initiatives to enable stacked curricula.


How CourseLoop supports credential stacking

The CourseLoop Micro-credential Management solution allows you to create and update detailed, structured micro-credential-specific information in a definitive source. 

Stacking is then supported in a multitude of ways. For example, by providing the ability to build structured relationships between Academic Items to express completion rules or create associate relationships to express requisites. 

Our purpose-designed workflows enable staff to move proposals efficiently and confidently through the approvals process. Additionally, multiple micro-credentials can be bundled into a single proposal for review together. This robust workflow architecture ensures strong governance and quality assurance processes are in place, while supporting a culture of collaboration.

 Advanced CourseLoop Micro-credential Management functionality provides sophisticated mapping capability to support the design process. 

Curriculum designers are able to map and view curriculum relationships, including how micro-credentials relate to learning outcomes, assessments, and standards or qualification frameworks. Designers can then use insights surfaced through CourseLoop’s Insights Heatmaps to further ensure curriculum within a micro-credential stack is cohesive and aligned – creating maximum value for students. Downloadable maps then make it easy for designers to evidence the quality of their micro-credentials to support accreditation and review exercises.


Interested in learning more about the CourseLoop Micro-credential Management solution?

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