Stackable Credentials Backgrounder

Author: India Heckstall

Today’s students are more diverse than previous generations—they are more likely to be workers, parents, and returning adults—and do not always follow a single and consistent path to employment. As our current workforce requires lifelong learning and re-skilling, individuals now require multiple entry and exit points through postsecondary education and the workforce, and learning should better reflect the various points at which individuals gain knowledge. Stacking credentials—including certificates, badges, and degrees—can help to drive student success and ease pathways by ensuring that individuals do not need to pay for or spend time on the same material twice. Further, stackable credentials may be an attractive option for individuals to build upon their skill set without directly entering a two- or four-year degree program. 

What are stackable credentials?

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a stackable credential as being “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.” More plainly, stackable credentials can be viewed as building blocks where each short-term credential that a person earns builds into a higher-level credential.

Types of stackable credentials

Traditional or Progressive

The ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ stackable credential follows a linear path where a student earns a short-term credential (e.g., certificate) and continues their education by pursuing a higher-level credential (e.g., associate’s and/or bachelor’s degree). For example, a student may enroll in a nursing assistant certificate program, then take the qualifying state exam to become a certified nursing assistant, and then complete an associate’s and/or bachelor’s degree in nursing. In this scenario, the student continued to build their knowledge and skill set throughout their academic journey to prepare for a specific career.  

Supplemental or Value-Add

Other types of stackable credentials do not follow a linear path, but still allow a student to enter and exit the higher education system as needed. A ‘supplemental’ stackable credential is when an individual may have already earned a bachelor’s degree, then attends a bootcamp to learn additional skills to supplement their degree. For example, an individual may have earned a bachelor’s degree in business, then pursues a sales certification to learn more about establishing and maintaining buyer-seller relationships.

Another example is an individual with a bachelor’s degree in accounting who passes the certified public accountant exam to become a certified public accountant, which adds supplemental value to the individual’s postsecondary degree and could boost their employment opportunities. 


An ‘independent’ stackable credential is when an individual accumulates multiple credentials but does not pursue a degree. In this case, an individual’s certifications build on one another and the individual acquires skills that craft a path forward in their career, but they do not ‘ladder’ into a singular degree pathway. For example, an individual who earned certificates in Microsoft products and/or CISCO then pursues a career in information technology systems. 

Interested in learning more about progressive, supplemental, and independent stackable credentials? Check out this paper from the Community College Research Center. 

Work-based Learning, Apprenticeships, and Employer-Sponsored Training

Work-based learning, apprenticeships, and employer-sponsored training combines on-the-job training with formal educational instruction. 

For example, stacked apprenticeships are shorter-term programs where individuals pursue a series of related apprenticeships to build on their skill set. An individual participating in an industrial manufacturing technician apprenticeship program could learn how to operate production equipment, and then pursue additional manufacturing opportunities to learn more related skills. 

Another example is employer-sponsored training, where an individual who is employed at a public relations firm, but does not have the skills to run Google ads on social media. The employer could sponsor training for the individual to pursue a digital marketing certification.     

Interested in learning more about work-based learning and apprenticeships? Check out the resources by the National Skills Coalition and Jobs for the Future. 


Members of the U.S. Armed Forces can receive credit for their military experiences and education, which can be applied toward their postsecondary credential or degree. Stackable credentials earned through military service can be building blocks for valuable non-degree certificates, certifications, and degrees. 

Interested in learning more about veterans holding non-degree credentials? Check out a report from Strada Education Network, Gallup, and the Lumina Foundation.