Stacking Up? Do Stackable Credentials Contribute to Upward Mobility?

by Matt Giani and Heather L. Fox / Oct 19, 2016

Stackable credentials are a central part of the concept of career pathways.  These sequences of credentials provide students with multiple entrance and exit points along the career pathways. At the community college level, certificate are seen as stackable credentials intended to support student advancement to more advanced programs, credentials, and employment opportunities. As community colleges embrace the concept of career pathways and look to create stackable credentials, many colleges have developed entrance-level certificates that can be achieved with relatively short-term commitments. This has raised questions about who is engaged in these programs and what the value of these programs are for those who complete them. In our recently published article, Do Stackable Credentials Reinforce Stratification or Promote Upward Mobility? An Analysis of Health Professions Pathways Reform in a Community College Consortium, published in the Journal of Vocational Education & Training, we sought to better understand these questions.

To explore these questions we examined data that had been collected by OCCRL to complete a third party evaluation of a Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program grant made to the Health Professions Pathways (H2P) Consortium. Specifically, we analyzed the demographic, credential, and employment (income) data for students who completed TAACCCT grant programs.

As expected, the findings of our analysis showed that students who completed long-term certificate and associate’s level programs earned significantly more than those who hadn’t earned a credential. But for us we were particularly interested in students’ outcomes related very-short term certificate programs. This was in part because short or very-short term certificates accounted for 40% of the credentials that were earned by students during the study time frame. Very-short term certificates are typically designed to be completed in less than one semester and require 12 or less credits to complete. Short-term certificates require more than 12 credits and are designed to be completed in less than one year.

Our findings raised two concerns about the viability of stackable credentials in promoting social mobility. First, there was evidence that a smaller proportion of students of color progressed from these shorter term programs to longer term programs at then White or Asian students. Specifically, while Black and Latino students had similar rates of completion for short and very-short term certificate programs as compared to White and Asian students, the proportion of Black and Latino students earning long-term certificates or associate’s degrees was notably lower than that of White and Asian students.  Second, while there was evidence that those who completed these shorter term programs were more likely to be employed, there was no evidence to support a positive gain in earning for these students. In fact, students that earned very-short term certificates had smaller earning gains than students who hadn’t earned a credential. Further, while the descriptive analysis seemed to indicate an economic benefit to short term certificates, the benefit evaporated in the regression model where we could control for students’ academic and employment background.

Our study raises important questions about the employment outcomes related to short and very-short term certificate programs. However there are important limitations to this study. The timeframe of the study limits the extent to which we can understand the transition of students from short-term to longer-term programs of study.  What we may be seeing is a difference in time to completion for longer term programs of study for under-represented student populations.  Additionally, as the program focused entirely on health care programs of study, it is unclear if these findings are reflect of employment and earnings outcomes in other career clusters. Perhaps most notably, this study focuses on just one potential benefit—immediate economic benefits—of shorter term programs of study.  A more holistic evaluation of these programs is necessary to fully grasp the potential benefits, and any potential for harm, to both the students who participate in them and the colleges that provide them.

Matt Giani was a Research Assistant Professor at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership when this research was conducted and is now a Research Scientist at the Office of Strategy and Policy at University of Texas Austin.  

Heather L. Fox is the Assistant Director of Operations, Communications, and Research at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership.