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Dorine Bennett, dean of the College of Business and Information Systems at Dakota State University, stands in front of the College of BIS building on the DSU campus in Madison, S.D. IMAGE: DSU

Dorine Bennett, Dakota State University: 'Stackable credentials' serve as rungs on ladder to career success

MADISON, S.D. – Successful businesses continually adapt to their ever-changing world. Universities must do the same.

Today’s world includes students who have changing demographics and lifestyles. In addition to traditional high school graduates, today’s university students include people who are looking to change careers or improve their current skill set with “stackable” degrees.

Stacy Ulwelling is a prime example. She was busy working and raising a family, and wasn’t sure she could manage college, but she wanted a degree in the field she loved – health information technology.

She started with the two-year associate degree at Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., and before she completed it, she knew she wanted to continue and earn the bachelor’s degree, which was designed to be built on the associate curriculum.

She now has two degrees when she didn’t think she could get one, and is working in medical records at Bethel Lutheran Home in Madison, S.D.

Many universities have added these options to their traditional programs of study to accommodate student needs; the concept is sometimes referred to as credential innovation. I like to visualize this as a highway, showing the flexibility students can have as they travel toward their long-term goals.

Some will stay on the highway continually until they reach their destination, while others will take various off-ramps and on-ramps along the way.

A new trend in stackable credentials is geared toward students who prefer to use short-term goals to complete their education using certificates. These are perfect for students who want to explore a profession or add to their skill sets with a short trip on their career highway.

These certificates – some with as few as nine credits – let students use credential innovation through both vertical stacking (each level building to the next) and horizontal stacking (creating a breadth of knowledge).

Value-added stacking is a combination of the two, in which the student adds a credential to a two- or four-year degree for an added area of expertise. Many are available online, so students can continue with their current job or other life obligations.

This is what Brookes Noem did. The director of information technology for the South Dakota Foundation for Medical Care, Noem said that “earning my master's degree in health informatics at Dakota State propelled my career forward as a health care data analyst.” But he soon realized he wanted to go farther. 

The business analytics graduate certificate “was a perfect fit, allowing me to increase my knowledge in this specific area without having to commit to another degree program.” 

And not only do the courses help in his day-to-day work and bolster his résumé, but also “if I do choose to pursue another master's or Ph.D. program in the future, those credits will still benefit that effort,” he said.

Employers benefit as well. In as few as two semesters, for example, a student can be trained in the basics of health care as a health information clerk. With newfound knowledge of privacy/confidentiality rules, health information software and health care technologies, the student can contribute in a variety of departments, from billing to reception to scheduling.

This saves the company on-the-job training costs.

DeAnne Kribell, contract coding manager with Avera Health in Sioux Falls, S.D., explains that stackable programs let companies grow an employee from an entry-level position to a skilled-labor position to a potential management position.

Because recruitment and retention are critical in many fields, stackable programs are a tremendous advantage to businesses that can then recruit and retain the best and brightest from within the organization. At Avera, Kribell has found that these students/employees know the ins and outs of the organization and better understand how their role affects the mission and vision.

In health care or other fields, credential innovation with stackable certificates is one just one of the ways universities are responding to the changing world.

Dorine Bennett

Dean, College of Business and Information Systems

Dakota State University

Madison, S.D.