Stackable Credentials Make a Lot of Sense

Ann M. Pearson

Some ideas just seem so solid—an effective use of our time and resources. Who can argue with plans such as cooking all your healthy lunches for the week in one enjoyable and efficient cooking session on a Sunday? Or ironing all your shirts as they come out of the laundry? That these best laid schemes don’t always materialize is the challenge. Great ideas are often fraught with possible detractors.

Higher education has some of these great ideas—plans that are truly sound and effective—if everything works out. The concept of stackable credentials is one such idea. Having students work toward intermittent credentials on their way toward a higher degree is valid. The challenge is keeping the credentials current and helping students see all the necessary steps.

For instance, a student—we’ll call her Jessica—could come to the community college with a single idea: to receive a technical certificate in welding. At San Jacinto College, we have programs lasting from one to four semesters for various certification levels. Welding is a hot job field—literally and figuratively. The American Welding Society predicts a need for over 70,000 new welders in the Gulf Coast region to complete projects in 2017 alone. Welders in the Houston area can make a median salary of right around $48,000. Once completed with the certification program, Jessica, who is now more comfortable and familiar with the sometimes daunting experience of attending college may want to continue her education so she can earn even more. Jessica and her initial certificate cohorts could continue adding courses and certificates—often while working in their fields.

At San Jacinto, our technical divisions, including welding, work closely with community and industry partners to establish effective programs and certifications to match industry needs. This collaboration ensures that student who invest in one course or a series of stackable credentials will be prepared to move into a financially viable employment situation.

We have to keep working closely with our students’ potential employers to maintain this college-to-career bridge. Of course, what workers need to be great employees is a constantly moving target. Colleges must work continually with industry to define the most valuable credentials for the current job markets. We also must establish clearly stated measurements for assessing the attainment of necessary skills and knowledge for the credentials, and convey that clearly to current and potential students.

But once this checks and balances system is in place, we open up a world of potential for students who may not have the time, resources, desire, or nerve to start out pursuing a traditional college degree plan. Sometimes just getting reluctant students on campus and in the door for a short-term course or certificate is our best marketing tool. Earning success in one venture does wonders to stoke ambition. We don’t force all our students into a generic funnel that leads only to traditional academic degrees. On the other hand, we’re understandably rather bullish on how education can improve the future for individuals and communities. Stackable credentials are immediately valuable and potentially priceless in setting students up for success.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on May 16, 2017.