How big a role will stackable degrees play in higher ed’s future?

Students are beginning to realize that stacking credentials is a more economical way of getting an education.
Omer Riaz
Omer Riaz

The higher education sector has spent at least a decade retooling strategies and budgets in response to increasingly volatile enrollment rates, which continue to drop. Enrollment declines in the spring semester of 2022 were so surprising, that even the public took note and major news sources like The New York Times asked, “For students, is the value of college really worth the cost?”

If money talks, college degrees still matter, don’t they? This may not be true for much longer. In fact, many companies are dropping bachelor’s degree requirements from their job-postings and are looking, instead, for workers with skills-based educations—associate’s degrees, certificates, or even stacked credentials.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a stackable credential as a “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder.” And as the need for skilled workers grows, legislators in states such as Colorado and Massachusetts are beginning to advocate for the funding of stackable credential programs as a way to help learners and businesses alike.

As stackable credentials rise in popularity, some colleges are even beginning to create programs where students can stack credentials together to build entire degrees.

How stackable degrees help students

Students are beginning to realize that stacking credentials is a more economical way of getting an education. It’s also a more effective way to see a return on their educational investment.

For instance, a student can spend $100,000 earning a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or stack micro-credentials such as “The Fundamentals of IT,” “Intro to Computer Networks” and “Cybersecurity Fundamentals” for $100 to $300 per credit. In both cases, the student could secure an introductory technology job, but the student with the three credentials could be making a similar salary and carrying significantly less debt.

However, while credentials are a way for students to gain immediate footing in their chosen fields, many employers still require degrees for upper-level positions. Students looking to advance in their careers will want a way to turn those credentials into a degree.

Ultimately, stackable degrees offer students the opportunity for more flexible, accessible, personalized, and affordable education. Should a student pursuing a stackable degree decide to pause their education, they’ll still possess useful credentials. Should a student decide to opt out of a traditional degree program, they’ll possess thousands of dollars in debt and little to show for it.

Students and businesses want stackable degrees

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that stackable degrees will replace traditional degrees. Few high schoolers have a vision for their careers, and many benefit from the wide array of coursework traditional degrees require. While technical skills are valuable for students who are more certain about their career paths, critical thinking gleaned from liberal arts courses can give students problem-solving and communication skills that most companies value.

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But stackable degrees will play a sizable role in higher education’s future. For one thing: both students and businesses want them.

There’s been a great deal of recent buzz—as well as research—about the benefits of stacking credentials. Students who are opting out of traditional degree programs still need skills-training to land jobs, and we’re beginning to see increases in the number of students taking credentialling courses.

As for businesses, they need a more skilled workforce, now. Employees who stack credentials can immediately contribute to a business’s bottom line. As an employee continues to stack credentials towards a degree, the business can reduce the cost of re-skilling their workforce or paying for internal training.

What’s next for stackable degrees?

While opportunities to stack credentials abound, there are not as many places students can earn stackable degrees. This is partly due to the degree accreditation process and the myriad difficulties that arise when trying to stack credentials from different schools in different states.

But we might be on our way to solving these problems. Local governments know they need a better-trained workforce and more inclusive educational opportunities. In fact, 17 states have already begun funding stackable credential programs. It’s only a matter of time before more institutions find ways to build credentials into degrees.

Change may come slowly, but it is happening. We’re at the start of a movement demanded by students and businesses alike. As the call for stackable degrees grows, institutions should prepare to meet the demand.

Omer Riaz is vice president for strategy, corporate development and innovation at Jenzabar.

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