‘Stackable credits’ gain appeal as path to degrees for adult learners, lower-income students

The path to a four-year degree can’t always be direct. For a growing number of students—especially older and lower-income students and those headed toward STEM careers—accumulating credentials step-by-step can be a more realistic route to completion and career growth, The New York Times reports. In addition, having one degree won’t necessarily satisfy the needs of an ever-growing workforce seeking people with new skills and abilities.

That’s why a growing number of leaders in higher education are asking themselves, “How do we make it easier for working adults and people who need to pick up new kinds of tools and technologies?” said Kemi Jona, associate dean for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern University in Boston.

‘A more bite-sized piece of education’

The idea of “stackable credits”—also known as credential innovation—has emerged as one potential solution. Stackable credits can be defined as “a more bite-sized piece of education that stands on its own and has value in the workplace,” Cassandra Horii, director of California Institute of Technology’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach, told the The Times. “If you continue on your educational trajectory, that piece fully counts towards your next educational step,” she said.

In Inside Higher Ed, Jimmie Williamson and Matthew Pittinsky described how a combination of credentials—such as associate degrees, certificates, certifications, work experience, licenses, badges, apprenticeships, and more—can help educators and employers “recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities.”

Officials at California-based Pasadena City College say its PCC Pathways program, which helps low-income students stack credits, “has been very successful with closing achievement gaps for students of color and speeding up time to graduate.” The program aims to make transfers and transitions seamless for participating students through articulation agreements with local four-year colleges.

Coordination key to growth

While stackable credits may be garnering more attention, their uptake will hinge on increased cooperation among credentialing organizations, employers, and higher ed institutions. “That is ultimately going to be the major pacing factor for this trend,” said Matthew Pittinsky, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and chief executive of educational technology company Parchment.

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