Stackable Credential Pipelines in Ohio

By Lindsay Daugherty and Drew M. Anderson – Published 2021 by the RAND CorporationSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This report by the RAND Corporation examines the marketplace and earning outcomes of credentials in three fields: healthcare, manufacturing and engineering technology, and information technology across the state of Ohio. “These three fields accounted for more than half of all the certificates awarded in the state [from 2005-2019], and they are fields in which many of the state’s stackable credential efforts have been focused.”

Editor’s Note: For information on the report’s methodologies, see the Technical Appendix.

Certificate- and Degree-Level Program Offerings in Ohio Public Institutions
Over the past 15 years, certificate-level offerings have increased significantly in healthcare, manufacturing and engineering technology (MET), and information technology (IT). Specifically, short-term certificate offerings grew substantially:

  • In healthcare, the number of programs awarding credentials at the short-term certificate level (community college and university programs requiring less than one year of full-time enrollment) grew, on net, by 146 percent. The number of long-term certificates (community college and university programs requiring one or more years of full-time enrollment) grew by 84 percent. Ohio Technical Center (OTC) certificate programs (short-term noncredit) grew by 82 percent.  
  • In MET, net increases of 171 percent in short-term and 27 percent in long-term certificates. OTC programs grew by 143 percent. 
  • In IT, net increases of 86 percent in short-term and 57 percent in long-term. 

“Across all three fields, approximately two-thirds of certificate programs were aligned to industry certifications and licenses.” Additionally, 58 percent of MET, 64 percent of IT, and 39 percent of healthcare certificate programs were embedded in degree programs. 

However, degree programs did not grow at the same pace over the same time-period. Overall increases in bachelor’s degree programs were modest, with decreases in associate degree programs in two of the three fields: 

  • In healthcare, a 24 percent increase in associate degree programs and a 57 percent increase in bachelor’s degree programs. 
  • In MET, a 16 percent decrease in associate degree programs and a 11 percent increase in bachelor’s degree programs
  • In IT, a 10 percent decrease in associate degree programs and a 33 percent increase in bachelor’s degree programs. 

Stackable Credentials
Stackable credentials are designed to “facilitate seamless movement of students from one credential to another.” Generally, stackable credentials allow students to leverage existing credentials into credit for higher-demand certificates and degrees, and transfer credentials across institutions within a shared coursework design. For example, a certificate program may consist of coursework required for a separate associate degree program, allowing students to “make progress towards multiple credentials simultaneously.” 

Statewide and bilateral articulation agreements that standardize coursework requirements between institutions “can help ensure that students can stack credentials across institutions and articulate noncredit credentials into credit-bearing ones.” Further, stacking that involves collaboration with industries may provide more reliable career pathways between education and employers. For example, according to RAND research, “high-quality programs might consult with industry around program design, embed work-based learning opportunities, and help students gain employment after they have completed credentials.”

In Ohio, across the healthcare, MET, and IT fields, “approximately two-thirds of certificate programs were aligned to industry certifications and licenses.” Additionally, “applications for certificate programs commonly reported consultation with industry and resources to help students transition into jobs (more than 90 percent of programs), although these were likely carried out at the institutional or departmental level rather than being specific features of the program.” 

To facilitate cross-institution stacking, “healthcare certificate programs were most likely to have bilateral agreements (62 percent, compared with 48 percent for MET programs and 38 percent for IT programs).” Furthermore, there were large increases in new certificate programs embedded in degree programs offered by institutions. From 2016-2017, “more than 80 percent of institutions reported embeddedness, followed by a dip in 2019.” 

Earnings Outcomes
Rand Corporation found the following when tracking income outcomes of certificate-earners in Ohio: 

  • All groups of earners (stackers and non-stackers) saw increased rates of earnings after the completion of a certificate. 
  • Before earning their first certificate, students on average earned $16,000 per year. After six years, certificate-earners’ income more than doubled. 
  • Long-term certificate-earners (one or more years of full-time enrollment) started at lower levels of initial income earnings relative to short-term certificate-earners but saw a faster rate of growth after completing the certificate. 
  • Credit-bearing certificate earners who went on to stack initially had earnings growth that lagged relative to their non-stacking counterparts, but their average earnings surpassed those for non-stacking certificate-earners within three years. 
  • OTC students were unlikely to stack progressively (build existing credentials into higher-demand certificates and degrees), and no significant income differences were found between OTC students who stacked and those who did not.  
  • The rate of students earning a middle-class income before completing an initial certificate ranged from 40 to 50 percent. By six years after the first certificate, rates had grown from 60 to 85 percent
  • Overall, compared to individuals with no completed certificates, an initial certificate led to a 16 percent increase in earnings and stacking credentials led to a 37 percent increase in earnings. 

It was concluded that “identifying better measures of stackable programs and incorporating those measures into outcomes analysis could shed light on whether institutional efforts to build stackable programs offer value and which efforts (e.g., embedding in degree programs, including experiential learning) offer the most value.”

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