Building Complete Career Pathways
Stackable credentials enable students who earn a short-term certificate to earn a subsequent credential without repeating courses or having to earn additional credits to satisfy different requirements. In a career pathway with stackable credentials, credits count toward both the initial certificate and more advanced credentials. This makes returning to college to advance a career much more feasible, both financially and in terms of time commitment. When credentials are arranged in a career pathway, students have a clear understanding of their options beyond the initial step and what it takes to achieve them.
When developing pathway maps, colleges should clearly show the sequences of courses available to students, the number of credits they will accumulate, and the stackable credentials they can earn.
It’s also essential to consider how the college will encourage students to go beyond that first credential. For example:
- Where can students go after they have reached the initial credential?
- How will students be provided with the academic and non-academic supports they need to successfully advance along the pathway?
- How adult-learner friendly is the pathway? This includes making sure that the whole pathway is well suited to nontraditional students, not just the first step.
Once the integrated pathway is chosen, the full career pathway must be assessed to determine transition points and to identify barriers that might prohibit learners from progressing along the entire pathway. When the learner completes the integrated portion of the pathway program—generally the first stackable credential—are they academically prepared to continue to the next level certificate or to complete the associate degree? If learners do not exit the integrated pathway program academically prepared, can the faculty develop a “bridge” to ensure adequate academic preparation for the next level in the pathway?
It is also important to assess whether there are policies, practices, or prerequisites in place to connect the learner to the next step on the pathway. If colleges do not make an effort to create easy-to-navigate transition points, students may exit with only a short-term certificate and underprepared to return for further education.
Automotive Electronics Example
As an example of evaluating transition points, consider an integrated automotive program integrates basic automotive skills in general repair, brakes, and fluids with literacy skill development. The pathway leads to an initial credential that would permit students to gain an entry-level job at a dealership or after-market repair facility. The next “stackable credential” in the career pathway includes electronics. Given the emphasis on algebra in circuit analysis, the integrated pathway may need to include a higher level of mathematical skill development in order to be successful with algebraic functions such as distributive property, associative property, or exponents. If not, students may find that they are not prepared for the next step on their chose pathway. Determining if these barriers exist, and how to mitigate them, is an important conversation between the ABE, CTE, English, and math faculty.
Family-supporting employment is one of the most critical outcomes of an integrated pathway program. In addition to their longer-term career goals, many students need to work while they are in school. A benefit of stackable credentials is that the initial certificate enables students to find employment that will help them support themselves and their families while continuing their education. Colleges can help students by providing assistance with job placement and by following up to keep them engaged in their education even after they get jobs. Colleges can also develop strong relationships with employers in order to embed pathways in a dual-customer approach, one that meets the needs of both students and employers.
Deeper employer engagement can also help with program and curricular development. This not only helps with recruiting incumbent workers but also ensures that the skills taught are aligned with employer needs. Ideally, a strong relationship with employers will help students balance their educational goals with the need to support themselves and their families. For example, in some cases, it may be possible to arrange paid release time with employers so that students can continue their education while working.