Stackable credentials can open doors to new career opportunities

Brown Center Chalkboard - The Brookings Institution

Katharine Meyer and Ben Castleman

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in record-setting unemployment in the United States. While employment for higher-income workers has largely rebounded, employment rates are still 21% lower than the start of 2020 for the lowest-wage earners. Anywhere from 32% to 43% of jobs experiencing a coronavirus-induced layoff will likely transform into a permanent position cut. Policymakers are increasingly looking to workforce training for displaced workers as one solution to a faster economic recovery. Though workforce training recruitment often targets individuals who never attended college as a young adult, even individuals who already hold a postsecondary credential may need additional training to recover from current unemployment and to prepare for the post-COVID-19 economy.

Even before the pandemic, many community college students completed two or more credentials—referred to as “stacking” credentials. For example, a student might complete a short-term certificate in cyber security one term and later return to apply some of those credits to earn an associate degree in information systems technology. The short-term certificate enables the graduate to immediately gain work experience in the field and the second credential helps them advance along that career ladder.

Stacking credentials has emerged as an increasingly popular higher education policy to support students who want to develop career skills but may not have the flexibility in their work and family schedules to commit to a longer-term program. Seventeen states have allocated funding to colleges to develop stackable credentials pathways, and 10 states require that their community college systems offer and advertise stacking options. In Virginia, we estimate about 8% of community college graduates who first complete a workforce-oriented credential return for and complete a second degree in the same field as their first within three years of their initial graduation.


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