Timely Completion is one of the three strategic objectives named in the Board of Regents’ ten-year strategic plan, approved in January 2016. As part of the focus on completion, the Board requested institutions develop ways for students to complete certificates and associate degrees within the overall path to bachelor’s degrees. This concept is known as stackable credentials: dividing segments of longer programs into shorter credentials that provide opportunities for students to accomplish meaningful objectives, whether for workforce preparation or other goals.
Stackable credentials provide increased opportunities that enable students to earn college credentials in relatively short time frames to gain advantage in the workforce as they pursue college degrees. By offering stackable credential programs, USHE institutions provide opportunities for students that did not exist just a few years ago.
Stackable credentials are a prominent issue nationally. As students complete shorter-term objectives—and are recognized for that accomplishment by a college-transcripted credential—they will often continue their college studies, or will otherwise return to college at a later date, to complete the next highest credential. Stackable credentials can also be used in a latticed arrangement, earning the same level of credential, such as a certificate, in more than one discipline area.
How are stackable credentials created?
Each institution in the Utah System of Higher Educaiton (USHE) has developed stackable credentials. This is done through close coordination with appropriate stakeholders. Most USHE institutions have representatives who are assigned to meet regularly in regional councils composed of educational peers within the institutions’ respective service areas. Discussion during these meetings centers on educational pathways and how to strengthen and develop programs that are part of these pathways. Members of these regional councils consult closely with leaders in industry so that there is a close workforce connection to new and existing programs. These regional councils accomplish the following outcomes:
- Determine availability of current offerings in the region
- Develop regional coordination among three stakeholder providers: Utah System of Higher Education, the Utah State Board of Education, and the Utah System of Technical Colleges
- Identify certificates and other programs that could be offered in high‐demand areas and that are important educational offerings within the region
- Identify how certificates and other credentials can complementarily stack to additional certificates, associate degrees, and other programs
- Identify ways these programs, or portions thereof, might be provided for delivery in high schools through concurrent enrollment
This partnership approach often leads to the creation of short‐term certificates (16-29 credits) as a first step for students seeking a college credential or as a short‐term option for older adults retooling for career change or career advancement. Students who start these programs while still in high school are likely more able to complete a meaningful credential by the time of high school graduation or shortly thereafter. High school and college students who complete certificates offered through these stackable credential programs will:
- Have an earned post‐secondary certificate in a relevant field
- Be prepared for an entry‐level position in a career that is in demand and pays high wages
- Be on an efficient pathway to earn higher level college credentials such as associate and baccalaureate degrees.
Over the course of the past several years, USHE institutions have developed more than 100 short-term certificates through the process described above. Almost all of these certificates are stackable to programs where higher level college credentials may be earned.
What about reverse transfer?
In addition to these stackable certificates, USHE institutions have engaged in ways that facilitate more transfer opportunities for students. Using newly developed data resources, institutions can review credit earned by transfer students who have not completed associate degrees at their previous institutions. This information can then be used to provide students the option of applying courses that are taken at the receiving institution so that an associate degree may be awarded prior to or at the time the bachelor’s degree is earned. This process is called reverse transfer and is a viable strategy advocated in the national college completion literature.
Where technical colleges share a service region with USHE institutions, partnerships between the USHE institution and the technical college have been formed to articulate non-credit programs into Associate of Applied Science degrees in General Technology. Under these partnerships, a number of one-year technical college programs constitute the first year of the associate degree. In some cases, there are pathways for students to continue beyond the associate degree into baccalaureate programs. Utah State University, Weber State University, Utah Valley University, Southern Utah University, and Dixie State University have developed transfer partnerships with technical colleges.