Stackable credentials are a sequence of postsecondary credentials that are earned over time, build on each other, and offer different levels and types of training. Pathways typically encourage individuals to start their education with certificates—short-term credentials that take anywhere from a few weeks to two years to complete—that prepare them for various middle-skill jobs. These jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree, and are in high-demand. Stackable credential pathways also allow learners to build up to a degree over time and earn credentials incrementally while working, a flexibility that can be particularly attractive to those balancing the demands of work, family, and school.
Advocates argue that stackable credentials have the potential to increase postsecondary enrollment and completion rates for historically underserved populations. By offering flexible programs with multiple on- and off-ramps, stackable credential pathways could increase economic and educational opportunity and reduce inequities. On the flip side, there are valid concerns that they could have the opposite effect, as some short-term credentials lead to jobs with low earnings and limited wage growth.
Unfortunately, there is little hard evidence on whether stackable credentials succeed in improving the educational and economic outcomes of underserved populations. But a recent study by RAND Education and Labor, in collaboration with the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, addresses this gap by examining stackable credential efforts in Ohio and Colorado to determine their impact on low-income individuals. These states were chosen because they are both deeply engaged in efforts to build stackable credential pipelines at the state, system, and institutional level. Both states also have substantial numbers of middle-skill jobs, and are interested in expanding stackable credential pathways in areas such as advanced manufacturing, energy, information technology, and health care.
The researchers used a mixed methods approach. Data provided by the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) and the Ohio Longitudinal Data Archive, as well as matched records from each state’s unemployment insurance database, allowed them to examine patterns in credential stacking and employment outcomes for low-income adults relative to their middle- and high-income peers. The primary data sample included individuals who earned their first-ever certificate from one of thirteen CCCS colleges or twenty-three Ohio community colleges between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2015. The sample was limited to those who were between the ages of twenty and sixty-four when they earned their first certificate, were Colorado or Ohio residents, and were never dual-enrolled in high school. Individuals were identified as low-income if their wages were below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
There were several important findings. First, low-income certificate-earners stacked credentials at higher rates than middle- and high-income certificate earners. In Ohio, 43 percent of low-income certificate-earners completed a second credential within three years, compared with 36 percent of middle- and high-income certificate earners. In Colorado, the figures were 39 and 33 percent, respectively. In both states, low-income stackers earned degrees at higher rates than middle- and high-income stackers—about 53 percent of Colorado and 61 percent of Ohio low-income stackers completed an associate or bachelor’s degree, as opposed to 52 percent of middle- and high-income stackers in Colorado and 56 percent in Ohio.
Second, although this study is a descriptive analysis and thus cannot be used to draw causal conclusions, it appears that vertical stacking—stacking which results in higher-level credentials, including degrees—is associated with sizeable earnings gains compared to completing just one certificate. That’s good news, as low-income stackers in both states stacked vertically at higher rates than middle- and high-income stackers. In fact, within a year and a half to two years of completing their first certificate, low-income vertical stackers out earned low-income non-stackers. Unfortunately, low-income vertical stackers continued to earn less than middle- and high-income stackers. But they also experienced “positive economic returns” from stacking, thus narrowing the earnings gap.
Third, there is “promising evidence” that credential stacking could improve outcomes for low-income students. When they earned their first certificate, less than 20 percent of low-income vertical stackers in both states earned at least a middle-income wage, which is defined as one that is equal to or greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Six years later, nearly 80 percent of low-income vertical stackers had attained a middle-income wage.
A qualitative analysis of interview and survey data from key stakeholders uncovered four systems-level barriers that could be limiting opportunities and driving inequities in stackable credential pipelines. Stakeholders also identified potential solutions to overcoming those barriers.
- Limited opportunities to stack credentials in some fields. If low-income individuals are pursuing educational opportunities in fields that haven’t been as quick to scale stackable credential programs, they may have fewer opportunities to benefit from stacking than their peers. The data suggest that low-income certificate-earners were indeed concentrated in some fields with lower stacking rates (such as education or family and consumer sciences) but also some with higher stacking rates, like mechanics. Low-income certificate-earners were also underrepresented in some fields with the highest stacking rates, like information technology (IT) and manufacturing and engineering technology (MET). Stakeholders believe the factors driving this barrier include limited workforce needs and industry engagement, substantial program startup costs, and insufficient access to equipment and instructional resources. They suggest improving coordination with industry, as well as providing financial assistance to support startup costs and fund instructional resources, as solutions.
- Limited opportunities to stack credentials in some institutions. Low-income students are often limited, for a variety of reasons, to pursuing education at local institutions. If these institutions offer fewer stackable credential programs, there might be limited opportunities for students to benefit. The data indicate that stacking rates varied substantially across institutions. There was no evidence of a systematic relationship between an institution’s concentration of low-income certificate-earners and its stacking rate. Nevertheless, stakeholders believe that the same factors driving the previous barrier are at play here, and thus the same solutions should be applied.
- Insufficient information and resources to identify and stack credentials of value. Clear and concise information is crucial. Stackable credentials can only help improve equity if low-income students are aware of what’s available and are able to identify the pathways and credentials that provide meaningful career opportunities. The data indicate that low-income certificate-earners were underrepresented in some fields with the highest returns (IT and MET.) Stakeholders believe the factors behind this barrier include common student perceptions of college credentials and certain fields, as well as limited messaging from employers about credential value. To overcome this barrier, stakeholders recommend enhancing informational resources on stackable credentials and credential value, providing institutions with additional resources to improve advising support, and encouraging greater partnership with industry.
- Challenges moving from noncredit to credit programs. To offer students the most benefit, stackable credential programs should allow them to move between noncredit programs and those offered for college credit. Unfortunately, the data suggest that both low-income and middle- and high-income noncredit certificate-earners who stacked “almost always” earned a second noncredit credential, and rarely completed credit certificates or degrees. Stakeholders believe that the factors driving this barrier include a lack of alignment between noncredit learning and credit course work, limited awareness of articulation opportunities, and administrative burden. Potential solutions include improving alignment between noncredit learning experiences and credit-bearing courses, investing in outreach to improve awareness, and streamlining administrative processes.
Overall, this study is a crucial addition to the research on stackable credentials. It suggests that stacking credentials could improve equity in postsecondary education, which is welcome news. But it also points to several areas of concern that policymakers must address.
SOURCE: Lindsay Daugherty, Peter Riley Bahr, Peter Nguyen, Jennifer May-Trifiletti, Rooney Columbus, and Jonah Kushner, “Stackable Credential Pipelines and Equity for Low-Income Individuals: Evidence from Colorado and Ohio,” RAND Corporation (2023).