Moving from a Degree-Centric Postsecondary System to an Incremental Credentialing System: What Happens to Learners’ Financing Options?

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Incremental Credentialing

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Practices: Partner As You Go


Practices: Partner As You Go

Partner As You Go credentials have become an increasingly popular option for individuals seeking work-focused credentials. These credentials are often developed in partnership with business/industry partners and can be integrated into credentialing pathways without a degree or certificate program. The goal is to integrate evaluated workplace learning, training, licenses, or certifications for academic recognition into an academic pathway, giving learners an opportunity to gain both academic and practical skills. Through partnerships with industries, learners can enter institutions as well as return to industry as highly skilled workers. The benefits of these incremental credentials include increased persistence and completion rates, reduced costs, and improved marketability.

Programs with labor market alignment and a clear career trajectory lead to better economic opportunities. Without clear on- and off-ramps, these types of programs do not offer students a way to continue their postsecondary education on a path to family-sustaining wages. Programs without clear career pathways put low-income adults, who are already underrepresented in higher education, at greater risk of being left behind the rapid, ongoing changes in the labor market. Institutions that provide incremental credentials must understand the risk associated with tracking Black students, Hispanic students, and women into lower-value programs—especially when students of color and women are far more likely to earn certificates that offer lower returns. Growth in incremental credentialing programs could further stratify the higher education system if they result in wealthier and whiter students obtaining longer-term, higher-credentials while lower-income students of color disproportionately earn shorter-term, lower-level ones.

Work-based learning is being expanded at the federal, state, and local levels. This is evident in three major pieces of federal education legislation: the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA). The benefits of work-based learning are found to be greater for students in racial and ethnic minority populations. Often lacking in time, flexibility, and financial resources, adults from underserved communities need accelerated forms of learning to improve their outcomes. Work-based learning programs can provide a supportive and comprehensive learning environment, allowing workers to build skills, obtain postsecondary credentials, and earn family-sustaining wages. These opportunities allow participants to fulfill their potential as employees in the modern workplace.

One example of an institutional effort to make work-based learning programs more equitable can be seen at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, which audited and revamped its participant outreach and recruitment methods to achieve parity in participation among men from racially minoritized backgrounds.

Successful expansion of work-based learning hinges on employer buy-in and the strength of employer-educator partnerships. Strategic, mutually beneficial partnerships between postsecondary institutions and employers, working together to develop incremental credentials, are critical to enable workers to move more quickly and successfully through the labor market. JFF’s 2019 report, Employer Partnerships that Drive Systems Change, highlights promising institution-employer partnerships, including another initiative at CUNY, the CUNY Career Success Initiatives. As a part of its Advancing Credentials Through Career Pathways initiative, the Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD) developed an employer engagement toolkit. The kit, designed to be used by faculty members, program chairs, departments, divisions or colleges, offers tips on where to start based on your position.

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