How Do Embedded, Stackable Credentials Benefit Students and Colleges?


Staci K. Hegarty M.Ed, IpX Academia Director

Higher education has long been seen as the gateway to a career. The gold standard continues to be a bachelor’s degree, although some industries see the value of career and technical education in specific fields. Stackable credentials are rarely discussed outside of what is generally known as the “Two Plus Two” option that articulates a community college associate degree with a university bachelor’s degree. Yet this is only the surface of what stacked credentials can offer to students.
Careers in Information Technology offer a clear picture of how stacking credentials can benefit students, not only in being able to demand a greater salary but also in growing within their chosen career in terms of responsibility, leadership and more options in terms of employment. The list of IT certifications is expansive, with options to earn certifications in new areas of IT or to build on existing certifications with higher levels of expertise. There are also careers that require licensure, such as nursing, where credentials are required to work in the field and can be stacked in conjunction with earning higher degree levels. For instance, a Licensed Practical Nurse may decide to pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree and then take the exam to become a Registered Nurse. Yet for most other fields, stackable credentials are usually not incorporated into standard college curricula.

As tuition costs continue to rise and employers demand more career-ready skills from institutions of higher education, colleges are left in a quandary. How can schools continue to fulfill their mission to offer a well-rounded educational experience to their students while also providing the technical skills that employers require? Can theory and philosophy co-exist with the assessment of a set of practical, technical skills? Part of the answer may be in embedding credentials to their existing courses. But why should colleges bother with this?

Earlier this summer I spent a week in a CM2 certification course, a course that was full of extremely bright people from a variety of industries. CM2 is the global industry standard for enterprise configuration and change management. We talked a lot about what the reality of managing change within engineering and manufacturing actually looks like. I have spent my career in higher education, I have given less than 10 minutes of thought to this topic over the past 20 years. These people live it every day. Toward the end of the week, one of my classmates commented that there are many very talented people graduating from college, many of whom dream about all of the wonderful things they will design or build. These same talented people end up disillusioned and frustrated when they experience the reality of what happens over the lifecycle of their incredible design. This is where a thorough understanding of enterprise change management comes in, yet very few colleges around the globe teach it in any significant way. That leaves this task to employers, which may or may not have the resources to dedicate.  

In addition to presenting a better-prepared graduate to the workforce, embedding a stackable credential into college curricula allows students an opportunity to experience the satisfaction of achieving proof of learning throughout their academic tenure, not just at the end of four (or more) very stressful years. These kinds of tangible, incremental victories can help improve retention rates. Finally, by adding credentials to resumes, new graduates are able to set themselves apart from a crowded field of similarly-qualified candidates while potentially commanding a higher salary.  

Higher education is changing, consumers are becoming more mindful of the what their return on investment will be for their tuition dollars and industries are becoming more vocal about what they expect new college graduates to offer to their employers in terms of technical skills. Colleges that are willing to innovate show that they are addressing the needs of students, employers and the community at large.  

Connect with IpX Academia Director Staci Hegarty on LinkedIn.

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