First Rung

New research shows stacking credentials pays off for low-income learners.

Stacking credentials pays off for many low-income students, new research finds, but only if learners move up the education ladder. Also, Kansas is hoping a new grant program will attract more companies to participate in microinternships.

Photo by Nick Page on Unsplash

A Good Start?

Short-term credentials are growing in popularity, in part because of their potential as a springboard for the working poor: first, to a better job. Then, to additional education.

Lindsay Daugherty and her colleagues at RAND Corporation have been at the bleeding edge of understanding whether those credentials actually deliver on that promise. Their earlier research found that learners did see wage gains from completing certificates—of about 16%, on average—and that those who stacked credentials saw more than twice that bump. (Other research has found strong but more modest gains for layering credentials.)

But RAND didn’t tease apart how low-income learners, in particular, fared. So for their latest study, they teamed up with researchers at the University of Michigan to use new data from Ohio and Colorado to look specifically at that question.

  • In both states, at least half of low-income students who completed certificates ended up with middle-class wages within three years.

  • And about four in 10—39% in Colorado and 43% in Ohio—stacked credentials.

Low-income students, defined as those earning at or below 200% of the federal poverty line before completing their certificate, were somewhat more likely to stack credentials than their middle- and high-income peers.

“The fact that low-income certificate-earners stack, and stack vertically, at higher rates is great news, as our [hypothesis] was to expect lower rates of stacking,” say Daugherty and two of her co-authors at Michigan, Peter Bahr and Jennifer May-Trifiletti.

But, Daugherty cautions, the results were for learners who had completed a certificate, so not every low-income student who starts a short-term program will have those same odds.

The biggest determinant of whether a certificate completer would continue on to earn another credential was whether they started out in a for-credit or noncredit program. Low-income students who earned noncredit certificates rarely went on to stack another credential.

Field of study also mattered a lot, with programs in IT, education, and manufacturing and engineering seeing high rates of credential stacking. (Article continues below.)

Stacking Up Pays Off

Stacking credentials tended to pay off, with a major caveat: only if the certificate was stacked with a higher-level credential. For example, a student might earn a short-term certificate in IT and then go on to complete a longer-form one focused on a more advanced skill set. Or they might earn a certificate in licensed practical nursing and then go on for an associate degree.

About 58% of low-income learners who stacked credentials in Colorado and 65% of those in Ohio added a higher-level credential, what the researchers call “vertical stacking.”

But that means about four in 10 learners in each state didn’t. Those completers instead stacked credentials “horizontally,” earning another certificate at the same level but with a different skill focus. They saw no additional wage bump.

That should make institutions think more deeply, the authors say. “We would certainly advise institutions to look closely at their horizontal stacking pathways and consider whether they offer value to students in terms of career growth and critical skill development,” they say.

Field matters: But here again, the program of study the student enrolls in matters a lot. IT and mechanics both had high rates of learners stacking multiple certificates together—and in those fields, that seemed to pay off more often. Earnings may also not be the only economic value, the authors say.

“There are cases where horizontal stacking may keep people employed without contributing to earnings growth,” Daugherty says.

Michelle Van Noy, director of the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University and an expert on short-term credentials, agrees that institutions and policymakers should pay close attention to how stacking credentials pays off across fields.

“The variation by field is important and may help shed light on when horizontal or vertical stacking are each valuable,” she says.

Making sense of all this—and acting on it—can be a real challenge for learners. The new research, for example, found that while stacking credentials in allied health and nursing tended to pay off, relatively small numbers of low-income students did so. And low-income students are heavily represented in those fields.

Other fields, like education and culinary, have high concentrations of low-income learners but small economic returns—even if certificate completers layer on a higher-level credential.

Stackable credentials should serve as a ladder of mobility. But they often function more as a jungle gym,” says Shalin Jyotishi, a fellow at New America and senior program manager at the Burning Glass Institute, which is studying how different combinations of credentials fare in the labor market. “Some stackable pathways lead to better jobs, better wages, and a return on investment, while others lead to unemployment, underemployment, or employment in jobs that don’t provide a local living wage.”

The new analysis offers invaluable insights, he says.

The Kicker: “The more research we have on what is leading to desirable outcomes, the better off we will be.” — By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Gainful Employment
Three-quarters of certificate programs offered by public and private colleges would pass the earnings threshold under a draft gainful-employment proposal from the Biden administration, compared to just 40% of for-profit certificate programs, according to an new analysis by Tia Caldwell, a policy analyst at New America. However, the earnings threshold falls short of a living wage in 46 states, Caldwell wrote in a separate post.

Alternative Credentials
The nearly half of U.S. workers (45%) who hold an alternative credential bring value to the workplace, say company executives (87%), supervisors (81%), and HR professionals (90%), according to new research from SHRM. However, the surveys found that the three groups see more substantial value in work experience and traditional degrees—HR officials reported an 18% gap in a side-by-side comparison of degrees and alternative credentials.

Skills-Based Hiring
It will take more than adjustments to HR software filters to meaningfully expand opportunities for jobseekers without college degrees, Christopher Zara, a senior editor at Fast Company, writes in an essay for The New York Times. “Higher education is always going to be a great way to secure professional opportunities and ensure the chance for upward mobility,” Zara writes. “Maybe it’s even the best way. But need it be the only way?”

Wage Data
The U.S. Department of Education’s newly updated College Scorecard includes program-level data for the median earnings of graduates four years after completion, up from the previously available three years. The Scorecard’s field-of-study interface also was updated. The department said it will continue to publish additional years of earnings and noted that the Scorecard site was accessed more than 2M times last year.

College Outsourcing
The contracts Southern New Hampshire University holds with third-party servicers would increase from nine to between 1,200 and 1,700 under proposed guidance from the Education Department, said Paul LeBlanc, the university’s president, in an episode of a new podcast hosted by Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation. The department delayed the requirements and said it would revise them.

Employment Outcomes
An employer-driven quality-assurance standard for education providers can align incentives between educators and employers while opening career paths for learners, argues a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. A work group convened by the foundation developed a framework for such an effort, which includes outcomes such as employment and cost of hires as well as measures of student success.

I’m out sick and only wrote the blurbs this week. Thankfully, the newsletter was able to tap sophisticated reporting from Work Shift to keep the show rolling. I should be back in action next week.

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