Faster learning and less debt: why credential stacking is the degree path of the future


    The current job market is as promising as it is uncertain. According to a 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, an estimated 85 million jobs will be cut by 2025, and 50% of the jobs that survive will require reskilling. For students transitioning out of college and into the workforce, the current employment outlook makes the need to stand out from the pack more critical than ever.

    Stackable certificates, or credential stacking, can bridge the college workforce gap by providing students with real-life work experience as they earn a degree.

    What is credential stacking?

    The objective of stacked certificates is to teach specific skills that enhance a student’s employability. Each credential can stand alone as an individual achievement, but when stacked with other complementary certificates, they can help someone build toward a degree, achieve a professional goal, improve their hiring profile, or enhance their portfolio.

    Certificates can be grouped vertically (e.g., becoming more proficient on a single topic like Google Analytics), horizontally (e.g., gaining expertise with certificates from different areas like Google Analytics and HubSpot), or combining both into a hybrid approach.

    Credential stacking is available at participating community colleges and online universities. Students can pay as they go, with each course costing $100-$200, on average. Certificates can be attained at the student’s pace and allow them to improve their employment prospects in a convenient and cost-effective manner.

    What are the benefits of credentials stacking?

    Pursuing a 4-year degree full-time sometimes requires sacrifices, including the flexibility to pursue full-time employment. Yes, there are some who try to balance both, but attempting this can cause the quality of their output to drop in 1 or both areas.

    Stackable certificates offer students an opportunity to do both. Credentials are set up to enable full-time workers to stagger their course load to avoid classwork and office conflict. In fact, students working in select fields can sign up to credential stack with classes that help them acquire more training or knowledge in their chosen field.

    Research by the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development found that business and health services are 2 of the most popular areas in which stacked certificates are pursued. And in each field, credential stackers see an average wage return of 9%. Specifically, those with medical field aspirations could stack short-term social and mental health accreditations on top of an associate nursing degree, which could serve well in a climate where each field needs more workers. In terms of business, wage increases associated with stacked business administration certificates are attributed to the skills learned being applicable across a wider range of career categories.

    A Brookings study found that college graduates who enter the workforce with stacked credentials improve their job prospects and can earn up to 7% more than their counterparts. Stacked certificates also provide a great foundation to pursue non-college career options, especially for people unemployed due to the pandemic.

    With credentials stacking, your educational goals needn’t take a backseat to financial realities (and vice versa), and you have the flexibility to complete certificates at your own pace.

    When should you pursue stacked credentials?

    Is credential stacking a viable option for you? If you’re trying to figure out how to improve your job prospects and any of the following describes your current situation, credential stacking may be worth looking into.

    1. You can’t commit to a 4-year degree

    The pursuit of a 4-year program isn’t something everyone can make happen. For some, it can conflict with current professional or personal obligations. For others, time and money can be factors that make this commitment unrealistic. Higher education can be a very cost-prohibitive expenditure resulting in a huge barrier to access for many. At traditional colleges and universities, the average cost per credit hour is $663.

    Regardless of the reason, credential stacking can be a strong alternative. In fact, it has become so popular that 17 states already allocate a percentage of their post-secondary education budget toward these programs. Stackable certificates provide a happy medium where you’re able to gain valuable job-related education without having to fully commit to a traditional university’s timeline or costs. Then, you can enter your professional field of choice earlier and not be saddled with debt.

    2. You want to improve your viability as a job candidate

    For people who have secured employment, stacking credentials can be a way to upskill and improve their value in the current job market.

    Recently, edX launched “MicroBachelors,” which allows participants to earn “microcredentials” within a few months and make themselves more employable. Students can take a set number of courses in subjects such as professional writing, IT, and marketing to earn a MicroBachelor. It’s an opportunity to get stronger in established areas of expertise or to learn something completely new to help foster a career change. With the market looking like it will become even more saturated with higher labor supply in the coming months, credential stacking presents a unique opportunity to gain an edge on the competition by sharpening or building out your skill set.

    3. You need to shop around

    Plans change all the time, especially in the education and employment fields.At least 80% of all college students change their major, and the average person makes 12 career changes in their lifetime. If you find yourself in 1 of those buckets — or just have zero idea what your path is — credentials stacking can serve as a discovery period.

    Are you intrigued by entering IT or cybersecurity? Find an institution that allows you to take a 100-level group of courses to learn the basics. Did you just leave a job after a number of years and are now looking for that next professional adventure? Dip your toe into marketing or business courses to gain some clarity on what you might want to do next. Whether you develop a passion in 1 of those fields or have to continue searching, these individual certificates can give you the freedom to get acquainted with several paths that could lead you toward your next professional development.

    Sometimes, reaching your educational and professional goals requires some outside-the-box thinking. Credentials stacking gives you the best of both worlds, enabling you to pursue a degree on your own terms while gaining the necessary real-world industry experience that can distinguish you in a crowded employment landscape.

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