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Anselm Ternes (right), residential carpentry instructor at Bismarck State College in Bismarck, N.D., instructs students in the proper framing of a single-family home. Each year, students in the program learn all aspects of residential carpentry by building a home. The program can lead to a certificate, a diploma and/or an associate's degree, depending on how many courses the student completes. IMAGE: Bismarck State College

Ladders to success: How ‘stackable credentials’ stack up in higher education

Editor's note: For a story about a study on the popularity of non-degree credentials, click here. 


GRAND FORKS, N.D. – For supposedly hidebound institutions, colleges and universities can be mighty flexible at times.

We’d submit “stackable credentials” as Exhibit A.

Stackable credentials are the certificates, licenses, badges and other documents that colleges now are awarding, in addition to traditional degrees.

Each credential attests that its holder has mastered a certain skill. Sometimes those skills and credentials add up (or “stack”), resulting in a degree.

Other times, the credential stands alone, as when an adult learner becomes, say, a Cisco certified network associate. That credential may be enough for the holder to find good work.

The net result is that today, area college students can find dozens or even hundreds of skills-training classes that result in certificates, not just degrees, said Dan Leingang, vice president for academic affairs at Bismarck State College in Bismarck, N.D.

“This is an old idea that has its grounding in much of our technical and workforce training, but now you’re seeing it everywhere,” Leingang said.

At Minnesota State University Moorhead, for example, college grads can earn a certificate in addiction counseling to meet state licensure requirements, said Lisa Karch, MSUM’s interim dean of graduate and extended learning.

“That’s a fairly new program, and it’s being offered because of demand. There’s a shortage of addiction counselors,” Karch said.

Moreover, the certificate is offered entirely online. “This way, we can meet those learners where they’re at, and they can study when it’s most convenient to them,” she said.

“We’re trying to be flexible and convenient as well as effective,” because those are the watchwords in higher education today.

Vertical stacking

As Leingang suggested, the concept of stackable credentials goes back a long way. After all, institutions long have awarded a stair-stepped sequence of associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.

But for colleges, the practice of using certificates to document students’ skills is more recent, said Dorine Bennett, dean of the College of Business and Information Systems at Dakota State University in Madison, S.D.

“And my guess is, that’s because of the way society is changing,” Bennett said.

“We’re busy people these days, and we want things to happen quickly.” For individuals, that may mean acquiring a marketable credential in months rather than years.

For employers, it could mean asking an employee to become certified in the firm’s software rather than recruiting and hiring someone new.

“For example, Dakota State has a certificate in health care coding,” Bennett said.

“It’s about a one-year certificate of around 34 credits.” It’s offered online, like the addiction counseling certificate at MSUM.

It’s a stand-alone credential whose holders can find work as medical coders; “employers are looking for them,” Bennett said.

And for Dakota State students who want to learn more, it’s a stepping stone to an associate’s or bachelor’s health-information degree.

That’s vertical stacking, and for young people, it can be an incentive to stay in school, Leingang said. “A lot of them work better when they pursue a series of bite-sized components, rather than thinking in terms of a four-year degree.”

As for adult learners, the certificates are real-world accomplishments for students who have limited time.

Few adults in their 30s, 40s or 50s are going to quit work and go to college for four uninterrupted years, said Lisa Karch of MSUM.

“They’re just not. But they will go for six or eight weeks or to summer sessions,” especially for certificates and when the classes are online.

Some of those students will find work using the certificates they earn, while others will keep stacking their credentials until they get a degree, Karch said.

Horizontal stacking

Horizontal stacking refers to credentials that line up with each other in parallel, rather than in series.

“In other words, they complement each other,” said Harvey Link, vice president for academic affairs at North Dakota State College of Science.

“For example, we’ll find individuals who go through our heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration or HVAC-R program, and they may pursue a plumbing certificate, too.”

Likewise, culinary arts students may pick up a finance certificate, which is available through the college’s Business Pro series.

That series itself is worth mentioning. It consists of four independent plans of study in the basics of business – entrepreneurship, finance, management/supervision and sales. Students meet evenings once a week and take one class at a time.

Students earn certificates at the end of each topic, and if they complete all four, they’re only two credits away from an associate’s degree.

“We’ve also created – and this is new – an unmanned aircraft systems certificate,” Link said.

“It’s a 12-credit certificate. It’s not really a stand-alone program; instead, it’s designed to be taken in combination with any one of our other programs.”

These days, students in land surveying, construction management and architectural drafting, among other programs, can benefit from learning to operate drones.

All of the above are just examples of colleges and universities responding to the marketplace, said Leingang of Bismarck State.

“Again, it’s not just what potential students are looking for, but also what industry is looking for,” he said.

“And when you’re highly connected to industry, as we and many other colleges and universities are, you respond.

“You have to be flexible as your environment changes,” Leingang said. “If you aren’t, then these days, you’re not going to be around for long, and that’s all there is to it. It’s a dodo bird thing.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business