Eliminating Dead Ends: Learner-Centered Approaches to Stackable Pathways

Thursday, February 23, 2023
Annie Phillips

By Annie Phillips and Kanler Cumbass

While the concept of credential “stackability” has long been touted as a strategy to promote economic mobility, the reality has not yet matched the promise. Much has been written about stackability, but studies of its effectiveness suggest that it is underutilized and gaps in uptake across race and ethnicity remain. Based on Education Strategy Group’s (ESG) work across the country on projects like Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Ed. (REACH) and the Non-credit and Credit Alignment Lab (NCAL), we’ve developed a set of strategies and tools to accelerate the potential of stackability to expand opportunity for learners.

Too often the focus has been put on the ability for a credential to be stacked, rather than the ability for a learner to stack a credential. Credential stacking is done on paper; it ends when the learning recognition policy is codified at an institution. Learner-centered stackability is achieved when an individual, through guidance and navigation, leverages that policy to continue their education and training. At ESG, we believe the field needs to reframe institutional systems, practice, and policies for stackability to be centered on the learner. To achieve this aim, ESG has developed The Stackability Guide: Building Credential Connections within Institutions, a new resource loaded with guidance, recommendations, and exemplars for institutions to begin building learner-centered stackable pathways. 

While short-term credentials may serve as a starting point in a student’s journey in postsecondary education, research suggests that long-term career mobility is limited for individuals who only complete such credentials. To see more substantial earnings gains, learners must go on to pursue longer-term credentials and degrees, which necessitates that states and institutions create the ecosystem necessary for learners to effectively stack credentials and navigate the on- and off-ramps that lead to additional education and training.

For a couple of decades now, the concept of stacking credentials has permeated postsecondary discourse, and yet due to data limitations, a critical gap remains to understand which students leverage stackable pathways and why. Through our work across the country, ESG is putting forth four new pillars for states and institutions to consider in designing forward-thinking, learner-centered stackable pathways:

  1. Data Infrastructure and Systems, 
  2. Mapping and Alignment of Curriculum, 
  3. Credential Pathway Communication, and 
  4. Student Centered Supports. 

By strengthening state and institutional data infrastructure to track progression across non-credit and credit, mapping and aligning curriculum across credentials, communicating opportunities for stacking with varied stakeholders, and providing student-centered supports inside and outside the classroom, we anticipate that more learners will achieve actualized economic mobility through credential sequencing and attainment. Rather than be left with dead-end credentials that do not increase earnings, stackable pathways have the potential to increase learners’ social and economic mobility. For institutions, learner-centered pathways can drive enrollment, strengthen equity, and ensure alignment to our workforce. Employers benefit as well from an increase in highly-skilled and trained individuals seeking new opportunities for work and flexible training options. 

Over the next few months, we will be investigating each of the pillars mentioned above here on our blog, highlighting the need to retool stackable pathways to be learner-centered. To start, let’s discuss data infrastructure and systems. 

Boost Your Institution’s Data Capacity to Build Learner-Centered Stackability 

At present, many institutions do not track which students stack credentials, if they are successful, and what exactly students’ outcomes are. Gathering, analyzing, and reporting data is important to any state or campus initiative, including developing learner-centered stackable pathways. Student-level, institutional, and labor market data can drive key decisions on developing stackable pathways that lead students to family-sustaining employment, filling critical gaps in our workforce. To better leverage data in developing strong stackable pathways, ESG’s new Stackability Guide offers three core recommendations:

  1. Take stock of what you have and what you need. Data on stackable pathways can come from a variety of sources, including administrative data, learning management systems, surveys or self-reported data, focus groups, interviews, observations, advisor logs, assessments, state agency reports, employers, and more. Parsing out which data are already collected and which data should be collected can inform an institution or state’s range of data capacity and focus for pathway development. In The Stackability Guide, we lay out several key data points that should be collected at the institutional level for improvement.  
  2. Pay attention to processes. Practices need to be in place to collect, clean, protect, and maintain data to inform the development of stackable pathways. This may require a data storage process and workflow management to ensure institutions are maximizing the use of data. Collection and review processes may be as simple as developing common data definitions or as challenging as integrating data with student records and transcripts to enable automation and seamless movement in and out of the institution and between non-credit and credit programming for learners. 
  3. Turn data analysis into action. For a stackable credential to be of quality, it must hold value in the labor market and increase students’ employment opportunities. In addition to state and regional labor market data, employers, trade associations, chambers, or employer advisory councils can provide insight on credential value. Internal data can be leveraged to identify the number of students seamlessly moving along a pathway for gainful employment and help institutions locate disparities in uptake across race and income. A variety of stakeholders – internal and external to an institution – need to collect, report, and analyze relevant data to assess current offerings and ensure learner success. Determining when, where, and why to analyze data is necessary to ensure credential quality and that institutions are not reinforcing inequities in the labor market for learners in stackable pathways. 

Kentucky’s Community and Technical College System is leading the way in taking a learner-centered approach to data collection, reporting, and pathway development. At Bluegrass Community and Technical College, a close connection with the employer advisory board identified a potential need for talent in the field of orthotics. A data deep dive revealed current wages that were expected to increase and that employers planned to create even more skilled positions. As a result of these insights, the college was able to build new certificates that stack into an associates degree and transfer to a bachelor’s degree in engineering. 

Similarly, leaders at Gateway Community and Technical College also work closely with employers and leverage state data sets to understand regional labor market demand. Using data to chart immediate and future employer needs, Gateway led the creation of a stackable pathway from a short- term credential into a degree for diesel technology.

As institutions aim to improve outcomes for learners, data collection and reporting will play an integral role in helping more individuals attain more than dead-end credentials. Stackable pathways and student success within or outside of academic settings demands that a variety of stakeholders – faculty, staff, administrators, and employers – make a big bet on data. To ensure seamless transitions across credentials and into the labor market for students, learner-centered stackable pathways must be a priority.