Stackable credentials are a valuable educational path that many community colleges are under-marketing.
Community colleges are facing an uphill climb as they recover from the drop in enrollment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Gen Z students, already wary of excess college expenses, are now facing additional economic hardships that are causing them to rethink their path toward higher education. Many are planning to take time off, and many of those who do may never come back.
In such a critical time, it is therefore essential that more community colleges make a stronger effort to promote educational paths for students that provide immediate financial benefits, as well as flexibility for their future plans. Namely, community colleges should turn their marketing focus to promoting stackable credentials.
Stackable credentials are certifications students can earn either alongside a degree program, or building up to a larger certification. They can even be independent programs, allowing students to enter the workforce faster. Many community colleges offer variations on these programs. However, they often do not receive the marketing focus they deserve. In some cases, this may be due to confusion around what a stackable credential really is. However, the most common problem is that the advantages these programs offer students aren’t being fully communicated.
We believe that stackable credentials should be a significant part of the marketing strategies community colleges are forming prior to the upcoming enrollment period. Here is how they can address these communication issues in their marketing materials.
Avoiding confusion: What are stackable credentials?
First of all, community colleges should be clear about what a stackable credential is, and how it fits in with a larger educational program. Some stackable credentials build linearly off each other, from beginner to advanced. Others are structured horizontally, adding breadth to a student’s skill set. Some credentials build toward a very specific degree. Others operate independently, and can be applied to several degree paths.
Community colleges usually offer credentials of both types, as it makes sense for a particular program. Presenting these options clearly in marketing materials is crucial to avoid confusing students and to help them make the best choice.
5 Advantages stackable credentials offer students.
Next, community colleges should be proactive in discussing the benefits of stackable credentials for their students. These include:
1. Students can build toward a two-year degree by earning certificates along the way.
Many community college students cycle in and out of programs, picking up courses part time while also working. Stackable credentials fit into this plan by helping students accrue certifications that work toward a larger degree. For instance, a student in a nursing program might begin by attaining a Medical Assisting certificate on the path to becoming an RN, while another student might gain certification in Auto Body Repair before becoming an Automotive Technician. The certifications can help them get work in their industry on the path to a complete degree.
2. Stackable credentials help students avoid repeating course work.
One area in which student faith in higher education has been damaged is in cases where bureaucratic red tape have caused them to repeat coursework. They may happen if they move from one program to another, or if they take a break from courses for a semester or two and return to find that the program courses or requirements have changed. Credentials can offer a more stable way for students to move through a degree program.
3. Students can enter the workforce more quickly.
Many students don’t want to go through a full two-year program to enter the workforce. They are looking for short programs that can get them through within a year. A stackable credential program can let a student gain valuable certification in a skill, and then begin gaining on-the-job experience. If a student later decides to continue with a program, that pathway is still open to them, but this time they can do so with better employment already in their grasp.
4. Stackable credentials increase the value of an existing degree.
Many students are so focused on their associate’s degree that they may not realize there are add-on certifications that can make them more valuable as a potential employee. For instance, a student might complete their training as an RN, and then take an additional certification in Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Or an Automotive Technician may decide to get additional certification in motorcycle services—both specializations which can increase their earnings potential.
5. Students have more freedom to follow their own educational paths.
Many students don’t want to complete a full two-year program. Instead, they’re cobbling together experience in a range of fields for their own career purposes. Similarly, many students come to community colleges having already established themselves in a career to gain some additional experience in a subject they believe will be useful to them. Credential programs let those students achieve recognition for new skills without tying them down to a lengthy degree program that they neither want nor need.
Community colleges should encourage learners to talk to academic counselors so that they don’t leave credentials on the table.
Finally, to help guide students through the stackable credential options, community colleges should be proactive in promoting their academic counseling services. Academic counselors can see what credentials a student has already learned and guide them toward a path that best meets their goals. They may even notice that a student is only a course or two away from an extra certification, or from completing an associate’s degree, and can keep the student from missing a valuable credential.
Academic counselors can also talk to students about professional resources in their area that can help them find employment. Making sure every student understands how to connect with a counselor and why it’s a good idea is important for helping them have a successful experience with your college.
From working with community colleges across the country, we know how much they value printed resources to pass on to students. Our Career Focus publication makes it easier for community colleges to assemble all the information about a particular program in one place, so that students can make more informed decisions. It’s also an excellent way to explain stackable credentials to students, so they can continue to make good choices for their education and their future. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.