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Report · October 2018

Stackable Credentials in Career Education at California Community Colleges

Sarah Bohn and Shannon McConville

This research was supported with funding from the ECMC Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and the Sutton Family Fund.

Career education programs designed to provide students with industry-related training continue to be a focus for state and federal efforts to improve employment outcomes and promote economic mobility. California’s community college system is the state’s primary provider of postsecondary career education and plays a critical role in meeting state workforce needs.

Community colleges serve a wide range of students pursuing career education: recent high school graduates, stranded workers, workers in need of retraining, and more. Connecting these students to career pathways that offer opportunities for advancement is an important policy goal that can be furthered by stackable credentials. Stackable credential pathways consist of multiple, sequential awards that either allow students to earn successively higher-level credentials (“progressive” programs) or build a “lattice” of interconnected credentials. However, little is known about how many career education programs include stackable credentials or how many students successfully stack credentials. In this report, we aim to quantify both.

We focus on students in five of the largest career education disciplines offered in the community college system who obtain a short-term certificate (requiring 6-29 units) as their first community college award, examining their odds of stacking additional credentials (certificates or associate degrees). We also identify features of stackable credential sequences across colleges and estimate whether programs with more well-defined stackable designs facilitate stacking. Key findings include:

  • Nearly 200,000 students earned a short-term certificate as their first community college credential between school years 2000-01 and 2013-14. Nearly half of these students are age 30 or older, and the vast majority (80%) started with a high school education or less.
  • About one in four short-term certificate earners go on to obtain another credential within three years-even though a majority return and complete additional coursework. Few end up transferring to four-year colleges.
  • Career education programs vary widely across colleges when it comes to stackable credentials, even within the same discipline. Only about 15 percent of existing programs make explicit connections between credentials. Many others offer multiple, related credentials but have not clearly defined their pathways. Still others offer no clear pathways.
  • After controlling for multiple program-, student-, and college-related factors, we find that students in career education programs with well-defined stackable credentials are 5 percentage points more likely to stack credentials compared to those in all other programs, and 16 percentage points more likely compared to students in programs with no defined stackable sequence.
  • We also find some evidence that well-defined stackable credential pathways improve the likelihood of Latino students stacking credentials-this suggests that explicit pathways could help narrow achievement gaps and high poverty rates among working Latino adults.

As the community college system strives to rebrand and strengthen its career education programs, it is essential to understand how these programs can be structured to promote career pathways and connect students to the career opportunities they seek. Well-designed stackable credential pathways can also help the state train workers for the middle-skills jobs essential to a robust economy.


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