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Perspectives on Stackable Certificates

The National Convergence Technology Center (CTC) recently hosted a 30-minute webinar discussing the “hows” and “whys” of offering stackable certificates to IT students. “Stackables” are defined by the Department of Labor as “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.” Typically, this refers to shorter certificates “stacking” together into a larger traditional degree.

The CTC webinar featured short presentations from three CTC grant partners – Florida State College at Jacksonville (Ernie Friend); Lansing Community College (Jason Mitchell); Sinclair Community College (Kyle Jones) – that successfully offer multiple stackable certificates. Promoting the value of stackable certificates to increase adoption nationwide is one of the National CTC’s grant goals. Select highlights of this webinar are below. You can watch the recording here.

* As programs that had been previously siloed began to be merged together into a single AAS degree with multiple specialty “tracks,” Florida State College at Jacksonville identified a group of 4-5 common classes that became the “core” for all of the degrees. Those classes, all required for all of the degrees, thus became a stackable certificate.

* Stackable certificates give students flexibility. Maybe a student needs quick training – or upskilling – in a short amount of time on a specific topic. Maybe the student has basic experience and doesn’t want to start “at the bottom” with foundation classes, and uses stackable certificates to take only the higher-level classes. Maybe the student isn’t sure what he/she wants to pursue and uses stackable certificates as a way to explore several topics.

* Stackable certificates can be a good marketing strategy to attract students who may be intimidated by the gen-ed math and English. Students can take the technical classes first to get the stackable certificate, get acclimated to the college environment, then go back and take the gen-ed classes for the degree. This strategy works for recent high school graduates, but also for prospective students who may not have attended classes in a long while and therefore feel anxious about returning.

* Because of performance-based state funding, many schools receive money based on completion numbers. Stackable certificates can count towards that completion. While the financial benefit should not be the only reason to offer stackable certificates, the point is that they do add value to the school.

* Students can showcase their stackable certificates in their resumes and portfolios.

* The terminology can get confusing. College-credit certificates of completion are not the same thing as industry-recognized certifications offered by organizations like Cisco or CompTIA. Stackable certificates are classes a college has grouped together and packaged. Some may indeed align with industry certifications, but not always.

* Stackable certificates in some states – like Florida – may qualify for financial aid, making them more appealing to students than just informally selecting a handful of ala carte classes.

* It can be a great lightbulb moment when a student who’s completed a stackable certificate realizes that with just a few more classes, he/she can obtain a degree.

* Because stackable certificates aren’t degrees, colleges may need to make some internal administrative adjustments to maximize their success. For example, Lansing Community College only recently developed a way to award the stackable certificates automatically, rather than forcing the students to keep track or asking coordinators to manually track student progress one by one. There can also be some confusion with advising, so Lansing developed flowcharts to better explain the stackable certificates so advisors can better inform students.

* Involve your business council. Stackable certificates should be created with the support of – if not by request of – your local employers. Educators should always rely on local employers to identify specific skills the workforce needs.

* Sinclair Community College writes grants to get funding for creating a certificate in a specific new IT topic. That way, if it’s successful, you add some electives and the gen-ed foundation and you have a new IT degree.

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