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: Stack As You Go

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Practices: Stack As You Go

Stack As You Go credentials combine or stack credentials, including degrees—arranging them strategically to create  credentialing pathways. Stackable credentials are particularly helpful for adults who pause their educational pursuits to work or take care of family needs. They can also benefit those who are incarcerated. This model allows adults to consider their needs, career options, and the time needed to receive the credential (typically short-term). Once they gain the credential and  are able to continue to the next level of training, students also have proof of what they know and what they can do to give to an employer. This type of credentialing pathway allows for more equitable outcomes for underserved populations.

A recently released report from RAND focused on outcomes for low-income individuals using stackable credential pipelines in Colorado and Ohio. The study, which focused specifically on programs in health care, information technology, and manufacturing, found that:

  •  Low-income individuals who earned certificates tended to stack multiple credentials and achieve longer-term credentials at higher rates than their middle- and high-income counterparts.
  •  Low-income individuals who stacked their credentials vertically experienced positive economic outcomes. This helped reduce the earnings gap between low-income individuals and middle- and high-income individuals.
  •  Although nursing and allied health had lower rates of credential stacking, students in these programs who did stack had higher economic returns. In contrast, students in education and family and consumer sciences stacked credentials at higher rates, but had more limited economic returns. Notably, all three fields had a relatively high proportion of low-income certificate-earners.
  •  Individuals in IT and manufacturing and engineering technology stacked their credentials at high rates and experienced high returns. However, low-income individuals had lower certificate attainment rates in these fields.

According to another report from RAND, there is little research on the factors contributing to the inequities in programs leading to stackable credentials. Systematic differences in the availability of these programs to low-income individuals—and in their awareness of such programs—may be a factor. To ensure equity, we must understand why certain groups are less likely to stack credentials and how to strengthen programs to benefit low-income individuals. The report’s authors note they found only one study that examined patterns of credential stacking by income. This 2016 study on stackable health care programs found that Black and Latino students were less likely to earn long-term certificates and associate degrees. It also showed no clear relationship between Pell Grant eligibility and patterns of credential completion.

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Improving Education and Employment Outcomes