Getting the Credit You Earned: The Importance of Stackable Credentials


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It’s appealing to imagine a linear climb up the career ladder, but the reality is often more circuitous—or messy. The building blocks of a technical career increasingly may include a mix of degrees, certificates, industry certifications and other credentials. That lively collection of experience and training can be confusing for potential employers, causing them to miss or misunderstand actual competencies when they are assessing candidates for available positions.

That’s why the idea of “stackable credentials” is so important, particularly for community college students that move back and forth between the classroom and the workforce, and often at different stages of their lives. This credentialing system, which requires input from employers and educators, helps students make better decisions about their education with less worry that there is limited or even no value in the credential earned.

The underlying goal of stackable credentials is to streamline one’s education by removing any duplication of courses within and between institutions, thereby saving time and money, and creating a cumulative benefit as students build their portfolio—or stack—of training and knowledge.

When the system is working well, credits earned for a particular certificate or degree are fully transferable as one tackles the next stackable credential or degree; this also helps ensure that students avoid unnecessary repetition and a resulting waste of time and money. The benefits of this process are not only serving the advancing workers, but also employers able to fill higher-level, skilled roles with employees who have enriched their credentials to move up from more basic technical positions.

To make this happen, community colleges are playing a key part in providing the appropriate curriculum and workforce training that allows businesses to hire locally. The Maricopa Community Colleges have identified six areas in which Arizona employers anticipate substantial growth by 2025 and the need for a more advanced workforce. These include advanced manufacturing and engineering systems, information and communications technologies, environmental technology and sustainability, health and wellness, advanced business and customer services, and public services and health education.

Companies such as Boeing and State Farm are working with Maricopa Community Colleges to develop new certificate programs.  And Science Foundation Arizona is engaging with community college and K-12 educators to assist their efforts to build effective pathways for students to select courses that lead toward these STEM certifications and degrees.

The oft-used idea of a workforce or talent “pipeline” may suggest a smooth progression from school to jobs, yet the evolving reality is that workers will advance their knowledge and capabilities by moving between the workforce and the classroom. The sooner that movement is seen as the norm rather than the exception—and the key to career success —the more the system of stackable credentials needs to be understood and embraced.

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Caroline VanIngen-Dunn is the Director of Community College STEM Pathways for Science Foundation Arizona.  The National Science Foundation has funded SFAz to work with community colleges (Grant #1450661), particularly those that are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions and those in rural communities. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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